How to Have a Positive Host Family Experience (and Become a Master Communicator!)
If you’re going abroad, you should consider staying with a host family. Or perhaps you’re interested in being a host family and letting someone from abroad into your home.
There are many advantages to living with a host family as a language learner: quicker integration to a new culture, extra language practice, and an automatic support network (to only mention a few).
As a host family, you can also learn about a new culture or language from the comfort of your own home!
Of course, there are many different types of host family situations and many more reasons for hosting beyond these. And, sometimes, living with a host family or a host student can just feel downright awkward!
I have lived with three host families in different countries and have learned what is important to having a positive experience. This is my advice for both host students and host families!
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A host family opens their home to a tenant from abroad, usually a student. Some host family situations are arranged through a school or organization, so the families are vetted beforehand with certain qualifications.
For example, a school may require the host student to have a separate bedroom with basic furnishings. However, they might not specify commute time to the school or extra amenities, such as a private bathroom or internet specifications. In these cases, the host family is usually paid by the student through the school or organization.
You may also be wondering if host families provide food. The truth is, it depends on the situation. For example, when I lived with a host family during a study abroad year in Japan, my payment also included breakfast and dinner with the family, but not lunch. However, this was different for my other two host family experiences.
This is because my other two host family situations were very different by default. Instead of getting a host family through school, you might also find a host family through semi-independent means. During a summer internship in Taiwan, the company I worked for found my host family. I lived with a “grandma,” who was the mother of employees at the company. She lived alone but had a spare room and was eager for someone to fill it.
Since we had an arrangement through my sponsoring company, this was different from the arrangement I had in Japan. For example, since eating out for breakfast is common in Taiwan, I was often responsible for my own breakfast. However, the entire family gathered together for dinner, and I was warmly included. I often took leftovers for lunch.
Finally, it is possible to find a host family through completely independent means. As a graduate student in the UK, I found a host family through a local internet platform. I arranged video calls to vet them and agreed to a contract before I arrived.
In this case, I was treated more like a tenant with live-in landlords than a host student. I was provided a private bedroom and storage space in the kitchen. I paid rent weekly and was strictly responsible for my own meals.
As you can see, there are many possible situations when you live with a host family. Before you choose to live with a host family, it is very important to manage your expectations well.
For example, you might not be living with a “typical” family in your destination country. In Japan, I lived with a Japanese family consisting of a mother, father, and two daughters close to my own age. However, another student in my study abroad cohort lived with an elderly couple whose children had left the house. I’ve also heard of other students living with families not originally from Japan.
Here’s the deal: You may end up living with a family that is very different from the image you have of the country, such as non-traditional family structures or different ethnic backgrounds from the dominant culture.
How important is this to you?
If you want to be immersed in the “traditional” mainstream culture, having a non-traditional family might be disappointing. On the other hand, this could be an incredible opportunity to learn more about the country and culture from a different perspective.
Now keep in mind, your expectations are not just about what kind of family you will live with. They are also about what you hope to get out of your experience living with a host family. Are you expecting to be included in family events and holiday gatherings, or would you prefer to use that time to travel alone? Is your primary reason to improve your language abilities or to learn more about the local culture?
When I was in Taiwan, I was eager to use the Mandarin skills I had been learning in university classes. However, when the older generations (middle-aged and up) of my host family gathered, they almost always used only Taiwanese. I was sometimes frustrated because I couldn’t improve my Mandarin listening skills. However, I learned a lot more about Taiwanese culture through this situation (and a couple of phrases in Taiwanese!).
Especially if you do not choose your host family, you should have a flexible mindset. You might not get your “ideal” family, but your idea of an ideal host family might change!
People (and by extension, families) are all different. If you compare the way you grew up with even your neighbors, you will probably learn that you experienced different households. While you should expect host families in other countries to be different from your own culture, recognize that there is no “one” type of family.
This is why you should both be open-minded and ready to communicate about differences. It might feel awkward at first, but you are not just a guest. You are hopefully integrating into your host’s home. Be upfront about your absolute needs and figure out early on how they can best be met. For example, you may go to bed at 10 pm and need to wake up early for class on weekdays, but your host family may stay up until 12. If noise is an issue, talk to them early on about how to find a compromise.
However, keep in mind that you are moving into someone else’s home. This is very different from moving in with roommates. You should be willing to compromise more when living with a host family and in a different culture. They will expect you to follow certain house and maybe cultural rules, and you should do so within reason.
For example, in Japan, you are expected to take your shoes off at the door. The family I lived with took this further. I wasn’t even allowed to have my roller luggage touch the floor or to keep new shoes on the floor in my room! I needed to make sure everything was put away properly, even in my own room. It was their house, after all.
Even if you are from the same general culture, expect differences and perhaps roadblocks. When I first moved to the UK, I couldn’t believe how different American and British communication styles could be, even though we speak the same language! I particularly felt a gap with older generations. I had to adopt a much more indirect style of communication with the family I stayed with to resolve conflicts.
Also, don’t be shy about asking questions! Especially when you move into someone else’s home, there are no stupid questions.
The homes I’ve stayed in during my time in Japan, Taiwan, and the UK have all been very different from the houses and apartments I’ve lived in while I was in the US. There may be many things your hosts take for granted that you don’t understand. From my own experience, these can be as simple as how to open a door! Asking questions shows your hosts that you care, and it will also help you learn more quickly.
A lot of my advice for host families is similar for host students. It is equally crucial for you as a host family to manage your expectations and motivations for hosting a student to make sure you are compatible.
For example, are you hosting a student because you want another person in your family? Is it because you want the extra income, if there is any? Do you want to learn about another culture by experiencing it from home? Are you hoping for a language exchange? Do you simply want to support a student and help them achieve their goals?
None of these are right or wrong answers. However, it is important that the host student and (if applicable) the organization you receive the student from understand your reasons for becoming a host family and that they agree to them. Problems will likely arise if, for example, your main reason to host students is because you want an extra income, but your student wants the host family experience to integrate into a local family or culture.
I’ve run into the problem of opposing language goals: I studied abroad in Japan primarily to improve my Japanese, but my host family in Japan wanted me to befriend and become an at-home English tutor for their older daughter, who was studying English at the same university. It caused a lot of conflict when I didn’t get along with that daughter, used Japanese with the family at home, and instead became better friends with the younger daughter (whom I was not meant to befriend). Ultimately, tensions got so high that I decided to move out to a student dorm instead.
The bottom line is this: You too should be flexible and open-minded with the students you will host. They likely have highly specific goals they want to achieve during their time studying or living abroad, and be prepared to support them within reason. Understand that they might not conform to your idea of their culture or stereotypes, and avoid having expectations about what “role” you want them to perform within your household.
Whether you are familiar or unfamiliar with the culture of your host student, having someone new living in your house can be both exciting and awkward. How should you act? Here are my suggestions.
Recognize that there is significant diversity within a culture. Students from different backgrounds may have different experiences and needs. For example, my area of the US doesn’t have much public transportation, and I didn’t understand how to navigate a subway system when I first moved to Asia. I needed help from my host family to overcome this challenge. On the other hand, a student from New York City, would likely not have as much difficulty.
It is also helpful if you show genuine interest in their culture. Especially if this is a student’s first time away from their home country, they will likely want to share a lot about differences and things that surprise or confuse them in the host country. From my own experience as a host student, it is incredibly reassuring to have someone to talk to about these things.
Speaking of which, again, especially if this is your student’s first time abroad, understand that this may be their first time analyzing their own culture from a different perspective. Listen to them about what they tell you about their own culture, but also be aware that what they say may not be wholly accurate. This is because maybe they are telling you something true about their own local context, but not about their country as a whole. Or perhaps they never gave the question some thought and gave you a random answer, thinking it to be true.
I can’t tell you the number of times during my first time abroad that I responded to a question about the United States, confident that my answer was the “truth,” only to later reflect back upon it and realize it was not! This ranged from home cleaning habits (for some reason, I told a host family that we only clean the house a few times a year, rather than a few times a month) to issues in the American school systems (which I was privileged to not have first-hand knowledge about).
Also keep in mind that your host student will be going through some stages of culture shock, even if they have lived abroad for a long time. While they might feel generally very happy at certain periods, they might feel very frustrated or sad at other times. They might want to talk about it with you, or they might want to be left alone.
Either way, make your home a safe space for them to communicate openly with you. Open-mindedness and cultural sensitivity will go a long way while the student tries to navigate their “foreignness” in a new land. Think about if you have anything you want to learn or feel are off-limits to talk about with someone from a different culture.
For example, in the US, talking about politics, religion, and money are often topics to avoid at the beginning of relationships since they can cause heated debate. However, if you are curious to learn about the student’s perspective about them, feel free to ask – just be culturally aware of how and when you ask. Don’t frame your questions or responses in a way that makes one culture seem “better” or “worse.”
Finally, as with any apartment or room rentals, you may find it beneficial to have a contract with your host student. This is beneficial for many reasons. When you have clear rules upfront with as little gray area as possible, you can avoid many awkward misunderstandings and clashes. You and the student will know what is permissible and what is not.
In addition, the student will likely feel overwhelmed at the beginning. Especially if your language is not the student’s native language, they might also not understand everything you tell them at first. Therefore, having written rules for the student to refer back to will help the student’s comprehension.
To finish off, I’d love to give particular credit to my host family in Taiwan. Even though I was probably the first Westerner to step through their doors, the whole family helped me learn the ropes of being a citizen in Taiwan. They gave me space when I needed it, and checked in on me when they felt I was isolating a bit too much due to culture shock. They were excited to integrate me into their culture and society.
I had a few difficult but heart-to-heart conversations about misunderstandings I had about how things worked in the family, but with no negative judgment on their end. When I felt stressed about having sub-par Mandarin, Grandma praised me for being able to just communicate with her. It truly felt like a home away from home.
Living with or as a host family takes a bit of effort, but it can be a truly rewarding experience. Manage your expectations well and communicate effectively, and you’ll be off to a great start!