As a student or volunteer abroad, you'll likely have the option to live with a host family. At first, it seems like the obvious choice: it's affordable, gives you an instant support system in country, and can help you learn the local language and culture.
Before you decide if it's right for you, let Go Overseas help you understand what it's like living with a host family abroad
But then, you think about it a little more. You haven't lived with your own family for years. You like your independence and being able to dance to Katy Perry songs like a mad person whenever you want. These are complete strangers. You're shy and awkward and the idea of having dinner every night in a foreign language gives you a mild anxiety attack.
We understand - living with a host family is different. So before you decide if it's right for you, let Go Overseas help you understand what it's like living with a host family abroad. Who knows? Maybe you'll have a host sibling who's just as in to spontaneous Katy Perry dance parties as you are...
What You Should Expect Living with a Host Family
Every home stay experience is just as different as the families who host. Regardless of if you're living with a family with three young toddlers in Senegal, or a single mom and her daughter in Spain, there are a few things you can expect from just about every home stay experience. While living with a host family, you should expect...
1. Your family may or may not have hosted other volunteers / students before
There's always a good chance that your host family has had experience hosting before. If this is your case, your host family should be well aware of what you'll need help with, what you're capable of accomplishing on your own, and sensitive of one another's cultural differences.
At the same time, there's always a chance you're the first - that's OK too. Just try to be understanding and patient. Both you and your family are learning a lot from living with each other!
2. Your family should have been thoroughly evaluated and interviewed
Your program provider should have interviewed and evaluated your family thoroughly to make sure they meet their standards and can provide a safe and comfortable living environment for you. To make sure you end up in the right family for you, make sure you ask your provider the following questions:
- How long has the family been hosting volunteers/students?
- What meals are they promised to provide?
- Will I be sharing my room with another person?
- Am I expected to provide my own food on the weekends?
- How old are the children, if any?
- How far away is the home from school/volunteer site/internet access/restaurants?
- Will the family adapt to any dietary restrictions I have?
- What is transportation like around the community?
3. To eat the same food that the rest of the family is eating
If you have any special dietary restrictions, let your program provider know well before they assign you to a host family.
This way, they can ask your host family "are you OK hosting a vegetarian / a person with a nut allergy / etc.?" and make sure you're placed with someone willing and capable of accommodating you.
Even so, you may have to be flexible and patient (not every culture "gets" vegetarianism - for example, in Senegal "vegetarian" means you still eat fish).
If you have no restrictions, expect to eat what your host family is eating. It's just plain rude not to! (Hint: In cultures where they tend to feed guests a lot, there's usually a polite secret phrase to say "great food, but I'm full". LEARN IT.)
4. To be respectful of their house rules
Does your family wait up for you to get home before locking up? Do they feel uncomfortable with you bringing a friend home? Do they expect you to do the dishes or keep the bathroom a certain way? Ask about these rules and be respectful of them - it's the least you can do to say thanks!
Your host family is a great resource for practicing the local language and creating a total immersion environment. Families with small children are especially helpful, since they're already used to coaching their little 4-year-olds through tough pronunciations and explaining simple concepts.
6. To feel uncomfortable in certain situations
Living with a host family means getting very familiar with each other and spending time in each other's personal space. Add different cultural norms and perspectives on what personal space is (in some places, it's not a concept at all), and you're sure to have an awkward moment or two.
Despite all the awkward moments and cultural differences, expect to fall in love with your host family.
Little host brother barges in your room while you're getting dressed? Your host mother hand washes your underwear? Your host sister bluntly asks you about every-single-detail about your love life? These things happen!
7. Your family will include you on family events and holiday celebrations
You're part of the family, after all! If you're living with your host family during important holidays or celebrations, like weddings, birthdays, or funerals, expect to get an invitation.
8. To get a second family that will be hard to leave
Despite all the awkward moments and cultural differences, expect to fall in love with your host family. Expect that when it comes time to leave, both of you will be adamantly making promises to stay in touch and see each other soon. They're your second family now! How lucky are you?
What You Should NOT Expect When Living with a Host Family
And of course, there are a few things that you absolutely shouldn't expect from your host family.
- To be coddled
- To have the same amount of independence as you did at home
- To have a live-in maid
- For your family to use English for your sake
- To treat your house like a hotel
- To come and go as you please without being respectful of your host parents
- To have your friends come and stay with you
As we mentioned before, no two experiences living with a host family are alike - and what better way to learn about personal experiences than hearing stories from a few individuals who have had this experience?
Natalie: studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain
For Natalie, a college student who studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain for a semester, having a host family helped her “get to know the area better through a local perspective, feel comfortable in a foreign place, gain a better cultural understanding, and practice speaking the language on a regular basis.”
Having a stand-in family while far away from her own was a huge perk for Natalie, especially when she got sick and needed extra help.
The only drawback was a slight lack in independence, like having curfews and feeling obligated to eat massive amounts of food at meal times, but she says the benefits far outweighed this one factor.
The best thing about living with a host family according to Natalie is that her relationships “developed into those similar to a real family."
She anxiously looks forward to the time when she can return to Sevilla and visit them.
Alex: studied high school abroad in Russia
Alex, a high school exchange student in Moscow, had a brief but pleasant experience with his host family. He “mostly communicated through the host brother, as the parents did not speak any English, ” but they were still welcoming and generous.
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