Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Learning to Eat Politely at the Chinese Homestay Dinner Table: Two Contrasting Case Studies

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Learning to Eat Politely at the Chinese Homestay Dinner Table: Two Contrasting Case Studies

Article excerpt

At the age of 20, Kevin, an undergraduate sojourner, embarked on his semester abroad in China with the hope of improving his Chinese and also some trepidation surrounding the challenges of adapting to an unfamiliar environment. He would soon arrive in Shanghai and live with a local family in order to become fully immersed in a Chinese-speaking environment.

Upon arrival, he received a message from his housing coordinator:

As you have chosen a Chinese host family to immerse yourself to a totally different culture, you should try to understand this culture.... Please also keep in mind that you are undoubtedly going to experience some cultural or communicative frustration during this first week, but it is important to gauge your likelihood of being able to "stick with it" and overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers.

Echoing widespread beliefs about the value of homestays, the message emphasized immersion in a new culture. However, no doubt based upon significant experience of the program administration, the coordinator also noted that students might encounter frustration and barriers requiring reflection and perseverance. What problems would Kevin face, and how would he cope?

Research has suggested that the homestay abroad can enhance language proficiency and intercultural awareness if all parties are well disposed (Di Silvio, Donovan, & Malone, 2014; Kinginger, Wu, Lee, & Tan, 2016). However, the homestay can also present problems, such as banal, quotidian, and repetitive interaction (Rivers, 1998); awkward interactional norms inherited from classroom talk (Wilkinson, 2002); and various forms of undesired reception (PellegrinoAveni, 2005). The authors of all these studies suggested that these problems can have a negative impact on students' dispositions toward learning and help explain modest language gains during homestay. Yet little is known about how problems arise and take their course in everyday homestay situations over a longitudinal time frame, and how some students succeed in coping with homestay problems through appropriating communicative means.

To observe the transformative potential of homestay problems, this study focused on the multimodal, multisensory process of learning to eat politely in a new culture, adopting a longitudinal approach that is inclusive of both students' and hosts' perspectives. This approach interprets conflicts in the homestay not just as impediments to learning, but sometimes also as opportunities for transforming students' perceptions, behavior, and social influence. Initially lacking awareness of Chinese table etiquette, our two American participants, John and Kevin (both pseudonyms), received tutelage from their hosts to varying degrees. Their developmental stories suggest that learning everyday practices and associated language in the homestay abroad is an uneven, challenging process but that students and hosts can collaboratively transform problems into learning opportunities.

This article first reviews research on homestay advantages and challenges, then outlines Vygotskian sociocultural theory, Chinese table etiquette, and methods used for studying table etiquette problems in Chinese homestays. Next, it presents detailed analyses of John and Kevin's homestay interactions to show how some homestay problems evolved over time to become learning opportunities. It concludes by discussing the implications and limitations of the study.


Homestay Advantages and Challenges

The homestay component of study abroad is believed to offer access to the everyday practices of local communities and meaningful communication with willing participants (Brecht, Frank, Keesling, O'Mara, & Walton, 1997). Many studies have shown that when all parties are well disposed, homestays are advantageous for addressing many aspects of the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages: As students join local households, they may communicate in all modes, relate cultural practices and products to perspectives, evaluate diverse perspectives, and establish linguistic and cultural connections (National Standards Collaborative Board, 2015). …

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