From strangers to friends

It is nearly five years since my husband and I took the unusual step of inviting strangers into our home for a weekend of cultural exchange, and we’re glad we did. Through a small charity called HOST we have welcomed some delightful international students from across the world and had the unique opportunity to learn about other countries and cultures from the people who grew up in them.

Seyit and Tugba

Our first guests were a married Turkish couple, Seyit and Tugba, who were both doing an English MA at the University of Leicester. They were accompanied by their ten-month old daughter. Showing them the countryside covered in snow was a wonderful experience as they were totally spellbound, having never seen snow before. Visiting the National Trust’s Blickling Hall with guides in costume and character also blew them away.

With the visit being close to Christmas, we had the opportunity to discuss Christmas customs with them and to share the way they celebrated their Muslim festivals. As well as that, we learnt that the stereotype of a young Muslim father was completely wrong. Seyit was totally hands on with the baby, just like my son and son-in-law are with theirs. Seyit and his wife had a completely equal partnership and this was not what we had expected.

Pui Foong and Amanda

The two Malaysian girls, Pui Foong and Amanda, were delightful and very different from Seyit and Tugba. We were struck by the high respect that they showed us and requested to call us Auntie and Uncle, as the use of Christian names is deemed disrespectful in Malaysia. They also insisted on serving us first when I put the food on the table. It was hilarious when Amanda, who would not eat anything green, decided that she would try brussels sprouts, loved them, and proceeded to eat 12!

HOST family 1

A cultural exchange

All four students said that they learned a lot about British culture, and we have certainly learned a lot about theirs. Seyit and Tugba even said that it had been the first kindness they had been shown in England, which made me very sad. If more people hosted I am sure there would be fewer racial and religious tensions.

I unfortunately had to step down from hosting this year due to ill health but am still in touch with Seyit and Tugba. I would encourage anyone interested in meeting new people and learning about different cultures to give volunteer hosting a try, especially as many student applications have to be turned down each year due to a lack of volunteers.

Cynthia Phillips | Becklesworth NWR

Set up in 1987 to accommodate a growing number of international students entering the country, HOST aims to break down barriers, build bridges, and make the world a friendlier place.

Visit their website, or call 020 7739 6292 for more information and to be put in touch with a local organiser.

Photos were provided by HOST.