It’s a pretty weird concept when you think about it. You take a housing survey, travel to a foreign country, and move into a stranger’s home. That’s basically it. It’s weirdly similar to getting a new roommate, except you don’t get much say in the matter other than your responses on the housing survey. You’re really just thrown into it!
Everyone who’s done a homestay has their own perspective and opinions on the experience, but regardless of how amazing (or not amazing) it was, there are always positives and negatives to every situation. Here are some general pros and cons that I have encountered during my first month living with a host family.
1. Complete and total immersion.
Depending on your goals during your experience abroad, whether to learn a new language or become a cultural expert, living in a homestay might just be the greatest decision you ever make. After the initial thrill and intimidation of getting thrown into a total stranger’s home, you are forced into a brand new culture from the moment you arrive until you leave the country. There is no better way to get to know a city or country than through its local citizens. I embraced total immersion with open arms because I want to leave Spain with a new perspective on Seville, the world and myself. And trust me, over the past five weeks I have been absolutely shocked by how different my life has been, yet how well I’ve been able to adjust. You learn tons about the culture, but a lot about yourself as well.
2. Saves you money.
Alright. For all you college kids out there, one of the absolute best aspects of a homestay is all the FREE STUFF. I’m talking laundry, bedding, weekly room cleans and – most importantly – three free meals per day. While the specifics may vary depending on your program, you will without a doubt save tons of money by having some fundamental living expenses covered. Since I travel a lot on the weekends, it’s SO nice to come back to Seville and know that I don’t have to pay for any food or wash my sheets unless I want to.
3. Support system.
While I may portray my study abroad experience as totally carefree and perfect, let me tell you, it’s freaking hard sometimes. Living in a foreign country thousands of miles from family and friends is an incredibly tough adjustment, and there have been times where I’ve just laid in my bed and cried out of pure loneliness. For me, the best cure for times like this is human connection, and this is what your host mom or dad can offer depending on your relationship with them. They act as a support system; a caring person who asks you how your day was over a bowl of potato stew and warm bread. This to me is one of the most underrated parts of a homestay – you get your very own home away from home.
4. The ultimate “insider guide.”
I should start crediting my host mom on my blog. That’s how many tips I’ve gotten from her on places to see, eat and experience in Seville! Many host families have lived in the area for years and undoubtedly have TONS of recommendations on things to do in the areas. And the best part? They’re usually not found on any travel website or blog. You’re literally getting the ultimate insider guide to whatever city you’re in for FREE. So make sure you take advantage of this and ask your family any and all questions you have about the city. You’ll be surprised by how much they know!
1. Can be a hit or miss.
I’m not going to lie, I got lucky with my homestay. From the location to the food to my relationship with my host parents, I have very few issues to report. But this is not the case with everyone. Several of my friends have had to choke down meals they hated, endure scoldings for staying out “too late”, and have been blatantly ignored by their parents – to the point where they moved out of the house. While these are extreme situations that rarely happen, it does go to show that things don’t always work out. Even with the in-depth surveys designed to pair you with the ideal home, it’s often a hit or miss. I’m grateful it worked out so well for me.
2. New house; new rules.
While adjusting to new rules is not necessarily a bad thing, it does remind you that you are still a guest in somebody else’s home. Their routines and norms are most likely different than what you’re used to and can often be difficult to adapt to. Specific rules definitely vary by country and individual households, but some of the hardest things I’ve had to adjust to is quick showers (I share a bathroom with five people!), meal times (I talk about this more in the next point), and not being able to have friends over. This last rule is especially hard when people come to visit from other countries because they have to find alternative housing instead of staying with me. I could go on and on about adjusting to new rules, but it really comes down to the individual family and adapting to their specific lifestyle.
3. Adjusting to meals.
The food situation goes hand in hand with house rules, but I created its own category because it’s THAT DANG HARD. Not only are you adjusting to the types of food eaten at each meal, but also the time that you actually sit down to eat. More than likely, both of these will contrast quite a bit from your eating habits back home. Take me for example. I’m used to eating a diet full of leafy greens, lean meats, nut butters and cereal; in Spain, I’m eating jamón, potato soup, lentils and an absurd amount of bread. While this is massively different from my normal diet, I honestly love Spanish food and am fully embracing it. The only time you have any real control over your food is by indicating an allergy or intolerance. Otherwise, you have to roll with what you get.
But to be honest, the hardest part for me is the timing of my meals. Rather than lunch at 12:30 and dinner at 7, I’m suffering through hours of hunger pains until 2:30 and 9:30. I’ve started eating a snack between lunch and dinner (keep in mind that snacks are not provided in most homestays), but this has seriously been a HUGE adjustment for me.
4. Communication barrier.
While clear and constant communication is one of the most important parts of living with a new family, it’s often the most difficult – especially if you’re still learning their language. I distinctly remember feeling SO overwhelmed after the first three days in my house. My confidence in my Spanish skills was flung out the window as soon as my host parents started drilling me with rapid-fire questions in their thick Sevillano accents. It was so hard to keep up! My biggest piece of advice is don’t be afraid to ask questions and have them repeat themselves two, three or four times if you need it. It’s easy to just nod your head and pretend you understand, but that will likely cause more problems down the road. It’s okay to be overly thorough – your family knows you’re learning! And in the end, you have great new language skills to show for it.