As the old saying goes: You don’t choose your family. Just like many situations in life, you do not get to choose what happens to you. You can only choose what you will do when you are thrown in those situations. In the case of studying abroad, if you decide to do a homestay, you don’t get to choose your family either. I had heard many positive things about staying with a host family. For one thing, it boosts your language ability. It should also give you more of an authentic cultural experience. You are living under someone else’s roof, so it gives you less liberty to try to keep living the way you did back in the States, or any other country.
I had heard from people and read many things online about how students loved their homestays, how their host families would take them places, and they would share great memories together. At the end of the semester, they said they would stay in contact with their family for years to come. On the other hand, I have also heard homestay horror stories. I have experienced living with two host families: the first one being in Madrid, Spain and the second one being in Nantes, France. Both were unique and overall positive experiences, but definitely not the experience that I had started off with in this paragraph.
I lived with a woman in her 70s and an American roommate. My host mom was a very sweet woman. Our program allowed us to have a homemade lunch with her every day. The three of us would sit around the table and watch the news, while eating and talking about our day. Sometimes my roommate and I would be trying to have a conversation with her and she would respond, “¡Mira!” (Look!) while pointing to the television, totally tuning the conversation out. There was no language barrier between us and her, which was great! However, there were times where we would tell her one thing, and she would respond by saying something completely unrelated, but I think the TV being on played a role in that.
There is a stereotype that Spanish host mothers make their students eat a lot of food. This stereotype, in my case, was true. We got huge meals for lunch, since lunch is their biggest meal of the day. I tried to make sure I got a little bit of everything without eating to the point of feeling sick. My host mom would always tell me to eat more and insisted that I could do it even when I said that I could not. I loved her cooking but this would be my biggest complaint about living there. She was a very caring person and that probably tied into her making sure my roommate and I were eating enough. I remember for my birthday, she bought me a gift, a cake, and even had me try champagne! She did not have to do any of that but she did it anyway. I will never forget that.
My experience in France was a little bit different. I lived with a couple in their 60s. They had kids who were all grown up and had families of their own, so it was just the three of us in the house, except for when any of the children and grandchildren came to visit. According to my program’s contract, we got to have dinner together five times a week, and they stuck to that rule.
I was content with my living situation and found that I got along well with my host parents, but there were definitely some cultural differences, one of them being that they were not used to living with an introvert. I could be out all day because of classes and spending time with friends but when I came home at 7:30 or 8:00 on a weekday for dinner, I was pretty much done with my day. As a host parent, I understand that it is their job to encourage students to go out and experience the culture and place that they are living in. However, this “encouragement” felt more like a pressure at times. They would constantly be asking me about what I was going to do. They would talk about how their previous host students were out until 3 a.m. going clubbing. They would ask me about my weekend plans on Tuesday. If I did not already know what I was going to be doing, which I never usually had anything planned out that far ahead of time, they would be surprised. There was one time where I was really sick and instead of telling me to rest, they wanted me to go out. I really wanted to get to know my host family more, but I did not get to spend much time with them, because they were always pressuring me to be out of the house.
I got to know my friends’ host families well because they were eager to get to know their host students’ friends. I was offered meals at their house. I was encouraged to stay the night. I had also heard about my friends getting extra meals at their house even though it was not in the contract. One thing that the contract did do was encourage host families to have their student invite friends over and to take their student places with them. I did not think anything of it until I realized that all my friends were having these experiences that I was lacking. It did not bother me much in the beginning, because I was just happy to be with a host family that seemed nice. It started to bother me more when it seemed like they wanted me out of the house all the time.
I feel this is important to note if you would ever consider doing a homestay: understand your host family has a life and family as well. This may mean or include their need to watch grandchildren or have the entire family visit during holidays or at any point during your stay. This will mean a definite change in your routine, as the bathrooms are not available as often and your soap and toothpaste may go missing.
One thing that is so important when studying overseas, especially if you are from the U.S., is to be aware that you are not in the U.S. anymore. Do not expect the country to be just like your country. Do not expect the culture to be the same, the people to be the same, and the same chain restaurants to be everywhere. You have to adapt to where you are going, not the other way around. Based on my experiences, I think living with a host family is such a cool opportunity that you should take advantage of if you get the chance. It may be different from the independence you are used to, but it is so worth it.