I'm Afraid of Doing a Homestay! Top 10 Fears and What to Do About Them
When You Don't Know What You're Getting, but You Want to!
I stepped off the train, rolling my little red suitcase behind me and thinking, "This is it." Next thing I knew I was in a bus, fidgeting and getting even more antsy. I watched the shoreline snake by out the window and thought, "I hope their home is still a ways away."
I didn't want to do a homestay.
When I planted my suitcase at our designated meeting place, I was watching the water. That way, I thought, I wouldn't have to see them driving toward me and be afraid all over again. When I heard the car door slam and turned to see the people who'd gotten out, my mind suddenly exploded with thoughts. The mom looks nice! But she looks strict too! The daughter's almost my age! Good, I don't like kids. Where's the dad? Is there a dad? No I think it said there was on my paper. Do they speak any English? Do they think I'm fluent in Japanese? What do I say when I meet them? Hello? Or thank you? Or introduce myself? No I don't want to introduce myself because then I won't have anything to talk about later....
Homestays are both one of the most beneficial and one of the most nerve-wracking experiences that a person can go through. Normally, homestays are done so that a student can live with a family to practice a certain language and experience that culture directly. As a Japanese major, that's what it was for me. Though there are indeed some other situations where people do homestays, a language-exchange homestay (such as studying abroad) is the one that I'll reference most in this article.
Don't worry -- I've done three homestays, each with a different family, so I'm not taking any stabs in the dark here. I've BEEN there, and I've had these fears. Some of the fears are totally irrational, some are well-founded, and some don't matter as much as you think they do. But without having done a homestay yourself (yet!), it can all seem a bit overwhelming.
So what fears do homestay students usually face? Read on to find out the things that really make us nervous as well as methods for solving those fears and turning them into a productive and enjoyable homestay experience.
(By the way, the image is of me with my first host family EVER -- a family from Hirado, Japan. I was petrified just thinking about doing a homestay! All photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.)
What if I don't understand what they are saying to me?
Communication is key, whether in foreign-language homes or elsewhere
One of my primary fears in doing those homestays in Japan (and some much shorter home visits in Hungary) was that my language proficiency was not anything that could in any way be considered fluent. While I certainly wasn't a complete beginner, I was still a stumbling, stuttering, word-grappling mess sometimes. So what happens if I'm with my host family and I don't understand what they're saying? Native speakers talk so fast! Is it rude to ask them to slow down?
Actually, no. They rather appreciate that, actually, because it tells them that you're trying to genuinely understand what they have to say. Still, it's likely that you'll have a few odd moments ("What's your favorite color?" and you reply with "Yes" or something). In Japan, my issue was always that I struggled with using "daijoubu," which means "that's okay." If my host mother asked if I wanted something (that I didn't care for) for dinner, I'd say "daijoubu," intending, "That's okay, I don't need it." But what actually happened was that she understood it as, "Sure, that's okay!" Needless to say I got myself a lot of food I didn't really want because I kept making that mistake.
So how do you deal with host parents that speak very quickly or are unclear? There are a few things you can do:
1. Politely ask them to speak more slowly. In many languages, this request already has an apologetic tone worked in, so don't worry about it.
2. Repeat the word or phrase that you do not understand and ask, "What does this mean?" Often your host family is happy to give you a roundabout, charades-like explanation.
3. Show when you DO understand by saying the information back and saying, "I understand" or "okay" or "thanks" or something. Soon you'll probably notice that your host family has established what sorts of words you do or do not know and will explain difficult words without being asked to. If you've misunderstood directions, it'll come out here.
4. Bring a picture dictionary. I can't emphasize enough how valuable those are. I was able to sit and have a 2-hour-long conversation with my host mother in Hikone as we flipped through a picture dictionary. Pictures are more universal sometimes than gestures.
5. If you don't understand, be honest and say, "I'm sorry, I don't understand" or "Can you say that again?" Usually just asking for them to repeat themselves is a cue that you need a little help, and they may alter their sentence to make it easier.
What if I run out of things to say?
Language and social barriers can get in the way of expressing yourself
When in doubt, pet the bunny.
I was sitting on the floor (as is traditional in Japan), hearing the muddled Japanese TV commercials and vaguely understanding them. My host mother was busy working in the kitchen, but she refused my help, so I had nothing much to do since she and I were the only ones home. It was one of those awkward moments -- the ones where you pretend that you're dramatically interested in whatever you're doing but you're not. After my host mother finished her dishes, she came to sit with me, and we watched TV in silence for a few minutes. The awkwardness grew a bit, and I thought, "What should I say?" Anything out of the blue will sound random.
Instead of blurting out something like, "Hey, a deer ate my friend's train ticket out of his back pocket in Nara!" (which was a story that got my last host father laughing till his sides hurt!), I chose something a bit more vague. I pointed to the TV and said (in Japanese, of course), "That kanji [Japanese symbol] is 'house,' right?" That was all it took to spark a conversation. I'd go around picking out the kanji that I knew.
This led to my host mother finding her daughter's old 4th grade Japanese books and letting me flip through them. Then she got out a picture dictionary and we just paged through it, making comments about what we saw. All you need to do to keep the conversation going is to engage your surroundings.
Seriously, though -- one of the best ways to keep the conversation flowing is to engage actively with your surroundings. My host family in Nagoya just happened to have a trained pat rabbit named Himapi (pictured above), so if I ran out of things to talk about, I'd go pet Hima-chan and sit in silence for a minute or two. That would allow the air to clear from our last conversation so that we no longer felt obligated to continue talking about the last topic (about which I had run out of things to say). That way, anyone could bring up something new.
However, this is one of those homestay fears that is completely overrated -- you WON'T run out of things to say, usually. You are able to talk about a lot more than you think you can. And remember that you're not there to talk your family's ears off. While it's great to be actively engaged with your new family, realize that it's all right to sit in silence for a while.
Just remember -- you don't always have to be "in conversation." Silence is acceptable, and so are simple comments with no need to branch off into a 10 minute long conversation.
What Should I Bring for Gifts? - Things about you and where you're from
Homestay families love (and deserve) to get gifts, but sometimes it can be hard to decide what to bring, especially if you know little or nothing about your homestay family beforehand. What if your gift is "stupid" or they don't like it?
The best rule is this -- use the gift to tell about your country and about yourself. Local stuff is great to bring, but I personally love bringing food. Many foods that we take for granted are not available in other countries (I found this out the hard way in Hungary and Japan)! So food is one option.
On the other hand, you don't want to take up all your luggage space with gifts, nor do you want to clutter your family's house with something big. That's when trinkets come in -- postcards and especially picture books are great because they're flat and can be stored places where other things can't.
Need suggestions? Look below for some ideas that I considered for my Japanese host families. I ended up giving them local jam made by some Amish friends. This sparked a discussion about what "Amish" is, and they learned something new and were really excited about it!
You wouldn't believe how many foreign countries don't have peanut butter (or it's WAY too expensive that many haven't tried it)! Make your host family a classic peanut butter sandwich. Just make sure to explain to your family that it's made from peanuts, in case anyone's allergic.
American maple syrup has a reputation for being one of the U.S. classics. Contrary to popular belief, Japanese maples do not make maple syrup. Many people worldwide have never tried it!
Beef jerky is another American staple that can't be found in other parts of the world. And this one's a variety pack, so you can bring a whole bunch of flavors with you.
There's nothing more American than Native Americans, one would think. Giving a dreamcatcher can unlock an aspect of America that your host family may never have seen, and the thought (to protect the family) of your giving it will be appreciated.
Money is really a great gift -- I spent an hour talking to my host mother about a $1 and what everything on it means. Why not give your host family a dollar and put it in a case for them to keep?
Homestay Slideshow - Take a look at my homestays (or continue reading below!)Click thumbnail to view full-size
What if they don't understand something important that I have told them?
Both foreign-language homestays and native ones need two-way communication
Although there are certainly many important things that host parents need to be made aware of, allergies can be one aspect of a homestay that MUST be done right. Therefore, communicating clearly and being understood in regards to these sorts of important things is REALLY vital. A friend of mine, who does have a food intolerance, had to communicate this to her host parents in order to avoid getting sick.
At first she explained it simply as "I dislike meat." However, in some cultures (Japan included), things often have to be said more than once, so be aware. She then proceeded to explain that "Meat makes me sick." At that, they understood. She did not know how to say specifically what would happen and why, but using terms like 'sick' or 'cannot eat' are important.
But what if there's a medical emergency? What if I do get sick and need to go to the hospital? What if I found out I have a family emergency and have to leave? In these sorts of stressful times, mashing together words in another language is even more difficult, yet it's crucial.
In order to avoid this potentially serious communication blockage, you need to:
1. Have an external contact. Often there will be an organization or department that matched you with your homestay family. Make sure that you have that phone number and either call it yourself if you have a phone or hand it to your host parents and point to the telephone or make a gesture of using one.
2. Make sure to learn the word for "help" in the language you are immersed in. Just be aware that, in many languages, "help" has many different words. In Japanese, there is a different word for help (to assist) than for help (to rescue or save from a dangerous situation).
3. If you do not have access to a computer with internet, make sure to bring either an electronic dictionary with a drawing pad or a pencil and paper. It may take some Pictionary if your family is just not getting it. On the computer, you have access to things like Google Translate. Although that's not necessarily the best translation, it can probably spit out something more understandable than what you've been trying.
BE AWARE, though, that the incidence of truly serious things happening at a homestay is virtually nil. And even if it does, the likelihood of your host parents NOT having a clue about what you're saying, gesturing, or drawing is almost zero. So don't worry!
What if they only eat food that I don't like? - New food can be difficult, whether for preference, allergic, or belief reasons
Yes indeed, that WAS actually a meal that I was invited to in Hirado, which I'm sure you can guess by the food is a fishing town.
Take a look at the meal I had placed before me above. I sat down and scanned my eyes over it, and the only thing I recognized was that bit of white, yellow, and pink sushi. There were sea snails, oysters, and practically a whole table of things I didn't know. When I pointed to the yellow fruit-looking things and asked what they were, a Japanese speaker casually replied, "Oh, that's a Biwa."
Great. Because I know what a Biwa is? And what's this? Egg pudding and seaweed? Oh look, you also gave me some rice wrapped up in some leaves...wait, I'm supposed to eat the leaf too? Err...thanks.
Now, how food preferences play into this matters. If you're battling with allergies, skip the modesty and make that clear. That's important! If it's for religious/belief reasons that you're nervous about the food -- there's a difference between believing it is a sin to eat something and preferring not to. And if it's just your nerves...well, I've got to tell you, suck it up.
As you may or may not be able to tell from my other articles, I am a foodie. That means that, when I travel, my souvenirs are primarily food. I believe that a country's food culture speaks volumes, and I want to eat all the traditional dishes of wherever I am. I encourage you to have that attitude.
When considering strategies for coping with new foods, try this:
1. Remind yourself why you're eating it. This, to me, is BY FAR the most effective way to get me to eat something I never would consider otherwise. For example, in Kyoto, I ate raw horseflesh. Yeah. Why on earth would I do that? Look, I'm not going to tell you that it tasted good -- it decidedly didn't. Dirty socks + melted plastic + motor oil = horseflesh taste. But as I picked it up with my chopsticks, I thought to myself, "You know what, this is the only time in my LIFE I'm going to get to try this. If I don't like it, I don't ever have to eat it again. But if I don't eat it, I never WILL eat it again. What if I like it?" So why are you eating the food you're eating? Because you won't get another chance? Because your host family made is specially for you? Because it looks interesting? All of those are good reasons! Be daring!
2. Use a familiar seasoning or drink to mask the flavor. If you have already tried something on your plate and know you don't like it, try using a familiar taste to drown it out or combine it with something else on your plate.
3. Look to your host family. Each member of the family often has a different way that they like a dish to be prepared, so if you don't like what you've got, they may be able to suggest something else to do with it. My host father in Hikone gave me a good suggestion that turned semi-icky raw octopus into a pretty good bite.
Am I inconveniencing them? I feel like I'm in the way!
After all, you are a new person in the house
This was one of my primary concerns, both before and during my homestays. They're so into catering for their guests that homestay parents seem to be more like caterers than parents sometimes, and it made me feel guilty. I'd offer to help, but it wasn't until my second homestay that my host mother actually took me up on it (for which I was truly appreciative). That's why I'm making rice balls with my host sister in the picture. My host mother taught me how.
It's not as easy as it looks to make those things triangular instead of circular! Just sayin'.
This, unlike many of the concerns about homestays, is a legitimate one. While it is certainly true that the homestay parents agreed to have someone in their house and should therefore expect a little disruption, you need to do your part as well. Ask if you can help to make dinner, even if you do not know how. I learned how to make takoyaki, onigiri, and yakisoba because I offered to help my host mother and she showed me how. To many homestay families, teaching how to make things from their culture is a beautiful and almost sacred endeavor. In turn, I shared some American food with them.
Take responsibility not only for the food but also for the facilities and your own personal belongings. Your host parents are not your servants.
Some suggestions for keeping the inconvenience to a minimum:
1. Clean up after yourself. If you unmade the bed during the night, make it again. In the case of Japan, put your futon away.
2. If you dirty a dish, wash it unless you are told otherwise.
3. Be aware of cultural cleanliness routines. In Japan, it is often rude to request a shower in the morning because the hot water is not ready. Don't be in the bathroom doing makeup or something during the time your host parent needs to prepare for work.
4. Offer to help cook. If they won't let you, offer to cook them an American dish. If they still say no, stop pestering them but remind them that they may ask for help at any time if they need it.
5. Carry your own luggage. Don't leave it in the trunk until your host father brings it in.
6. Don't unpack all of your luggage. You're living in borrowed space.
7. Go to the bathroom before bed, even if you don't feel like you have to. No one likes being woken up in the middle of the night by creaky floorboards and toilets flushing.
How do I spend my free time?
You can't always spend time with your family, but you can't always lock yourself away either
This one can be tough. On the one hand, you feel like spending time with your host family (either because they're fun or you feel obligated to). On the other hand, it's exhausting to devote yourself to constant outgoing-ness, especially if you're a little more introverted, like me. Sometimes you just need personal time. So how does that fit into a homestay?
Well, the first thing that merits mentioning is that you are not to lock yourself in a room to get privacy. It's not your house. How would you feel if someone came over to your house and then never left their room? However, your host family should settle into a routine where you do have time to do your own activities, and in this case, it's suitable to go and be by yourself if you want.
Also keep in mind that you may wear down your host family if you are always trying to spend time with them. Let them be the lead for how much time they'll devote to you -- they'll offer to take you places if they're willing to take you.
So, in order to achieve the right balance of free time and family time, try this:
1. Always go with your host family when they invite you somewhere. If you are cooperative with them, they'll be cooperative with your wants as well.
2. When you are going to go away for personal time (such as blogging/journaling or even a short bit of just relaxing to some music), tell them what you will be doing. When I told my host mother in Hikone that I was just going to go and write down what happened that day so that I didn't forget, she not only let me go but actually helped me to remember by listing off what we'd done.
3. Work personal time into bedtime. After you've said you're going to bed, allow yourself some personal time then. That is one of the most guaranteed ways to get some time to yourself. Just be sure not to say you're going to bed at, say, 6PM so you can have a few hours to yourself! Try to enjoy the family's evening and before-bed routines.
Are Homestays Worth Doing?
Is all the stress of a homestay really worth it for what you learn?
What if they have kids or animals that I don't like?
This concern often goes hand-in-hand with worries about food. Basically, the larger worry framing all of this is "How do I deal with something I don't like?" Remember, once again, that dislike is different than inability. For pets, you may indeed have an allergy (though that should have been discussed before you were placed, as there is a spot for that on all application forms). But if you have no reason other than distaste to shy away from kids or animals, you'll just have to deal with it.
I'm not going to lie -- I don't like kids. I never want kids. I like watching kids from afar, where I don't have to interact much with them. Babies are cute and will always make you smile, but I don't want one. That being said, when I discovered that one of my host families had two young kids (one age 9, the other 11), I inwardly groaned. Great....
However, as I spent time with the family, the 9-year-old really grew on me, and my stay with her family culminated in a very fun and competitive Shogi (Japanese chess) match between the two of us (which she lost, though she lost nobly!). She and I were both smiling the whole time, and even when I received a letter from her a few months after my stay, the only thing she talked about was how much fun we had and that, next time she sees me, she won't lose so easily! That's not at all the type of relationship I was expecting to get out of my homestay sister.
In order to deal with your dislikes, DO:
1. Keep an open mind. If I hadn't, I would never have become friends with 9-year-old Ayane.
2. Actively try to engage the things you don't enjoy. If you don't like kids, try to speak to them. Otherwise, your distaste will become more and more noticeable and create negative vibes in the house.
What if I mess up a cultural norm/expectation?
This is one of the most common fears, and it can either be unimportant or crucial, depending on your host family. Don't panic. I don't mean that your host family is going to permanently maim you if you mess up, but some families do care more than others. In my homestays, it seemed strangely backward -- the older the house I stayed in, the less the parents seemed to care about traditional Japanese customs.
However, in my final homestay, my host mother did care, and when I accidentally broke a rule I could see on her face both a little bit of frustration and a lot of understanding. It WAS important to wear the bathroom slippers, to take my shoes off, to take from the community plate with the opposite end of my chopsticks, and all that.
Thankfully, it is usually relatively easy to figure out how much your host family cares about these things. While you shouldn't still be making the same mistakes after 2 months of living with them, an occasional slip-up does happen, and 99% of families completely understand. Trust me. Just apologize and move on.
To respect the native culture, you should:
1. Watch your host family and do what they do. If they take their shoes off, so should you. This can backfire if they always let you in the door first -- then what? Just ask. It's okay.
2. Ask. Ask. ASK! No one will be angry that you thought about what was culturally acceptable. This proves that you care.
3. If you make a mistake, do apologize instead of pretending that it didn't happen. But do your best not to continue making that mistake.
4. If a family asks why you don't do something, explain honestly. Whether it's because you don't know how, because you didn't know it was required, or because it's different where you come from, say so.
What is the Most Important Word to Know?
If you only had time to learn one of these expressions, which is the most important to know for a homestay?
Do you have a homestay that's coming up but you still have questions or fears? Are you thinking about doing a homestay but haven't decided yet? Or have you already done one? Tell the story! I'd love to hear about it, and I'll even answer your questions, too!