We often find ourselves stopping while we are talking to an exchange student in our group and asking, “do you know what I mean by what I just said? When I say “knocking on wood,” does that mean anything to you?” It’s really easy to just use terms like that and continue on with whatever we were saying, while the teenager from another country (or adult, for that matter!) nods politely.
At least half the time, they have no clue what “knocking on wood” or “toss some salt over your shoulder!” meant. They know it’s a saying of some kind, but it just doesn’t always translate into something meaningful. Understanding local sayings and superstitions may not be critical to understanding the meaning of a conversation in the host country’s language — but it could be helpful to understanding the culture.
Our own beliefs are not strange to us, of course, despite what the title of this blog post says! But to someone from another culture, a local superstition may come across as silly at best and perhaps bizarre. Here’s a sprinkling of a few superstitions from around the world that we found interesting, in no particular order:
Japan: Don’t whistle at night — whistling used to be a sign criminals would use to communicate with each other.
Brazil: It’s bad luck to leave scissors lying open for very long.
Italy: If your nose itches, someone loves you — or hates you.
Russia: You will get good news if a black spider comes down from the ceiling.
Nigeria: Walking over a person while they’re lying down will keep them from growing — unless you walk back over them again.
Australia: The number 87 is considered the “devil’s number”; it’s extremely bad luck in the game of cricket.
Some superstitions are common across many cultures; walking under a ladder is supposed to be bad luck in a number of places, it seems. But many are “locally grown,” resulting from some event 100 or 1,000 years ago and changing over time into odd pieces of good or bad luck omens. We often have no real idea where these odd sayings come from. Knocking on wood may come from early Christendom … or perhaps from the time of the Celts … or perhaps from a 19th century children’s game.
Check out the map in The Totally Jinxed Map of Global Superstitions for a sampling of superstitions and good/bad luck omens from around the world. Ask yourself how any given omen might have come about — or find a way to travel somewhere to find out “on the ground”!
On August 12, 2016, I arrived in California. I still remember when I got off the plane, seeing unfamiliar faces holding a sign that has my name on it. I was nervous and terrified that they wouldn’t like me; I thought it would feel awkward to live with a family that I had never met before.
We see similar worries from our own students every year:
“I am worried. I don’t think my host family and I have anything in common. I won’t have any host siblings.”
“I am so nervous. My host family has small children and I am not used to that. What if the kids don’t like me? What if I make mistakes, will my host parents get mad at me?”
It’s not just the students who worry that their host family won’t like them. Host families worry just as much. We hear from parents who worry that their student won’t like the food, or that they’ll be homesick and the host parents won’t know how to comfort them. We hear from host siblings worried that their new host sister or brother won’t be able to make friends — or the opposite, that their student will be so popular that the host sibling will be left out.
Everyone is excited … and everyone worries. Here’s what we tell them.
First — you are not alone. It’s exciting to step off the plane into a new adventure, and it’s exciting to host someone from another country and culture. It’s normal to be nervous about how it will work on an everyday basis. Recognize your feelings and talk about them to each other. It’s ok for students to admit they’re nervous about leaving their home for 5 or 10 months. Some of our host families, too, have admitted that they’re nervous. Clear communication — and sharing feelings — is important, even at this early stage.
Second — All students have this idea in their heads about what their host family will be like. Then the host family and the community turn out to be something different, and the student panics. Host families do the same thing! A student is different from what the family thought they saw in the student’s profile and the family wonders “will it be ok?” Students and host families express surprise to their coordinator: “I had information about my host family, and they are not like what I read about,” or “My student is not the way he seemed in his profile.”
But think about it … for students, is it really a surprise that a family you’ve never met is more complex and different from what a one-page summary told you? For families, is it really a surprise that a three- or four-page application didn’t reflect the whole picture, or that a teenager’s likes and dislikes may have changed in the 6 or 9 or more months since an application was filed? For everyone — is it really a surprise that people from another country act differently from what you are used to?
Some students are nervous because their host parents don’t have children in the home. Some students worry about whether they will have enough privacy and personal time because their host families have toddlers. Some students are nervous because their host family lives in a big city; some students are nervous because their host family lives in a small town or on a farm. Families worry for the same reasons: a student doesn’t have siblings so may have difficulty getting used to having a host brother, or comes from a small school and will be attending a school of 1,500 students here in the U.S., or will have to get used to not having public transportation just outside. They want to be the best family possible for their student, and they want to help their student have a successful and fun experience. They worry about whether their plans to do that will work.
The basic thing to remember is just this: you don’t know each other yet. Be open to the experience. It takes time to get to know people! It’s hard to do that before you get here, and it’s not possible to do it in a week or two. Before students arrive, you can text, email, and Skype — but you won’t really get to know each other until you have lived with each other for a while.
Students and families may be worried about the whole adventure. A semester or academic year is a long time to live with someone you have never met. Now that the time is approaching, it feels real. Years ago, shortly before I left for my study-abroad semester in Switzerland, I, too, started to worry. I didn’t know French … maybe I shouldn’t go? I didn’t have a specific schedule since I was doing an independent study project … maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. Our own son began asking similar questions almost five years ago as the departure date approached for his six-month exchange program in Ghana. What if I don’t get along with my host family, he said; they don’t have teenagers. Maybe it’s too expensive, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t go, he said.
I went, of course. So did our son. There were challenges, of course. But challenges are part of life, and now I can’t imagine not having gone. Our son, too, values his experience and is glad we didn’t let him change his mind.
Being an exchange student — or hosting one — is exciting, fascinating, and an amazing experience that you will all remember forever. It also takes work. Very few students have a perfect fit into their host family and their host community from Day One with no issues or conflicts. There’s no magic wand to build instant relationships. Everything takes time. That’s one of the reasons your coordinators and your exchange program are here — we want to help you build relationships and help you feel like a member of our community.
We’ll close with this statement from Mariam, the student we quoted at the beginning of this post, on how she felt at the end of her exchange year:
Now they are my second family. I have learned how to support each other no matter what, and how to always be helpful and positive. They made my exchange year way better. They showed me what it means to be a member of an American family. I am so thankful and blessed for having them in my life.
We recently watched the 2016 movie Arrival, which critics are calling one of the best science fiction movies in decades. We enjoyed it as a film that tries to envision how our planet’s politics might play into first contact with alien visitors. We also liked how the movie focused on how language intersects with culture. As regional coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year, a high school student exchange program placing 2,500+ students in the U.S. every year, we work all year long with students from around the world who are trying to understand our culture and speak our language. We know that to understand one, you need to understand the other.
We express our culture through language, and our language defines how we interact with our world. It’s hard to separate one from the other, or to determine “which came first?” Learning another language is not just about learning the words for “person,” “table,” and “animal.” Arrival shows us the truth of this statement. In the movie, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) works to translate words and concepts so that humans and the aliens can talk to each other. As she struggles to learn the aliens’ language, she realizes that the key is that the aliens view time very differently than we do. This view of the universe winds its way throughout the aliens’ language. The way they express time enables them to see pieces of the future; as Louise learns the language, she learns the culture — and so sees her own future.
Fantastical, beyond our reality, and make-believe — yes. It is, after all, a fictional story about meeting aliens from another world. But is it really so fantastical to think that people from different cultures will view abstract concepts such as time, place, and distance differently? In a way, Arrival describes the reality of language and culture on our own planet. It’s about viewing the entire universe the way the other person views it and realizing that this changes how you view your own universe.
Viewing time differently isn’t as fantastical as you might think. Some cultures (and, therefore, some languages) express time as a means of looking to the future — “future-in-front” languages as linguist Panos Athanasopoulos discusses in this article. Native English speakers visualize the future as being ahead of us and the past as behind us, already done and gone. But not all cultures on Earth look at time that way, as Athanasopoulos describes:
[F]or speakers of Aymara (spoken in Peru), looking ahead means looking at the past. The word for future (qhipuru) means “behind time” – so the spatial axis is reversed: the future is behind, the past is ahead. The logic in Aymara appears to be this: we can’t look into the future just like we can’t see behind us. The past is already known to us, we can see it just like anything else that appears in our field of vision, in front of us.
The study conducted by Athanasopoulos and colleagues implies that the language we speak will affect whether we believe that time is passing slower or faster. He submits that bilingual people “go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously.” I find the idea fascinating — that one can go between such different world views just by speaking another language. He also argues that going back and forth between different languages regularly “confers advantages on the ability to learn and multitask, and even long term benefits for mental well-being.” I like that idea, but I’ll leave that for others to debate.
What I want to leave readers with today is just this, whether you are the host family trying to understand the student in your home, the student trying to learn how to be part of a new environment, the teacher trying to help, or the parent back home watching your child from afar. If you really work at not just translating word by word but rather try to see the why and how of another language, you will come to view your own universe differently. That might be a bit unsettling … but it’s exciting, too. Moreover, seeing how the ‘other’ really thinks can only be positive in establishing friendships and long-term relationships. That seems like a good idea to me.
Students will sometimes ask us this question: what’s the most important thing to know about the United States?
To some extent, the answer to this question will differ depending on where in the U.S. a student ends up living and studying. The United States is a big country, and there are definite regional differences. This is one of the (many) things we want exchange students coming to the U.S. to learn — that we are not just one single group of people who are all the same just because we share a particular citizenship.
There are some general things, however, that students can keep in mind which will help them to adjust to life in their host family and host community.
Politeness in ordinary conversation
Saying “please” and “thank you,” especially to adults, is important. This can feel strange if you come from a culture or community where appreciation may be implied and you don’t have to say this often.
Directness and “honesty”
Americans consider themselves to be “direct.” There are different degrees of “directness,” however. The graphic below, created by Erin Meyer, a professor at the global business school INSEAD, shows cultural differences in two key categories — degree of “directness” or being “confrontational” in normal everyday life and degree of emotional expressiveness. (Her 2015 Harvard Business Review article, Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da, is worth reading for anyone who deals with other cultures in either a personal or professional setting.)
Here in the U.S., we tend to mix some of that directness with the ordinary everyday politeness mentioned above; according to Erin Meyer, the U.S. is somewhere towards the middle of the different characteristics. We’ve heard students from expressive and “talkative” cultures say that Americans get to the point too quickly; we’ve also had students from “direct” cultures tell us that Americans never get to the point at all! This combination can be confusing to students from other cultures as they try to figure out what, exactly, does someone mean when they say something.
Here’s an example (and a hint…). When your U.S. host mom or dad asks, “Could you take out the garbage?,” that generally means “take out the garbage” (and sooner rather than later!). Students who are used to a more direct culture often interpret this language as meaning they have a choice. In return, those students tend to speak in a way that may come across as demanding rather than requesting. Those students might announce, “I am going out to see friends,” rather than phrasing it as a question: “Would it be OK if I went out to see my friends?” The question format would be preferred in many U.S. homes.
Small talk and social conversation
Social conversations are those in which one talks about what’s going on in the community, what movie is showing at the local theater, which teacher is annoying and which one is just fun to have a class with, and even the weather. Many students find these conversations difficult. “Why does the cashier at the grocery store ask me how I am doing?” asked one of my Austrian students last year. “Why would she care how my day is going? She doesn’t know me and I don’t know her.”
School system differences
U.S. high schools are quite different from schools in many other countries. High school students in the U.S. change classrooms for every class. Students usually receive grades not only on exams at the end of the term, but also on in-between quizzes, class participation, and homework assignments that must be turned in. Some of this may also apply at the college level. At both the high school and college level, teachers are more approachable than in many countries (although that doesn’t mean you call them by their first name). Students ask teachers questions, visit teachers during office hours before or after school, and generally are encouraged to have a dialogue with teachers.
Sports, music, and art activities are a key element of school life
In U.S. schools, students become involved in many activities beyond traditional academics, activities that in many countries have no connection to the school system. Some U.S. states and schools may have limits on activities in which exchange students can participate. But if it’s possible, participating in a sport, music, or art activity at your school is an excellent way to become part of the school and host community.
Sports are also a part of everyday life. Almost everyone will have a favorite sports team. This could be a nearby professional team (football, soccer, baseball, basketball), or it might be a college team. Rivalries exist between neighboring high schools, college teams within the state, and with professional teams in nearby cities. Here in Oregon, for example, we have a long-standing rivalry between the yellow-and-green University of Oregon Ducks and the orange-and-black Oregon State University Beavers. You’re either one or the other. On days when the two teams play each other, neighborhoods come alive with team colors plastered in windows, on flags and banners, and on cars. We also are quite proud of our professional soccer team, the Portland Timbers, who, of course, are better than the Seattle Sounders. (Darn straight!)
Wherever you are going, you will find “your” team — not just your new favorite sports team, but also your host family team, your school friends and teachers team, and your program’s support team. Enjoy the experience!
My wife, Jenn, and I spent this past Saturday at the marriage of my former exchange student, Nha, from Vietnam. Nha spent the 2003-04 school year with my family through EF High School Exchange Year. She returned to the U.S. to go to college and recently started working at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).
It was a lovely ceremony, held mostly in Vietnamese. It was followed by a wonderful reception, with all sorts of tasty and interesting dishes from Nha’s homeland.
The only phrase I remember in Vietnamese from my year with Nha was “cam an,” which means “thank you.” Some of the food was familiar, but some—being celebration food—was new, such as the chicken dish and two whole roasted pigs. The ceremony itself had some differences from what I’m used to, including a sort of karaoke performed by the wedding party.
After we left, Jenn pointed out that our experience in a crowd full of happy, talkative, outgoing strangers, separated by a language barrier, was probably a good deal like the experience of a new exchange student. There was no shortage of good will and desire to communicate, but it was very hard to understand everything that was going on in overwhelmingly unfamiliar surroundings.
We realized that this is what it must feel like to students who have just arrived in their host country.
I found—the way a person who has one sense dulled notices other senses strengthening—that I was paying closer attention than usual to body language to figure out what people were doing. Smiles and gestures got us through most everything; things like table assignments at the reception required more careful and detailed translation.
New students go through this same process as their English skills develop. Misinterpretations are part of the learning process.
The wedding ceremony was held under the auspices of a relatively familiar religious affiliation, so its rhythms and progress were relatively easy to follow. However, the language barrier wiped away any distinctions between what might have been a cultural practice and what was there simply because the two young people at the altar wanted it that way.
That confusion is what we see with our exchange students. What’s culturally American and what is peculiar to our households becomes indistinguishable, and can cause students to make assumptions that they later find to be invalid.
The ingredients in the wedding food were largely familiar, but prepared and seasoned in unfamiliar ways. The overall flavor and texture palette were at turns delightful and off-putting. Hunger, and a desire to be gracious, overcame some of our nervousness…but some differences are just too much to overcome. Chicken feet are past my limits.
A student sitting down to her first few American meals must experience the same thing. Processed cheese slices may be beyond our students’ ability to deal with unfamiliar tastes.
By the end of the evening, watching Nha dance with her new husband (I stayed dry-eyed up until I saw her starting to cry during that dance, I swear!), and seeing the joy in the little interactions between friends and family, it was clear that no matter how different they were from us, it was far easier to see the humanity that unites us all than to focus on the cultural and individual differences between us.
Our students have the same experience, as they grow to know the warmth of our hearts and our homes.
Nha’s wedding offered a powerful lesson in understanding the struggles—and the rewards—our students face, particularly in the early days of their time with us. It was a reminder to Jenn and me to be patient and compassionate in helping them through the period of culture shock and of the shared joy that awaits on the far side.
Lars D. H. Hedbor is an amateur historian, home brewer, astronomer, fiddler, linguist, and baker. His fascination with the central question of how the populace of the American Colonies made the transition from being subjects of the Crown to citizens of the Republic drives him to tell the stories of those people, whether in television appearances, classroom presentations, or in the pages of his Tales From a Revolution novels. Hedbor lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Jennifer Mendenhall, and five daughters. Lars and Jennifer are exchange student coordinators for EF High School Exchange Year.