Whether you are studying abroad, an au pair, teaching assistant, or even renting an apartment while traveling, participating in a homestay program can be fabulous for everyone involved. The experience of living with people who are a part of the society you are excited to immerse yourself in, while sharing your home countries culture, is a life changing opportunity. However as with all great opportunities there are a handful of ways that you can completely mess things up.
Let me be 100% clear, I have been lucky enough to have two fantastic families host me in France, surfed on some comfy couches, and had numerous successful short term stays . While living abroad I have heard stories from both sides of the tracks, horror stories about host families, as well as horror stories about the people they have invited into their home. Some of the problems people have with host families are legitimate, while others are caused by not being sufficiently prepped on how to be a gracious guest. So here it is, my rough guide on how to not (completely) suck at living with a host family.
Don’t hide from your host family: Sometimes it is easier to avoid the strange people speaking a foreign language at 1000 miles/second, DON’T. Your host family is more than likely not putting you up for the extravagant amount of money you are paying them for room and board, they are usually genuinely interested in getting to know you! You are not going to get anything out of the exchange if you are a ghost in the house so interact.
Don’t expect your host family to do everything for you: Even if your laundry gets taken care of, and dishes disappear from the table at home, you should never expect that this is what will happen with your host family. You should always be as, if not more courteous and attentive about taking care of yourself and your mess than you are at home. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) be cleaning the entire house from top to bottom, however you should be trying to help around the house.
On the other side of the coin some host families prefer to do things for you and that is completely normal. In some families the kitchen is off limits, in some you as a guest helping to clear the table is unwanted, in others foreigners have already broken appliances so they would rather run the washing machine for you. So while you should not expect your host family to do everything for you, you should always ask before attempting another household chore.
Don’t eat and run: While it may be tempting to shove a delicious coq au vin in your mouth and race to get ready for the discotheque, don’t. If you are eating with your host family, you should also be an active participant in the clean up not just the eating. If you’re not required to help clean up, you should at the least be trying to have a conversation with your foreign family.Better yet, ask if you can prepare a dish from your home country ! I’m not saying that you are not going to have days where you will have rushed activities, however your habit should not be to dine and dash.
If you vomit clean it up: This one goes out to my first host mom who had a student vomit all over her hallway and leave it for the next day. Sometimes messes happen. The occasion will arise when you mess up, its easy in another country trust me. Whether your mess is physical, or metaphorical you should focus on fixing it NOT sweeping it under the rug.
Don’t steal from your host family: Ok, you shouldn’t be stealing as it is but you are becoming the proverbial rotten apple when you steal from a host family. This is one of the more disgusting things that I have heard of people doing to their hosts. If you are invited into someone’s home that is a huge leap of faith for the hosts. When you steal, you are not only defying their trust, you are also giving all travelers a bad name and potentially closing their doors to the next foreigner who asks to stay.
If you messed up, don’t try to blame the family: Sometimes, things just don’t work out. If you messed up and the family is upset with you or wants you out in no circumstance should you be coming up with some elaborate story that is 99.9% based on the imaginary scenario you wish had played out. Swallow your pride, and take the responsibility.
Do not blame your bad behavior on your country of origin: We all need to remember that traveling also means becoming an ambassador for our home country. From time to time we may find ourselves innocently committing some social faux pas. If you are called out on your bad manners, in no circumstance should you be brushing it off as an unfortunate part of your personality engrained into you by the fact that you come from your home country, and you should not even be tempted to say, “Well we don’t do things like that in….” AND continue the behavior especially if you know for a fact that you are just plain rude.
Do not dismiss cultural or religious customs: This one could be a rough one to swallow but it is why you chose to live with a host family right?! Every culture and family has different customs and habits that you are going to just have to get used to. I’m not saying that you have to convert to a new religion to be a good guest! However you should be constantly respectful to your hosts and try to adapt at least some of their habits.
Don’t retaliate: This could be what I like to call the cardinal sin of catty behavior. If you think vengeance and passive aggressive attacks are a great way to throw a tantrum when things don’t go your way, spare everyone and stay in the dorms far away from innocent unsuspecting host families. If you are having an actual problem with your living situation talk about it with your hosts to attempt to resolve it, and if it can’t be resolved politely thank them for the time spent together and leave.
Become a master of communication: As with all cohabitation scenarios communication is the key! This can either make or break your stay with your host family. Going out for the night TELL THEM, want vacation time ASK, having issues with your stay TALK ABOUT IT. Most of the host family problems and problems that their host kids are having come from lack of communication. Even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at times, you will find that nothing bad comes from communicating.
Take an active interest in becoming part of the family’s daily life: Don’t be the host kid that wakes up after the family is gone, and is only seen when dinner or food is involved. Play with the host families’ kids, watch the news with your host mom. Even small moments show that your not interested in just being there, you’re interested in them and are happy with your stay!
Ditch your cell phone addiction: This is a great addiction to kick while abroad (or at home). Get out from behind your screens people! While living in a foreign country don’t pass your time scrolling on instagram, trust me the host family notices and most likely wishes you would stop. You are never going to regret getting out from behind your screen and spending more time living in the moment.
Share some of home country with your host family: This is so much fun! Sharing your culture has to be one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of living with a family abroad. Gifts from your home country, and traditional meals are a great way to share a bit of home with your hosts. The difference between the two cultures are always great conversation points!
Leave it better than you got it: This is just true everywhere. If some one lends you something you should be giving it back in as good if not better condition than when it was given to you. If that was a space in their house don’t leave the room a mess, clean it out take the trash out and make it so that you leave as little work as possible left to be done. Want to be a five star guest? Keep in touch, a thank you post card from home will go miles (or kilometers)!