When we think of taking a gap year, we often think of the lone backpacker, working their way from hostel to hostel in a nomadic fashion. However, the modern gap year has evolved into something a little bit different. More and more people have realized that you don’t have to tire yourself out tramping across the world, constantly moving places and cities. Gap year wanderlust can be met by immersing yourself into a new culture -- or a select few cultures -- for months at a time, providing you the opportunity to gain much more from your gap year experience.
Of course, living on your own whilst on a gap year is expensive, even in a hostel. Besides, why slum it in a room with seven other people, when you can stay -- relatively inexpensively -- with a host family? Host families come in all shapes and sizes, including independent adults looking for someone to help with the bills, empty-nesters whose children have moved on, and families wishing to enhance their own language skills.
Culture Shock is a Real Thing
After the initial fun and excitement of moving to a new country wears off, reality sets in. This might involve culture shock, and the realization that you are living in a very different environment - and with a very different family.
During a gap year, this can happen multiple times, as you move around different countries or cities, spending time in the households of people you have never previously met. Embrace it. Each new location is a new experience, and you can use the experience to learn important life lessons from your hosts.
There are lots of articles around on how to deal with culture shock and homesickness, and it is an inevitable (but manageable) part of going overseas.
Use Your Skills to Help Reduce Your Costs -- and Enhance Your Time Abroad
For example, Greenheart Travel offers low-cost opportunities for you to stay with host families overseas, in exchange for you providing around 15 hours per week of English language lessons. The rest of the time is yours to explore your new home, letting you live like a local.
You could also consider WWOOFing, where you receive food and board in exchange for organic farm work throughout the world.
Take the Opportunity to Learn from Your Host Family
Given you are on a gap year, take the time to really get to know your homestay family (if they are open to this). Most host families get a lot out of spending time with their guests, teaching them about their country, showing them the sites, and in some cases, introducing them to their family and friends.
Becoming a part of a local community during your gap year is far more exciting than being just another tourist, and a lot more meaningful for all parties.
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Always Remember You Are a Guest in Someone Else's House
This one can be a little tricky depending on the circumstances. If you are paying a reasonable amount of money for the privilege of staying with someone in a flat share situation, you might have certain expectations. However, you do need to remember that you are still a guest in someone else’s house.
This isn’t the worst thing. If you have never lived with others before, you’ll quickly learn how to respect someone else’s space. You’ll probably find yourself being more productive -- it gets a bit awkward sitting around on someone else's couch for hours on end! Go Overseas has lots of tips on what to do -- and what not to do -- when you are staying with a host family.
Prepare Your Taste Buds
Chances are, you’ll end up eating the food that your host family eats, and if you're a good house guest, you might even help out with the cooking yourself. However, you might not be doing the grocery shopping.
Unless you have a severe allergy, you need to be open and flexible towards food. The foods you know and love might not even be available where you are staying. Embrace your new environment and it’s delicious treats. Mealtimes are also a great opportunity to get to know your host family better.
Your New Home -- and Lifestyle -- Might Be a Little Different than What You Are Used To
This really goes without saying, but it’s always best to prepare yourself before heading overseas. Remember, different countries have different housing standards, different types of heating, even different schedules for eating and sleeping. Flexibility will be key to making sure you get the most of your time overseas.
For example, if you’re an early-to-bed kind of a person, you might find living in countries that have a late night eating culture -- such as Spain or Argentina -- a bit of a challenge. Think hard about what it is you are willing to compromise on or give up, by living with a host family.
If You Plan Your Stay Independently, Act Sensibly
Because you are on a gap year, and not a school or college exchange, you might have organized your home stay family directly. In most cases, this will work out fine. However, you do need to be sensible.
Being versed in the local lingo will help you be better able to assess the likelihood you can live with the family, plus discuss any potential issues with them. Don't be afraid of asking questions. If something seems a little dodgy, save yourself the trouble and steer well clear.
Talk to Your Host Family About Your Goals -- They Might Be Able to Help
If you’ve gone on a gap year to learn about the country you are staying in, who better to talk to then your host family? Maybe you would like to volunteer at a local organization or find part-time work in a nearby town. Chances are, they may be able to help.
Being a part of a community allows you to contribute in far more ways than you ever could as a tourist, and your host family might help you make your goals a reality. In many ways, you are supporting the local community just by being there.
Don't Expect Your Host Family to Speak Your Language!
With the obvious exception of home-stays where you are specifically teaching English, you shouldn’t expect your host family to speak to you in your language.
Instead, use the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in language learning. Conversing every day in another language is a challenge, but you will finish your gap year with amazing language skills that are impossible to get without an immersion experience.
Be Grateful That Someone Has Opened Their Home to You
Remember -- a family has let you move into their home, their most personal space, and share a part of their lives with you. They have allowed you to experience a new culture, and in many cases, you will become a de-facto member of that family. Make the best of it! Talk to them and learn everything you can.
Most of all, don’t be surprised if you make plans to go back in the future. Your gap year is likely to gain you friends for life, and an experience you will never forget.