Excerpt from The Essential Guide for Host Families

Here is an excerpt from the 28-page guide that is used by homestay programs to help families have a great experience when hosting an international student.

Culture Shock

When our family began hosting international students, our first homestay student stayed in her room all the time, emerging only for family dinners. At the table, she would offer only one word answers to our questions. We were baffled initially and only realized later that she was suffering from culture shock.

Culture shock is a period of disorientation people face when they move from one culture to another. It can be most extreme when the student is from a culture that is considerably different from North America.  For example, students from the Middle East or Asia may experience more dramatic culture shock than students from Europe.

Once again, it is essential to remember that each student is an individual. Some students may go through culture shock for several weeks, while others will adapt quickly. As a host parent, it is important to be patient and supportive.

Culture shock usually includes several stages of adaptation:

  1. Arrival: The first few days can be disorienting and challenging. On the one hand, your student is excited to be in North America and to be starting a new educational adventure. On the other hand, they may be homesick, missing friends, family and familiar foods. Jet lag can add to the burden as students may have trouble sleeping or face short-term illnesses.
  2. Culture shock: This is a period where a student feels overwhelmed, preferring their own culture to that of North America. They may magnify the negative aspects of western culture and reject local foods. Students may have trouble learning English, lapsing back into their native language with friends and family. They may spend excessive time communicating with family and friends in their home country, which can stall their adaptation. Students may hide in their rooms or only spend time with other students who speak their native language.
  3. Adjustment: Over time, most homestay students adjust to living with a North American family. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how long the period of culture shock will last; host parents need to be patient.
  4. Pre-departure: Students often have mixed feelings about returning home. Hopefully, they have had a great experience with your family. At the same time, they will be looking forward to seeing their friends and family again. Some students will begin preparing for the reverse culture shock of seeing their native culture in the light of their North American experience. One normally gregarious student started to become much more reserved as the end of his sojourn approached; when asked why, he stated that he was preparing to go back to his home country, where the culture was less open.

As the host parent, you can help your student adjust to culture shock by taking these steps:

  • Discuss it with the student: Explain that culture shock is a normal experience and that most students go through it. While some students will be reticent about sharing their feelings, you can do your part by being empathic and supportive.
  • Be patient: The period of adjustment can last one to three months. Every student is different and it is impossible to predict how long it will take. Nevertheless, be assured that most students eventually adapt.
  • Keeping fit: Regular exercise can help your student settle in and manage stress. Invite them to join you for a walk, a bike ride or a visit to your local gym or swimming pool.
  • Eating well: A good diet is essential to maintaining mental health. Within reason, try to purchase foods that your student enjoys. You can also suggest that your student to cook a meal from their home country; familiar food can be very comforting.
  • Communicating with home: Encourage your student to keep in touch with family and friends back home. This requires a careful balance. Students can receive support but excess calling overseas can also stall integration and prolong the period of adjustment.

Your program’s homestay coordinator can be a valuable resource in dealing with culture shock. He or she can answer any questions you may have and guide you in helping your student and dealing with your own feelings and concerns.

Sometimes symptoms of culture shock can in fact be signs of more serious mental health concerns. As a host parent, it is not your role to diagnose medical problems. However, if you are worried about your student it is a good idea to raise the issue with the homestay coordinator. He or she can determine whether there is a need to consult with a medical or mental health professional.