Jasper Pleydell-Bouverie squares up to being the perfect Christmas host

This festive season looks like being an interesting experience. Gathered around a Derbyshire Christmas tree will be my mother and father- in-law, my wife and I, and two complete strangers called Dagnew and Ying Xue.

Current information on Dagnew and Ying Xue is sketchy, to say the least. The London-based charity Host, which specialises in fixing up overseas students with British families for Christmas and for weekends throughout the year, put them in touch with us - but so far there has been no direct contact. All we have are the application forms they filled in for Host.

I can tell you, therefore, that Dagnew is 41, from Addis Ababa, and is studying English at Warwick University. Ying Xue, 42, from Shaodon in China's Hunan province is also studying English (English Stylistics!) at Lancaster University. From their application forms, it is obvious that they have never met each other before either.

All this might sound like the recipe for a Christmas disaster - and I must say that I have had the odd daydream in which we are all of us sitting silently around the Christmas turkey, struggling to find a common language, let alone common conversation. Does China even get on with Ethiopia after all? And what about Hong Kong?

Wisely, Host advises British families to steer clear of politics unless students volunteer information, and the organisation rightly supposes that successful placements depend on much more mundane matters.

In the manner of the best dating agencies, Host has clearly taken trouble to make sure that we will have something to say to each other. From the application form it is easy to glean a simple message: here is a person much like you. My father-in-law was a teacher before he retired, so it is no surprise to see that both Dagnew and Ying Xue are teachers (my father- in-law was actually a religion teacher, so it is wholly appropriate that, under religion, Ying Xue should have written "No"). Both Dagnew and Ying Xue have fathers who are farmers back in their respective countries.

But will the ice be broken? Other families who have taken part in the scheme are encouraging. Apparently the thaw generally takes about half an hour. The strangeness of it all, which initially inspires nerves and polite remarks, eventually contributes to the breaking down of inhibition. One Chinese man, for example, wrote on his application form that he was interested in roller-skating, only shyly announcing to his hosts during initial introductions that he was, in fact, his country's roller-skating champion. Once you have shared that sort of joke, it must be easy to become good friends.

Experienced hosts say it is best not to over-plan visits. Indeed, they point out, how can you plan anything for people you've never met before? Students apparently relish the opportunity to escape from cramped accommodation, dirty washing, and canteen cooking. Anything else is a bonus.

And the hosts? What do they get out of it? Good friends in far-flung places, a close-up view of another country - gained in the comfort of your living room - and, especially at Christmas time, the satisfaction that you are taking part in something that is undoubtedly "a good thing". One family I talked to said that it inspired tolerance and common understanding, and that it was a bit like bringing the United Nations into your own home - only more so.

I can say without reservation that I am really looking forward to this Christmas. I have no idea what Dagnew and Ying Xue will be like, whether they'll get up at the crack of dawn or sleep until lunchtime, whether they'll bother with church or spend the whole day watching videos of Cheers, whether they'll talk about politics or poinsettias, or, indeed whether they'll arrive at all. It's all a big mystery. And that, I think, is half the point of it.

Host is still looking for students and potential hosts this Christmas. Telephone 0171-494 2468.

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