The decision to study abroad has been made — all the bags are packed, the passport has been renewed and the paperwork has been signed. There is a detailed list of items to bring, but just one thing is missing: a gift for the host family. Gift-giving is an essential part of expressing gratitude, affection and goodwill in many countries around the world. For students studying abroad, bringing a gift is the perfect way to make a good first impression with their host families and to celebrate the joining of the two cultures. But deciding what that special gift should be is often far from easy.
Considerations for Deciding What To Bring
The perfect gift is something that reflects the student’s culture and place of origin. Chances are that a student’s host family will be just as excited to meet the student as the student is to meet the host family. Below are three general rules to follow when thinking about what kind of gifts to give:
1. The student should know about the host family before buying the gift. Host families often have children and even students who are attending the same university, so it is important to know how many gifts to buy and wrap. The number and size of these gifts will also dictate how they will need to be transported.
2. Gifts should be nonperishable and portable. Food is a wonderful gift to show one’s culture, but host families may also appreciate something that they can hold onto for many years after the semester is complete. Edible gifts are wonderful when paired with something else. Additionally, glass containers are easy to break and should be packaged with care. Anything with a liquid will not be allowed on the airplane and must be sealed and properly packaged in order to avoid an unnecessary luggage mess.
3. Students should want to be generic with these gifts, rather than trying to guess the specific interests of their host families. Remember, this gift is just as much about trying to introduce oneself as it is to give a gift. It should be personal, but not so personal that it makes the recipients feel uncomfortable.
Recommended Gifts for Your Host Family
State stones, shells and local products are generally safe to bring. These items can share as much information about the student’s origin as they do the student, especially when they are wrapped or presented in a fun and creative way. For many countries, the presentation and thoughtfulness put into the gift are more important than the gift itself.
Postcards are also a safe item to bring, especially ones with scenery relevant to the student’s place of origin. Postcards with famous landmarks and pretty photography are recommended. Similarly, the student may decide to snap a few photos of places they call home and arrange those photos into a photobook for the host family.
Children’s books are also wonderful gifts, even for families with no children. This one may sound strange, but the right selection can be impactful. A person’s culture is created from the stories that are told, how they are told and how they are lived. Giving books as gifts can help a student to start a conversation about what books their host family members grew up with and which ones are special to them.
Games are also a wonderful way to get the conversation going. Many students have problems with the language barrier when they first get off the plane. Sometimes these problems can even last a few weeks. Games can provide a fun way to spend time with one’s host family when first getting to know them.
Plants are wonderful gifts, but sometimes they are better as thank-you gifts instead of greeting gifts. When giving a plant as a gift, it is also important to do research about how the type of plant is received in each culture. It is very easy to send the wrong message to host families if the wrong type of flower is chosen. For example, never give red roses when in a European country, unless of course the intended message is to express romantic interest. Things can quickly become awkward if the red roses are presented to a host parent or sibling.
Being Aware of Cultural Gift Etiquette
Most host families expect cultural differences and will likely let their students know when they have crossed a line. This said, no study abroad student wants to make his or her host family feel uncomfortable. To avoid this, it is wise for students to do some research about the country and culture they will be visiting. Doing so will allow the student to be mindful — not just when figuring out what to get, but also how to present it, what to expect from the family when they open it, which items will be the most impactful to the host families and what to keep in mind when giving or receiving gifts in the future.
China, Spain, France, Japan and the United Kingdom are five of the most common countries that students from the United States go to study abroad. Below are some quick tips about presentation practices to be aware of for each of these countries.
Never give shoes to Chinese host families. Presenting a family with new shoes is likely not something that an exchange student is planning to do, but in any case, it is still something he or she should be aware of. The reason for this is that the word “shoe” sounds like the word for “bad luck” or “evil.” Shoes are also something that are stood on and worn away. It is highly insulting to gift shoes in China.
White envelopes are only exchanged at funerals, and the color white is closely related to death. Alternatively, red is a symbol of luck, but only in special cases. The number four is also a symbol of luck, so any amount of money given in a red envelope, heavily associated with the Chinese New Year, will be given in increments of four. Red envelopes are typically reserved for this specific holiday.
Give gifts that can be easily shared. Chocolates and dessert items are popular gifts from visitors, even when visiting for a shorter amount of time. Gifts are always opened immediately upon being received, so make sure there is time to do this when giving a gift. Depending on what the first day in the country looks like, this might mean it’s better to present gifts when settled at home. Concerning flowers, it is best to stay away from red roses because they imply romantic attraction. White lilies and chrysanthemums are associated with funerals and should also be avoided. Always give an odd number of flowers; it will be interpreted as the student wishing them luck.
The big one to watch out for in France is flowers. Like in Spain, chrysanthemums are for funerals. Unlike in Spain, a bouquet of red carnations means you don’t like the host. Anything all white is only for weddings; all yellow implies unfaithfulness; red roses imply you are in love with the host. Be sure to always buy an odd number of flowers (except 13 because the number is bad luck).
The second biggest concern is wine. While most liqueurs are fine, it is best to stay away from the wine aisle when buying a gift. For some French host families, receiving wine may make them think that the student does not trust or like their tastes in wine, which is incredibly insulting.
The presentation of the gift is a big deal. Gifts that are small and thoughtful are more important than gifts that are big and expensive. Do not buy something super expensive and then not spend enough time on the wrapping and presentation. Students should try to be creative with their gifts, handmaking them if possible. Aside from this, items with logos are generally best to avoid. It can be taken as trying to promote oneself and be cheap. When giving gifts to a group, make sure everyone is present. Lastly, Japanese host families love foreign foods. Chocolate, coffee and packaged snacks tend to go over well so long as they are kept fresh during the flight there.
The European rule against roses, chrysanthemums and lilies applies here too. Gifts are not a large part of the culture, so don’t give anything too extravagant. Wine, flowers and chocolates are welcome when invited to the home. Any of the ideas listed in the previous section would be appropriate, so long as they are done in a modest proportion. Lastly, always send a thank-you note, which would be welcome for the previous countries on the list as well and is generally considered good practice.