I remember the first evening we met our exchange student from France. After eating dinner (I don’t remember what it was), she plugged up the toilet and was so embarrassed. I can understand her embarrassment, but it all turned out OK.
It’s unlikely that you’ll have the same experience with your foreign student. Instead, you’ll probably be thrilled that your exchange student from your target language’s country (Japan, Spain, Morocco, etc.,) is coming to your home for dinner for the first time. Or it may be that your country speaks the target language the student wants to learn.
After greeting your student and showing him his or her room (we’ll use she and her to keep things simple) and inviting her to relax, what do you do for dinner? Suddenly the excitement of that first meal could turn to anxiety:
1. What does she like to eat? Is there anything she can’t or doesn’t want to eat?
2. Should you make something from her country’s cuisine--or yours?
3. What will we talk about? In our language or in hers?
4. Will everyone in your family behave?
Let’s answer these questions. But the general answer for all of them is preparation, not of the food itself, but for the whole experience.
What’s for dinner?
If you’ve ever been an exchange student yourself, then you know you’re both excited and nervous. Mostly what the student needs is a warm welcome and some reassurance--more than a gourmet meal. That’s especially true if this is her first time in your country. In fact, many exchange students won’t remember that first meal, but they will remember your hospitality, warmth and confidence.
As far as the type of food to serve, remember that most exchange students are adventurous and want to try new things in your country. So don’t be afraid to make something that is native to your country. However, having some part of the meal reminding the student of her home may help decrease any homesickness she might feel. For example, Chinese students usually prefer hot-cooked meals instead of cold dishes, according to international website GP Homestay.
Some people from other cultures/countries eat their food differently. For example, in most Western countries, people use utensils (knives, spoons and forks) to eat.
It’s likely that you have been corresponding with your exchange student before she arrives. This is the time to ask if there is anything she especially likes or wants to try or if there’s something she can’t eat or is allergic to. Some students can’t eat a certain food because it’s culturally forbidden, such as pork (for people of the Jewish or Islamic faith) or beef for students from India.
This is also the time to ask how the student wants to eat--with utensils or chopsticks, etc. There’s a wide variety in the way people eat. For example, many people from Africa, India and the Middle East eat “hand-to-mouth” (eat with your hands). Mexicans eat tacos only with their hands. So how do you say this without embarrassing student or yourself? You could say, “I’ve heard that people in your country eat with chopsticks. Would you like us to provide you with them? Don’t worry--this won’t be a problem for us; we’ll really enjoy it.”
You might receive any one of several answers:
1. “Yes, I would enjoy having the chopsticks.”
2. “I’d like to eat the way you do in your country.”
3. “It doesn’t matter.”
If the student doesn’t understand you well enough, try emailing. This way, the student can ask someone to translate who does speak your native language, and avoid any embarrassment on the phone.
There’s a wide variety in the way people eat. For example, many people from Africa, India and the Middle East eat “hand-to-mouth” (eat with your hands). Mexicans eat tacos only with their hands.
What about a restaurant? While it may seem easy for you as the host, your exchange student may find it a bit intimidating because there isn’t a lot of time to make meal decisions, menus may have to be translated and your student might have a hard time imitating your eating habits under pressure. A restaurant can be a real treat for your exchange student, but I would wait a bit before suggesting one.
Most important: don’t panic or show a lot of concern regarding language. Remember, your student has purposely come to your country to learn your native language. So speaking in your native language is probably a welcome thing. And you may surprisingly learn a few words in your guest’s language. Here is what one person wrote about communication with a Japanese exchange student on the website Lingq.
“As for the language barrier, show genuine care for her efforts to communicate and if you can, make it something fun. Although they study English for many years in school, they usually have little to no experience using the language with a native speaker, and she likely won't want to burden you…”
Therefore, don’t fret (worry) about the conversation. Although your guest (or you) may be shy at first, you’ll talk about each other’s families, work and school and interests. It may end up being one of the most memorable conversations in your life.
If you have other children in your home, especially young ones who can understand the situation, you need to explain why this first dinner is so important. Children like special occasions and they’ll probably look forward to this one.
It’s also important to keep pets, dogs, especially, under control. Not everyone likes pets. In fact, I hate large dogs barking jumping all over me when I come through someone’s door. So lock up your dog if he’s on the wild side.
So, to make your exchange student’s first dinner with you and your family a warm, welcoming experience, research what your student’s food culture is like, ask your student questions, if possible, about her likes and dislikes. And above all, be flexible and don’t get upset if things don’t work out perfectly.
Remember my French exchange student who plugged up the toilet after her first American meal? I explained it my few words of French that I was a mother and used to anything; this was no big deal (nothing important).
I’m sure she was still embarrassed, but the experience really bonded us faster that if the dinner went exactly as planned.
- The Rules For Eating With Your Hands In India, Africa And The Middle East
There's an art to hand-to-mouth dining
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki tutor in English. She teaches intermediate, upper-intermediate and upper-level students, including advanced and proficient. She has been a writer for national magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and author of The Diary of an American Expatriate. Please visit her website at Chocolate.English.eu