Chinese students practising gratitude in Australian boarding schools


The Masters of Teaching student from mainland China mentioned in my previous blog – who I gave the pseudonym Nancy – also related how she is trying to help her students practise gratitude in culturally appropriate ways. Nancy has a job in a school boarding house where she offers pastoral care and language teaching support to international students. She was concerned that most students who come from mainland China had not been taught by their parents how to verbalise gratitude, and so she often felt that she was teaching them about this as a parent would teach a young child who did not know any better.

Nancy gave the beautiful example of educating her students to express gratitude to the chef who cooks them delicious meals every day. Having been in Australia for a number of years and having previously worked in a restaurant, she was aware of how much the chef needs to receive this gratitude.  Nancy was also concerned that if her students did not express gratitude they might be judged by others who have been brought up in Australia as rude or indifferent.

Thanking the chef would be something that would not be a common practice in mainland China and a chef would never expect to receive this from their customers. It would be culturally inappropriate as they have been brought up not to expect thanks, and again they would most likely not have been taught this by their parents. Both the giver and receiver of spoken words of thanks in mainland China would feel awkward.

Yet in the Australian culture, expressions of gratitude from the international students towards the chef would be so meaningful to the chef that it could well motivate them to keep cooking delicious meals and to do this as a way of expressing their thanks in return. Deep gratitude has this constant ebb of giving and receiving. In many cases, a chef who does not to receive this gratitude could eventually become unmotivated or lose his heart. As social anthropologist Margaret Visser shows us, we need to receive gratitude in culturally meaningful ways in order to flourish as human beings, particularly in our relationships.

As Nancy and I reflected, to teach the Chinese students how to express gratitude to the Australian-born chef is no small task. We need to accept that they will not only feel unaccustomed to doing this but will also have to overcome their shyness in speaking English while also finding the right words. Nancy and I therefore explored some important steps she could take with her students.

  1. Explore the cross cultural difference in expressions and the importance of gratitude.
  2. Discuss why it is important to express gratitude and the misunderstandings if it is not expressed.
  3. Rehearse the words and sayings to express gratitude and do this repeatedly until they feel comfortable.
  4. Go with the students and show them how to express gratitude to the chef by saying something like “This student just wants to say thank you for cooking such beautiful meals”.
  5. Show the students how to react when the chef replies, such as if he says, “Oh that is so meaningful that you came and thanked me”, or “Wow, I am pleased to know this”.
  6. Discuss with them at the end how this made them feel.

It is important to know that for many international students from mainland China, this is a challenging and difficult exercise, and so should be approached in a step-by-step way where they gradually increase their confidence and skills to express gratitude. The rewards are enormous for their assimilation into the boarding school environment.


Dr Kerry Howells is an author, award-winning educator and experienced researcher.

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