Living with a host family, like everything worth doing, is both challenging and rewarding. Arguably the consummate form of cultural immersion, it is likely to have a profound impact on your study, work or volunteer experience abroad.
Living with host families in France, Spain and Vietnam has taught me the essential principles for establishing a true “home away from home.” Here’s how to make your homestay an enriching cross-cultural experience instead of a domestic disaster.
Understand the role of your host family. This may vary according to the placement and location, so check in with your host organization or university to determine what you should expect. Typically, a host family will provide at least one meal per day, treat you like a member of the family and generally support your studies or work. They are not, however, obligated to pay for your personal activities, clean up after you or chauffeur you around town.
Similarly, discuss potential issues ahead of time, including dietary restrictions and curfews. Don’t assume your host family has been briefed on these points, even if you filled out a “matchmaking” profile—and don’t expect them to accommodate your needs without first communicating them.
Become a member of the family
Be respectful of your host family’s schedule and living space. Like any courteous guest, you will need to adjust your routine according to your hosts’. If dinner is served at 7:00, be home at 6:30. If you’re sharing a bathroom with six other people, reduce your showers to mere seconds.
Speak up. Your host family will be (or feel) partially responsible for your well being and communication will facilitate your relationship. This applies especially to cases where you may be home late or away for days at a time.
Finally, get involved in the family dynamic. Don’t be a stranger who shows up twice a week for an awkward dinner—get to know your hosts and let them get to know you. Help out around the house and participate in family activities like cooking, playing games and even just watching TV.
Remember why you’re there
Use your host family as a guidebook and a dictionary. Ask them where the quietest beach is, or the best market, or the spiciest curry—and learn to ask it in the regional language. Linguistic immersion and local insight are some of the best reasons to stay with a host family.
Don’t forget to thank your family, sincerely and often, for opening up their home and life to you. Offer a gift on arrival and departure—this is also a great opportunity to share part of your own culture with your hosts.
No homestay is perfect, just as no family is perfect. But everyone in your temporary home shares the same goal: an enlightening and enriching cross-cultural exchange.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Verge.Add this article to your reading list