Studying abroad is a whole lot of exciting mixed with a little bit of absolutely terrifying. This is never more true than when you’re living with a host family. I’ll admit that when I took off for my semester abroad when I was 19, I was scared out of my mind. Thanks to Spain’s fairly generous student visas, I was leaving for nearly five months in Madrid. I didn’t so much mind living in another country, even one that didn’t use my primary language. And I was okay that I was studying through another college, even though I hadn’t met anybody I’d be going with.
But living with a new family? Yikes. Even living with an American family would have been tough at that point, because I was used to living with my friends at college. And everyone else I knew who studied abroad got to stay in dorms or student apartments, with other young Americans. Heck, even living with young Spaniards would have been less intimidating.
I am by no means an expert on the homestay, but I spent almost 5 months with a family in a Madrid apartment, and another month in a village in Nicaragua, so I know a little. Here are a few tips from someone who has been there.
Chat with your family a lot:
Chances are, if you are doing a homestay it will be with a family who speaks something other than your primary language. This is great! If you were living with other English-speakers, you would probably lapse into English quite often, whether or not you meant to. But if it’s not an option, you will get so much better at your secondary language. Having conversations with your host fam will help you develop vocabulary and get used to those picky tense changes. It will also help you know how people really talk in a non-academic setting. I say this because as a Spanish major, most of my college courses were a lot like what an English major studies (except without the English) — courses like 19th century Latin-American literature, or Magical Realism In Mexican Poetry. You don’t talk about those things in real life, so you might have missed some real-life conversation skills.
In my second language, sometimes I was like this weird little alien who spoke the language, but had learned it in an artificial setting and wasn’t getting it quite right. But what do aliens do? Well, according to Unsolved Mysteries, some weird shit. But they get to their host planet (or family), they observe, and they try to make sense of what they see.
Plus, you will learn a lot about another culture when you talk with your family- how they think, what they value. You will find things to like and dislike, and you will probably hear some negative opinions about your home country. You might find yourself questioning things you hadn’t before, even little things – why am I asking for fake sugar for my coffee if I’m not diabetic? And if nothing else, it is a chance to learn a lot about the people in your fake family – and people, as a whole, are so, so interesting.
But, take space where you need it:
Even with my real family, a lot of times I need to get away from them. Like, when you would come home in high school, what would you do? At some point in the day, no matter how much you love your family and how many tv shows were on your common schedule, the answer is that you would go to your room and shut the door. If you need some alone time, to do homework, read, or write letters, close your door. It will make you a more sane and happy person, and thus better to live with. I had a roommate (… another story) who told me I was being rude because I was in the bedroom reading when she was at the table talking to our “brothers” one day, but I knew I needed take an hour to recharge after a particularly long day. It’s fine. One of the things that you learn living with a host family is that people everywhere have a lot of things in common. Your family will get it, and they won’t think they’re being rude.
Know the rules:
Hopefully, if there are any hard-and-fast rules, your family will let you know in advance. However, some things are so culturally ingrained that they might just take them for granted. This is where your awesome alien skills come into play. Try really hard to observe what people around you are doing so that you don’t get it wrong. One day, I came to the breakfast table and said something to my madre about the weather (or something. It was innocuous and I can’t really remember). She was NOT happy. I guess in Spain, if you see someone (even someone you live with), you always greet them with Good Morning first. Yeah, I… did not know that. And then, I did. Remember that if someone you live with corrects you on something, it is just feedback that you can incorporate from there. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or anything. Also, be prepared for something embarrassing to happen, if you’re an embarrassing person. You might get a stomach flu and puke everywhere, or come home having had too much to drink one day, or tell your host mom that you’re “so pregnant” instead of “so embarrassed”. I know people who have survived all of those experiences, so I promise that even if you slip up, you’ll be fine.
Explore the neighborhood:
You have the advantage of being integrated in a real, working neighborhood. This is amazing, and you are so lucky! Make sure you walk around your area in your first days and weeks and get to know where the useful things are – maybe ask one of your hosts for a walking tour, if you are so inclined. This part is probably up to you. Over time, you will get to know your neighbors – the unhappy ice cream lady (Nicaragua), the adorable kids in preschool smocks (Spain), and so on. That gives you even more chances to learn about the culture and to practice the language, if applicable.
Chances are your family is fairly hands-off (my Spain family was, anyway), so you will not have much guidance from them. Plus, you won’t have the input of school staff like other study-abroaders, since they likely won’t live near you and know your neighborhood. There is a silver lining to this. You will find that people are more likely to treat you like any other local when you’re the only non-native college student in the area, compared to if a pack of you descend all at once, speaking English. At the very least, know where your nearest post office, library, pharmacy, hospital, grocery store, and department store is. You know, all that Mister Rogers stuff. This was particularly useful in Nicaragua where the streets were made of dirt and unnamed – if someone tells you that the farmacia is two blocks over from the iglesia, on the corner next to the guy who owns the really huge pig, you better know where that is!
Get a phone:
Hard to believe, but in both of my host houses, I didn’t have internet access. And I was okay, really! But it’s probably a good idea to get a phone if yours doesn’t travel well internationally. In Spain, I went with one where you pay by the minute, which is good if you won’t be around for a long-term contract and are trying to negotiate a cell phone store while jet-lagged and in your second language. In Nicaragua, I just didn’t talk to my real family, which was fine because it was only a month. Any longer, though, and you should really get one. This goes for students who are staying in dorms, too.
Ask if you can help:
Since you are paying to stay with a family, there may be some very definite rules about whether or not they can put you to work. Try, anyway. You might be able to learn a new skill, something that you’d never have learned staying in your country or living with other people from your homeland. At the very least, they will probably let you learn how to make a favorite dish if you ask really nice and compliment it. Thanks to that tactic, I make a mean tortilla espanola. In Nicaragua, I learned how to smash open a coconut (not easy!) and wash my clothes without a washer and dryer (even harder!). Little things like that, believe it or not, make the whole homestay experience worth it.
Kill the green-eyed monster:
Unless you have a super-amazing host family, in a fabulous house or apartment, in the best city ever, you might be a little jealous of your friends who are back home having the real, normal college experience. Or, your friends who are staying at a dorm in London while you are in an old lady’s apartment in Adalucia. This was very true in Spain, where, in my experience, you weren’t so much part of a FAMILY. It was a weird cross between being a boarder and being a visiting cousin or something, and sometimes it could be uncomfortable. It’s fine to have these feelings, but acknowledge them and then let them pass. Yes, those friends of yours back home or in dorms are having more of the typical “college experience” than you, and you chose to give that up for a semester, or a year. You gave things like chatting after dinner, and speaking English, probably, and hanging out in a big group at all hours, and running through what happened last night at Sunday breakfast. But you got some other great things in return.
Listen. I’m not writing this because staying with a host family is THE way to go and I want everybody to know how awesome it is – I’m writing it because it’s hard sometimes, and this is the advice that would have helped me. However, big rewards come when you do hard things. By the end of the semester, and certainly years down the line, I can almost guarantee that it will have been worth the trouble – so don’t be too jealous. You will have had 6 or 7 semesters of regular college compared to your 1 or 2 abroad – you are not missing out. Really.
Get an activity:
This actually goes if you’re doing a more traditional study abroad experience, too. Find a way to interact with your new community outside of whatever courses you take at your university. Temporarily join a church, if you’re into that. Volunteer. In Spain I volunteered with Girl Scouts; Nicaragua was a bit different because the whole point in going was to teach, translate, and work at a camp. Take classes. I took flamenco class in Madrid, because seriously, where better to learn flamenco than Spain? Other ideas are cooking classes or music lessons. Join a recreational soccer league. Get out there and do something!
Accentuate the positive:
Like I’ve said, there are some down sides to the homestay experience. Remember, if your family is awful (and I don’t know anyone who has had a truly awful family), they don’t represent the whole country. If you’re having a tough time, make a list of the things that you actually do like. If you don’t even have much that you like (again, I wouldn’t worry too much about that), make a list of the things that you’re learning instead. Make a paper chain until you can go home, like you’re a child awaiting Christmas. Until you board that plane, though, try to take advantage of this situation as much as you can. I know it can be difficult, but it can also be really amazing. One of the hardest things when I came home was people asking “how did you like it?” Well, it was five months of life. You don’t just like or not like almost half of a year. You live it – and I can almost promise that you’ll be glad that you did.