With student exchange and study abroad programs booming, more and more of us are finding ourselves living with foreign host families. From the awkward initial meetings to the communication breakdowns to the tearful goodbyes, I’ve lived through it all.
For two years, I traveled around the world with a global education and arts program, Up with People. During that time, I had the honor (and sometimes frustration) of living with nearly 50 host families in four different countries.
I’ve lived with families who wanted to talk until the wee hours of the morning. I’ve lived with foreign college students who desperately wanted me to teach them American drinking games.
I’ve lived with strangers who have helped tend to me while I suffered from pneumonia. I’ve even lived with people who ignored my existence in their households.
Every host family situation was different and life-altering. My adventures abroad have led me to some helpful tips for how to make the best of a host family experience.
1. Do your cultural research
It doesn’t matter if you’ll be living in China or Mississippi, you should take the time to learn about the culture. Host families will be so appreciative to you for showing interest in their lives and environments.
Did you know that in Taiwanese culture it’s considered a bad omen to gift someone a handkerchief or a clock? Are you willing to expand your physical boundaries in Italy to give cheek kisses?
In many countries, there are cultural do’s and don’ts that’ll save you a lot of time and frustration to know about beforehand.
2. Be open to any and all family situations
Your host family may not be the typical mom and dad with 2.5 children and a picket fence. I’ve lived with a gay couple, a single mother and her kids, college students and everything in between. Some lived in mansions, while others lived in shacks.
Each and every host family experience you have will bring you new insight into how other people live. Each family will have different rules, and you should make sure to follow them. Remember that they’ve opened their lives to you, and you should be respectful of their boundaries.
3. Remember that there is a difference between uncomfortable and unsafe
The likelihood of experiencing some discomfort while traveling abroad is high, but there is a major distinction between being uncomfortable and unsafe.
Speaking of comfort level, I’ve slept on fluffy beds, bamboo mats and ant-covered floors. Remember that being outside of your comfort zone is the perfect opportunity to learn about something new and different.
Unless you’re truly unsafe in your host family, it’s important to push through the uncomfortable .
4. Try to learn their language and embrace new styles of communication
This seems like a simple idea, but so few people realize how important communication becomes when you’re in a country that speaks a language with which you’re not familiar.
You’d be surprised how helpful hand gestures can be. I spent every night with my Taipei host mother looking up words in a Mandarin-English dictionary. We would point at objects and teach each other how we say it in our own languages. Years later, I haven’t forgotten many of the phrases she taught me.
5. Spend time with them, and try to fit into their everyday lives
Remember that a host family is not a hostel or a hotel. A family has opened their home to you, and more likely than not, they want you to be a part of their family.
Rather than only seeing them for a few minutes before you fall asleep, try to find time to really participate in their lives.
Although exploring your new country is important, don’t forget about exploring the people around you. Is your host mom going to the local market? Go with her. Are the kids in the family playing a game? Play with them. Participate. Be present. Put down your phone. You won’t regret it.
6. Take mishaps in stride
While in Taipei, I had a few instances I’ll never forget. One morning, my Dutch roommate and I woke up to have breakfast with our host family. We were greeted by our host mom holding two frothy green drinks.
Without questioning her and attempting to be polite, we drank them — quickly.
After we’d finished, she spoke the words she’d found in the dictionary (that I’ll never forget): “Drink make you go bathroom, make you skinny.”
She’d given us both a natural laxative drink. My roommate and I could have been upset, could have been frustrated, could have given in to the culture shock demons. We didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, we spent the day running back and forth to squatty potties, but we knew she meant us no harm, and these were the funny experiences that reminded us that we were alive and abroad.
7. Old-school documentation
One of the things I’m most glad I remembered to do while abroad was to keep a detailed, handwritten journal. I simply documented each day’s occurrences, and taped small mementos to the pages. Had I relied solely on Instagram or Facebook, I wouldn’t have captured as many amazing details that I’d otherwise have forgotten.
It’s very easy to come home tired and hit the sack immediately, but trust me, take the time to write down a few details about the day.
Reading my travel journals automatically transports me to the exact day, country and family. It’s like traveling all over again.
8. Culture shock is a real thing
You’ve heard people talk about “culture shock.” It’s fairly easy to dismiss. Before I went to live in Mexico City for a few months, I remember thinking, “I won’t have culture shock. I’m from New Mexico. I know the language. I love the food.” I was wrong. Because I didn’t take the time to truly prepare myself for the differences, I experienced the worst culture shock I’d ever had in any country.
Prepare yourself. Go into your traveling adventure knowing that it’s going to be a new culture, and that you don’t know everything.
Sometimes taking a memento from home, or even some familiar candy can alleviate the sense of homesickness.
9. Be thankful and leave a piece of yourself
I cannot stress this tip enough. Remember that although you’re learning about your host family’s culture, they’re also learning about yours.
If you have the opportunity to cook food from your culture for dinner at least once, take it! They’ll be happy to have their own new cultural experience. When it’s time to leave your host family, leave them a handwritten thank you note and a small gift from your home.
For my families, I left them with a can of New Mexico Green Chile and a magnet with my state’s flag. A small gift is a great way to thank them, and let them know that you’ll be thinking of them from across the world.
10. Stay in touch
Host families are not simply a one-time experience. These are your new extended family members.
Whether you send them yearly Christmas cards or check up with them on Facebook, stay in touch! I know that the next time I visit Taiwan, Mexico, Bermuda and virtually any state in the USA, I have family who will take me in.
I can say, with certainty, that living with host families is the best way to learn about a new cultures, and to learn about how the locals live.
I could not be more thankful for the people who have extended to me their homes, offered me a bed (or floor), cooked me delicious meals (or made me scary green drinks), driven me around town (even on terrifyingly unsteady scooters) and opened my eyes to their worlds. If you have this chance, I say, do it!