It’s common knowledge (let alone courtesy!) to give your host family a gift upon arriving at their home. While this step seems simple enough, when you get to thinking about what to purchase, you might suddenly find yourself stuck. You could bring them chocolate– but what if they don’t like chocolate? You could bring them a magnet shaped like your home state– but what if they don’t have a refrigerator? It might seem fine to bring a bottle of wine, but what if your family doesn’t drink alcohol/has really expensive tastes/shuns anything the color red (ok, perhaps the last one is a stretch)?
Host gifts are an important aspect of your homestay, as they contribute to the first impression your new family has of you. While you shouldn’t worry too much about what to get, you should nevertheless put a bit of thought and effort into it.
Here are some tips that helped me pick out a good (family approved!) gift:
1.) Know your family. This may seem obvious, but it needs to be mentioned because it is the most important aspect. Speak or email with your hosts before arrival so you get to know them better. You can find out if their children love fruit-flavored candy, that they like hiking on the weekends, that they have a weakness for vanilla puff-pastries. I found out that my family loved baking, so I got them a Southern-themed dessert cookbook. I also discovered that they collected magnets (they do happen to have a ‘fridge), so I got them a magnet shaped like North Carolina, where I live. Knowing little facts about your hosts can make your gifts much more meaningful.
2.) Don’t give them anything that could be offensive. Read up on the host culture. You don’t want to find yourself wincing over giving your host something with an even number of contents, only to realize they consider even numbers bad luck. Check to make sure that the colors, numbers, and even shape of the things you’re giving them don’t have negative connotations in their society.
3.) Gift food sparingly. It could easily spoil or spill on the plane, or you may even be prevented by customs by bringing it into the country. Instead, come prepared with recipes and a list of ingredients (that can be found in-country) of some typical dishes, and go shopping for and make the food there. That way, you can spend time bonding with your hosts while you cook the food with them. I brought just one box of the flour used to make peach cobbler, a traditional dessert of the South. Bring the bare minimum, and buy the rest upon arrival. Your hosts will appreciate the fresher food and the learning experience.
4.) Bring a few smaller items, rather than just one big gift. That way, your hosts can get a broader feel of your home culture. Along with the magnet, cookbook, and cobbler flour, I brought a mixed bag of hard (read: unmeltable) candies for the kids, postcards of my city, and little tubes of honey made in my hometown. In showing them the many different aspects of my home, I gave them a better perspective of what my life in the American South is like.
5.) Pictures and postcards are always a great option. Your hosts will love seeing your family and where you come from. Plus, pictures are light, small, and easy to carry.
6.) Don’t go overboard. You don’t have to bring a suitcase full of stuff, nor do you have to break the bank. A few thoughtful items is perfect.
And there you have it! Along with my tips, you can also ask friends or family who have gone abroad before you, or look up tips on the Internet (I admit I did my fair share of that before leaving!).
As always, Happy Travels!