During school breaks and holidays while their American peers go home to be with family, many international students will remain on campus. Being away from family and homeland can be hard enough for an international student. Breaks often serve as additional reminders that they are a foreigner in a foreign land. Leviticus 19:34 tells how we should treat the foreigner in our communities:
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Simple acts of hospitality, such as hosting an international student during a school break for a holiday is a great way to love them! Here are three hints for sharing your holiday with international students that may help your holiday be the best yet.
Hint #1: Check Details Before Your Student Arrives
It is a good idea to check with your international guests about any allergies or dietary restrictions they may have. Culture and religious background play into this. For example:
- Many Indians may not eat any: meat, seafood, or dairy, they might be strict vegans.
- If they are Muslim or from the Middle East they won’t eat pork.
- If they are from a culture where food is usually spicy hot, such as Latin America, Southern China, or Southern India, maybe keep a bottle of hot sauce or chili powder on the table for them to use.
- Many Chinese may not like a lot of dairy products.
- For more information on things to take note of when feeding internationals, see this blog post.
One suggestion would be to have a proposed menu ready and ask if they are unable to eat something on the list. Be mindful, but don’t be intimidated. Most internationals are eager to try new “American” food and are very gracious if they cannot eat something you prepared.
You will also want to discuss with your student about whether they need transportation to your house or not. Some students have cars and can drive themselves, but many students do not, especially if they are new to the country. Ask if you can provide a ride and confirm their address in writing. Whether or not they can drive, it’s also good to set expectations for when your holiday festivities are happening and how long they will last. Give them a start time and approximate finish time so that they know what to expect.
Size of Event Expectations
Another thing to mention is who will be attending your festivities! It may be overwhelming if your student expected a small gathering and you have all your extended family over. That’s not to say you shouldn’t invite them, just let your international friend know what to expect. If it is a small gathering, you may consider including everyone’s name and relation to one another. Often international students will appreciate having the names written down to practice ahead of time. Speaking of which, be sure to ask them how to pronounce their name! It means so much to them when people take the time to learn how to pronounce their given names.
Hint #2: Engage Them in All Aspects of Your Celebrations
Allow Them to Help You
We all know the feeling of walking into a new situation and being unsure as to how it will go. You can help ease your student’s apprehensions by having something ready for them to help with as soon as they walk in the door! Karen Oliver, IFI Staff, says, “If the guests are allowed to invest something in preparing the meal, I think that helps them relax.”
If inviting guests into your kitchen is not something you are comfortable with, another idea is to have something else they could do, like setting the table. An idea shared by Gene Greene, a trainer of many new IFI volunteers, is to have your guests make place cards for everyone, decorating them with Thanksgiving or Christmas themes. He says this offers a great opportunity to talk and get to know them better.
This is also a great time to explain your family traditions and what you are planning for the festivities of the day. Don’t be ashamed if some of these traditions are religious. Often times, Americans shy away from the topic of religion, but many of the holidays we celebrate are very tied to who we are as Christians. It’s part of the fabric from which we are woven!
A simple question like “Do you know what we celebrate at Christmas?” could lead to a good discussion with your international student about who God is. Don’t force it, but if they seem interested, you can invite questions about any of your traditions or the background behind them. Leila Gardner, IFI Staff, says many students are very curious about these things, just be sure not to say anything that could be perceived as negative about another religion. Otherwise, be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in your conversation!
Prayer Before Meals
As you start the meal, feel free to offer a table prayer! Karen says this is one of the most impactful parts of hosting. “More than one student has told us their very first experience with receiving personal prayer was the first meal they had with their host family. [One student shared that] the father prayed for the meal and included a prayer of thanks to God for bringing their guest. And that just made a huge impact on that person who eventually came to faith in Christ. But it started with a mealtime prayer…they never heard anybody pray to God in Jesus’ name before and the fact that they were included in that prayer was just huge to them.”
To introduce the prayer you can say something like, “Our family prays to God before we eat to thank him for his provision. You can just bow your head and listen.” Leila notes that some students may not feel comfortable holding hands, so be understanding of that.
The main thing is just to be yourself. Don’t feel like you need to put on a show or entertain too heavily. Things that are very normal for you may be novel to your guests. Invite them into what you already do! Or, start a new tradition with your international friends. If needed, here is a list of ideas:
- Make gingerbread houses
- Go around the table and say something you’re thankful for
- Bake cookies
- Decorate the tree
- Carve the turkey
- Open gifts
- Play a game
- See the lights
- Drink hot cocoa or wassil
- Make pies
- Read the Christmas story
- Go caroling
Hint #3: Show Interest in Their Culture
Even though you have done everything possible to welcome your guest into your cultural and family traditions, also be prepared with some questions to ask them about their culture. Hosting is about learning in addition to sharing.
If you’re nervous about keeping the conversation rolling, one strategy would be to invite several international students from different countries. Most likely, they will enjoy asking and learning about each other’s cultures in addition to sharing about their own. It also might make them feel more comfortable to have others who are new to an American holiday experiencing it for the first time as well.
IFI has some great conversation starter ideas available here, but some good topics to start with might include asking about their family, schooling, common jobs in their country, favorite holidays, etc. There’s no end of interesting things to learn! Another question Gene Greene likes to ask is, “How is what we’re doing different from when your family has a meal together?” or “ What things that you see that we eat in America don’t you see that you eat back home?” This may give you insight into cultural differences that you wouldn’t have known enough to ask about.
After the meal you can invite your guests to share pieces of their culture with you in other ways as well. Maybe they could show you where their home is on the map and tell you about the surrounding area. Or maybe they would be willing to teach you a game from their country. Students vary in personality and how outgoing they are, so be patient if they seem shy, but chances are, they will appreciate your interest in them.
Holiday hosting can be intimidating for some people or a little awkward at first, but it has become a staple in the lives of many IFI volunteers and families. Inviting a stranger into our homes is not only an awesome way to love and serve them, but it’s also an amazing way to learn about the world and make friends for a lifetime. Try it once. You might find that hosting international students spiced up your holiday season!