November 16, 2001
Mystery of the thin blue line solved
Host families make foreign students feel at home
In Japan, belching loudly in a restaurant is a compliment to the chef. In Spain, never serve a meal unaccompanied by a loaf of fresh bread. In Vietnam, it's rude to use chopsticks to point. Cultural idiosyncrasies create social minefields for travelers. The smallest things, like how much to tip or whether to tip at all, often cause the greatest confusion, which sometimes leads to injured feelings and suspicion.
Life in a foreign land would be easier if there were someone to point out a local faux pas before it happens.
Monique Sauve tries to do just that for foreign students at the University of Alberta. She co-ordinates the International Centre's Host Program, established to help forge social bonds between visiting students and Canadians.
"It was set up in 1984 as a joint venture between Alumni Affairs and the International Centre as a means for international students to have some local support," said Sauve, the international student programs officer. "It's cultural adjustment and settling into the community. It's a chance for two people to become friends through cultural and social activities."
Sauve emphasizes that this is not a residency program -- students already have their own accommodation. Instead they are looking for someone who will take them under their wing and show them the ins and outs of life in Canada.
Luis Lopez, from Mexico City, can't say enough good things about his first Thanksgiving in Edmonton. The business student was invited to his host family's home for the celebration. "I got to meet tons of their relatives," he says, smiling.
For many it is this contact with a Canadian that makes all the difference in their stay. "Even though you live here you don't get to know the meaning of things or the background," says Lopez. "My 'family' have been great about explaining things. I saw that blue line painted all over Edmonton [to designate the World Championships marathon course] and I didn't know why it was there!"
Sauve says host families often play a critical role as cultural guides because the international students are comfortable asking questions they might feel foolish asking their peers.
"These students are often trapped in their tiny room at HUB mall," says Anne Nielsen, a program participant for the last five years. "If they don't have a car they rarely travel beyond Whyte Ave. We give them an opportunity to see other parts of the city. We take them bowling, to the Fringe and to Klondike Days."
The mother of two wanted her boys to grow up with a global perspective but says introducing a newcomer to Edmonton also allows one to examine one's own city with fresh eyes.
"There's always some laughter when you try to explain something and there's a blank look in return," says Nielsen, who's hosting a young woman from Japan this year. "She likes to watch Canadian cooking," says Nielsen. "She also likes to prepare Japanese food for us. She gets a feeling of contributing as well as being able to see how Canadian families function and relate to each other."
Nielsen has, among other things, helped her student get her VCR fixed. "She doesn't expect me to do everything for her, but it's nice to have somebody here that knows the system and can tell you what place to go to."
That sentiment is familiar to Janet and Gordon Walker. They have been on both sides of the fence. Originally from Moose Jaw, Sk., the couple moved to Edmonton about three years ago. Sandwiched between the two cities, however, were five years in Virginia. While in the United States, Janet, who now works as Assistant to the Vice-President (Research) at the U of A, became involved with an international women's group which eased her transition into the American lifestyle. "There were people from everywhere, all over the world. We learned all kinds of things together; it got me involved with the community," she said.
She found the experience enriched her time in the U.S. tremendously. When Gordon accepted a position in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the U of A, they knew they had the chance to return the favour by enlightening international students as to the particularities of prairie people. "It was a kind of payback," Gordon said of the two years they acted as hosts. This year time constraints have forced the Walkers to take a break, but both are looking forward to rejoining the program next fall.
Sauve says her biggest challenge as program co-ordinator is managing the disparity in the number of hosts and students. "There are currently 10 students waiting for hosts this year; 15 have already been matched," she said. "This is a good opportunity for Canadian families to learn more about different cultures without having to leave their own home and city." The time commitment is flexible; although the minimum expectation is that the host will call their student once a month.
Lopez says the reward more than justifies the effort: "It's a win-to-win opportunity. We both get to know new people and other cultures, and that enriches people."
Any families interested in getting involved in the program can call Monique Sauve at 492-6194 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org