Staying with a host family is the first interaction you will have with the cultural differences of studying abroad. Most host families pick up their students at the airport, and so a common question we receive from students is “do I need to bring my host family a gift?” The short answer is, yes!
While it’s not always common in the United States to bring a gift when meeting someone new, the exchange of gifts is a key part of many cultures. In the U.S. we may bring an appetizer or a beverage if a friend or acquaintance is hosting us, but it is not common to bring a gift when simply meeting with new people. Not only is it important to recognize and respect the cultural norms of your new host country, but giving a gift can be a nice way to break the ice and show your homestay family that you appreciate them inviting you into their home. After all, you will be eating, sleeping, and living with this family for the next several months!
Before you start searching for your gift, it’s worth learning about the intricacies of gift-giving customs around the world. This article breaks down gift-giving norms via country and you’ll learn things like, don’t gift yellow roses in Chile as it’s a sign of contempt, giving four or nine of anything in Japan is considered unlucky, and avoid gifts of black and purple in Brazil as they represent mourning. Who knew?!
Finding the right gift
While getting a gift for someone you’ve never met before can be stressful, your gift doesn’t have to be expensive, big, or fancy. Thoughtfulness is where it counts!
You also want to keep in mind that whatever your gift is, you’ll have to travel a very long ways with it! We like to encourage packing light when studying abroad, and there’s definitely a few things you don’t want to forget, but be wary of bringing a gift that will be hard to transport, will take up too much room, or go bad during your trip (like certain foods).
Now that you’re ready to start looking for that perfect homestay gift, here are four ideas to inspire you.
Something that represents your home
Is your hometown known for something special? Maybe a specific type of cheese, or jam, or other food product? If you’re coming from Philadelphia, you clearly can’t pack away a Philly Cheesesteak (it will definitely get eaten on the trip), but you could throw some Zapp’s potato chips in your bag for your family! If you’re heading abroad from Washington, a nice bag of Seattle coffee can do the trick, and if you’re going overseas from Wisconsin, you better bring a bag of cheese curds with you! If you don’t want to trek several thousand miles with food products, a great gift that represents home is a candle that smells like your home state!
Whatever you decide to take on your journey, make sure that it’s legal and easy to have in your luggage!
“I’m from Washington and when I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain, I brought my host family huckleberry jam and huckleberry chocolates. Once I arrived, I realized that my host mom had refrigerator magnets featuring the hometowns of previous homestay students. Once I saw this, I had my mom mail me a magnet from Washington so that my host mom could add it to her collection.” Kendall Bancroft, University of Idaho.
Something for the family
Many homestays will include families with children of different ages. Before you head abroad, learn how many people you’ll be living with and their ages. If you’ll be living with younger children, some coloring books or American children books are a fun gift. You can also bring a deck of cards (especially if you’re from Nevada) or a fun family board game that you can play during your time abroad. If your family has older children you can venture into sporting gear such as a jersey or baseball gap that represents your favorite sporting team from back home. Another great gift for any age is gear from your home University. From baby clothes to adult clothing, you could have your host family rocking your college gear all semester long.
Something that relates to your hobbies
Do you love to paint or draw? Consider crafting up a small piece of artwork before you head abroad. Clearly, traveling with a large piece of art is unrealistic, but a small painting that can fit in your suitcase or backpack is a thoughtful gift and a conversation starter. If you love to read you could gift your host family with your favorite book, or a USA-specific guide book. If you like to spend your free time in the kitchen, you can head abroad with a cookbook of your favorite recipes that you can cook alongside your host mom.
Whatever your favorite hobbies may be, bringing a gift that relates to that can help you get to know you better.
Something unique to the United States
As we mentioned earlier, there’s a good chance that your host family has not been to the United States, which means there is a whole slew of traditional U.S. presents that would be a great homestay gift. However, it’s worth your time to spend a few minutes researching what U.S. products do not exist in your program location. For example, peanut butter does not exist many places overseas. Many people have never tried it, so heading abroad with a jar (or two) of peanut butter can be a fun experience for your host family. Also, you won’t lose your mind because of your lack of peanut butter during your time abroad! Some other ideas include calendars, postcards, and photo albums that you can add to together.
If you’re not sure what to get your host family, feel free to reach out to USAC and we’re happy to provide some tips. Remember to keep it simple, inexpensive, and from the heart and you’ll be off to a great start in your new home!
What about a gift for a family in Costa Rica? Didn’t see it listed or South America. Thank you!