Doing a homestay program abroad is a fabulous idea in theory: learn a foreign language, immerse yourself in a different culture, enjoy home-made local cuisine, and even save some money. But as those of us who have had college roommates know, cohabitation can be a beast, even with the nicest of people. Add to that a mix of foreign language mishaps, unfamiliar customs, strange climates, differing personalities, and exotic food, and you’ve got a potential cross-cultural disaster on your hands.
Like anything else in life, homestays have their pros and cons. If you have decided that the pros outweigh the cons in your case and are planning to take the plunge, then it’s time to start preparing yourself for exciting journey ahead. So what can you do to not only survive your homestay abroad, but squeeze every bit of potential joy from the experience? Let’s explore the do's and don’ts of homestay programs, supported by my own personal experience living with a host family in Cartagena, Colombia and plenty of anecdotes (good, bad, and ugly) from fellow travelers.
Tips for What to Do in a Homestay Program
Because you are living in someone else's house, in a different country, chance are that things will be done differently than your house. However, if you are able to cooperate and listen you your host family while you are a guest, all should go smoothly.
Do make your needs known
Give some serious thought to your application forms with the organization (whether it be a language school or a volunteer program) that will be linking you up with a family. Are you deathly afraid of dogs? Are you a vegetarian? Are you allergic to curfews? The more you communicate with the organization, the better equipped they will be to match you up to a suitable host family.
Do join them for meals
Most host programs will give you the option to include meals in your homestay. I recommend joining your family for at least one meal each day, both to enjoy home-made local cuisine and to enjoy the conversations that meals inspire.
Do talk about the “rules” within the first few days
Communicate, communicate, communicate! Make sure that all parties understand the expectations of living together. Find out whether you have a curfew, what time meals are served, and your host family’s preferences for knowing your whereabouts (e.g. try not to disappear for a weekend away without alerting them in advance). Find out how your host family feels about you serving yourself food from their kitchen, or preparing your own meals, or keeping alcohol in the house. Assumptions are the basis of so many misunderstandings and conflicts, so rather than guessing, talk!
Do bring a thoughtful gift
This is a no-brainer for homestays abroad. Bringing a gift, preferably representative of your home culture, is a great way to break the ice with your host family and set a foundation for a warm friendship. If you are given some information about the family before your visit, try to tailor the gift to the ages and genders of family members. For example, I brought my busy journalist host mother in Colombia a set of de-stressing lotions and perfumes, and some fun “I
Do be respectful of local customs and propriety
The degree of importance of this “do” will certainly depend on cultural context, as well as the personality of your host family. Be cognizant of how traditional and religious the local culture is.For example, walking around baring one’s midriff or décolletage mid-day would not have been a big deal in the sweltering heat of coastal Colombia, but one probably shouldn’t attempt this in Marrakech. As time passes and you become more comfortable with your hosts, the “rules” and formalities will likely loosen, but always bear in mind that they will look at you as an extension of their own family, so your behavior and appearance around town will reflect on them as well. In other words, behave yourself.
Do communicate with the organization that placed you there
In the event that you are persistently displeased with some aspect of your homestay and communication with the family has not helped, try reaching out to the organization that placed you there. Chances are, they have a protocol for resolving misunderstandings between hosts and guests, or if things are bad enough, they will move you to another family that is more suitable to your lifestyle and personality. On the flip side, if you absolutely adore your host family, brag about them! The organization should know how valuable this family is so they continue to send eager guests their way.
Tips for What NOT to Do in a Homestay Program
Though there is a chance for a language barrier, that is no excuse for disrespecting someone's home. It may be difficult getting used to a new way of life, but respect this house as you would your own. It will make the stay a lot easier on you and the family while you are abroad.
Don’t be a slob
This should be a given, but it’s worth mentioning (particularly because this author is prone to disorganization, to put it mildly). Even if your family offers to do your laundry and clean up after you, make an effort to keep your room as tidy as possible. Common courtesy tells us that when we are staying as a guest (even if we are paying for it), we ought to respect the hosts’ home even more than we would our own. This will go a long way in maintaining a positive and respectful relationship with the family. Take initiative and offer to do chores, cook a meal, or pick up some groceries while you’re out.
Don’t be a diva
During my own homestay, I cringed when I heard other students at my language school complaining about the temperature in their hosts’ homes, or the size of the rooms, or the quality of the food. If you were lucky enough to grow up in a country with a consistent postal service, clean tap water, and a robust economy, you might be in for a round of culture shock if you move to a less developed place. Try to distinguish between poor hospitality and poor circumstances. If you are uncomfortable in your host’s home, kindly communicate with them about it if you think it is something they can change. But don’t run around whining like Liza Minnelli in a Snickers commercial about underdeveloped infrastructure or the absence of peanut butter in stores; it won’t do anyone any good.
Don’t be a pushover, either
This might sound contradictory, but there are times when negative feedback is necessary. The vast majority of host families will be gracious and welcoming, but there are always rare cases when hosts simply don’t care enough to fulfill their part of the agreement, or when they are so unpleasant that the experience becomes toxic for you. You deserve to have a positive and educational experience abroad, so speak up about the problem. If it’s really bad enough, ask the host organization to move you to another home. Politely explain to your hosts that things just aren’t working out (or make up an allergy to the family pet), and definitely refrain from spreading gossip about the bad experience to your next host family. Stay classy, folks.
Don’t be afraid of embarrassing yourself when it comes to speaking their language
I stupidly stayed quiet for my first couple of weeks with my host family, terrified of betraying my then-awful Spanish abilities. As a result, I missed out on two weeks’ worth of practice (not to mention bonding) because of my own pride. Abre la boca and talk with your family, make mistakes, let them laugh and correct you. Capitalize on every conversation opportunity. They will be the best language learning resource you will ever find.
Don’t forget to make other friends
If you are as lucky as I was to have stumbled upon a warm, welcoming, and fun host family with adult children around my own age, you’ll find that it is very easy to fall into a routine. Dinner with the family at 7, cervezas on las murallas at 9, salsa at Donde Fidel at 11. But remember that there is an entire community out there to meet, and new perspectives to hear. It’s wonderful to bond with your hosts and spend time with them outside the house, but try not to rely on them for all of your socializing. Go out alone every once in a while, get lost, make new friends, then come home and laugh about the stories with your family.
Don’t leave without expressing gratitude, and don’t lose touch
The longer you live with a host family, the more ups and downs you will experience together. When it comes time to leave, you might be feeling some relief about getting back to a more familiar home (or, like me, balling your eyes out and clinging to the host family’s furniture like a scared cat). Regardless of the circumstances upon leaving, you should make an effort to express your gratitude to the family for letting you into their home and sharing their lives (and food, and stories, and laughter) with you.
This might come in the form of a heart-warming “thank you” letter in their native language, a nice dinner out on the town, or a special gift. Gracias a (thanks to) Facebook and Skype, we now have easy ways to stay in touch with our friends and families overseas; make sure you take advantage of it. You never know when you might return to your home away from home.
All in all, let common sense and conscience be your guides when staying with a host family abroad. Be curious, be communicative, and most of all, have fun!