Home Away From Home: Helping a Student Understand Cultural Norms in Their New Country

New country, new school, new friends, new home… These are just a few of the adjustments an international student will need to make. Throw into the mix a set of brand new customs and it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. Feelings of acceptance and belonging can significantly affect how well and how quickly a student adapts, but it’s important to understand that a student shouldn’t have to abandon their own traditions in order to integrate. As a homestay parent, you are first-hand representatives of your country’s culture. But be aware that any learning is reciprocal, and you stand to learn just as much from international students as they can from you.


Travel the world in your own home

Just as two words can have two different meanings, so can actions be perceived in completely different ways. So before your student arrives, try to do some research on cultural norms in their country. What foods do they eat? What clothes do they wear? But also pay attention to small things that could make a big difference:

  • What are appropriate greetings?
  • What do eye contact and smiling mean in their country?
  • What level of physical contact between the sexes is acceptable?

Show the best of your country by making your student feel welcome

It can be an unpleasant surprise if a seemingly insignificant action or behaviour is misinterpreted by, or offensive to, the very person you want to feel welcome in your home. For example, in Middle Eastern traditions, physical contact when saying hello to the opposite sex is not acceptable. So, if a host father gives his female Irani homestay child a welcome hug at the airport, this could lead to embarrassment or discomfort on the student’s side. Below are a few examples of how behaviours differ across cultures.


Custom Japan Argentina India Italy
Hug hello on first meeting Avoided Acceptable among friends and acquaintances Not acceptable with the opposite sex Acceptable
Shaking hands Accepted with foreigners; bowing is common among locals Acceptable Sometimes avoided with the opposite sex Acceptable
Eye contact Avoided, especially with superiors as a sign of respect Acceptable Typically acceptable Acceptable

Sources: Kwintessential Country Profiles; FAITC Country Insights


Ease students into new norms, especially if their culture is quite different

Certain cultures are more amenable to integration with another culture for the simple reason that more cultural overlap exists. For this reason, a student from Spain will likely not experience the level of difficulty adapting to life in Latin America that a student from China or Thailand might. Consequently, it would be helpful to introduce local customs more slowly to students from cultures whose norms are very different from your own; this will give students an opportunity to process these new ideas rather than feel overwhelmed by them.

Be creative! Consider hosting international food nights, where both you and the student learn about foods and dining etiquette in each other’s cultures. Thinking of interesting ways to convey local customs or house rules means students will likely remember them. It is also more effective than correcting students when they do something wrong, as this could result in feelings of shame or embarrassment.

Of course, taking a student through a few basic essentials right off the bat never hurts.


Some interesting eating etiquette from around the world

No problem! On the fence No way!
Slurping China
South Korea
Talking with your mouth full China
South Korea
North America (okay if you cover your mouth with your hand) Brazil
Eating with your hands Morocco
South Asian countries
Middle Eastern countries
Canada (okay for certain foods)
Italy (okay for certain foods)


Hosting an international homestay student can be a great opportunity to learn about new cultures while teaching another person about your own. Have fun, explore, and enjoy!

Are you an international student? Let us help you feel at home while you study abroad. We cover all your health insurance needs, give you easily accessible resources for navigating the healthcare systems, provide physical and mental wellness support through the Stay Healthy at School program, 24/7 claim services should you need assistance, and much more. For more information, visit https://www.inglestudents.com/studyinsured/, call us at 1-855-649-4182 or email us at studentteam@studyinsured.com.

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