We’re different, but the same

I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan.  I came to Canada (Vancouver, BC) to study English right after I graduated from university.   It was 1980.  I met a lot of international students including Iranians, French, Germans, Indonesians, Japanese, Italians, Mexicans, Chinese and more.  With our limited English, we shared our cultures consisting of values, beliefs, language, communication and foods.   It was fascinating and fun.  We never had any problems with dealing with different cultures.  We just accepted each other the way we were.

My husband and I have hosted some international students and always enjoyed having them. I also worked for an ESL school for 17 years, and dealt with thousands of international students.   I watched how students interacted with each other.  They shared their cultural background, talking about food, clothes, beliefs and languages.  They saw some differences but also found similarities.  They were excited to learn new things and happy to share their cultures.  I still can see their surprised faces when they found that they are not that different from each other.  It takes only a few minutes to make friends, just talking and listening, and they enjoyed the similarities and accepted the differences.

Students come to Canada because they want to learn English and to experience Canadian culture. As we know, experiencing a different culture can be very stressful.  Greetings are often different.   Some bow, some shake hands, some hug, some kiss a cheek.  It can be confusing, depending on their culture.  A lot of students feel homesick within first three months, but most of them get over it.  Some don’t.  I’ve seen some students go back to their countries within 1 week because they just couldn’t adjust to the differences.  Culture shock is common.  Students are away from their families, friends and communities.  Things that are acceptable in their countries aren’t always acceptable here. Whilst these changes are not easy to overcome, most of them adjust well to the Canadian lifestyle. There were always some issues with the lifestyle or their homestay, but many of the issues were so small and easy to resolve but students were often embarrassed to talk with their host families. Students are usually afraid to hurt their host’s feeling, but also afraid that the host won’t like them if they cause too much “trouble”.

Student comments often included:

What is Canadian food?” 

My host mother said I can only wash my clothes once a week”

My host mother doesn’t have an iron”

My host family’s house doesn’t have a gate”

My host mother gives me the same sandwiches every day for lunch”

I can only take a shower once a day and 15 minutes at the most”

I want to live with Canadian native speakers”

‘When my students ask me about something that is new to them, I usually explain it like this:

I know it is different from your home but this is my style. It is okay to tell me if you don’t like it. I am okay with it’. Then normally they tell me the truth. It is important not to be defensive. They are not judging us. It’s also important to say this with a smile so that they don’t feel like you are upset, and then you can find a solution that works for you both because you understand each other better.

I visited some host families this summer. I realized that they are all Canadians just like me, but had a different cultural background.  I am a curious person, so I got excited asking about their culture.  “Where are you from?  What do you speak besides English?  Do you like cooking?  What kind of food do you cook for your students?  What do you celebrate?”  We shared our background and talked about our experiences with students.  It was amazing.

When I see happy students, I always ask them:

How is your homestay?”

“Oh, it’s great.  I like my host family.”


The answers were always the same.

Because they are nice.” 

We talk all the time.” 

We eat together every day.” 

We watch movies together.” 

We go to grocery shopping together.”

They are happy.” 

I believe togetherness makes them happy. Talk to your students and listen to them.  Find the cultural similarities, not the differences, and you’ll notice that your student may open up and share more with you! In the end, we may look different, and come from different countries, backgrounds and cultures – but we all want to feel connected as humans.

Learn as if you were to live forever’ – Mahatma Gandhi