The words “host family” and “homestay” are usually associated with foreign exchange students, but living with host families isn’t just for young people studying abroad! My first time staying with a host family was as an exchange student during university. Since it was such a valuable experience, I have continued to seek out host families during my travels as an adult.
Why Stay With Host Family?
For the Rich Experiences
Living with a host family is the best way to get immersed in local culture quickly! The Indian host families invited me to attend intimate weddings and religious ceremonies I never would have experienced otherwise. My Ecuadorian host family helped me improve my Spanish skills with countless lunch table conversations. My Guatemalan host family taught me how to prepare traditional foods like tortillas, tamales, and ponche.
Even just hanging out and watching TV together was a cultural experience, whether it was telenovelas in Mexico or Bollywood music videos in India.
To Learn More About Culture
But culture goes much deeper than food, music, and TV shows. Culture encompasses our attitudes toward family, communication styles, concept of self, beauty standards, gender/age roles, and so much more!
If you stay with a local family and make the effort to observe and learn from them. You will be able to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the things that make up our own cultural frameworks.
To Be A Responsible Traveler
Staying with a host family is a great way to contribute to sustainable and responsible travel. Massive hotels and tour companies have been known to create a ton of waste, push locals out of their homes and create a false sense of culture. I know when I stay with a local host family, I am contributing directly to their neighbourhood and not some polished corporation. I eat the local food we prepare together, I help with daily chores and it allows me to create much less waste than a hotel stay.
How does one find a host family in a foreign country?
Websites & Agencies
I highly recommend finding a host family through an established program or site. There are many great agencies and host sites that do a great job in connecting travelers with host families. Read lots of reviews and do your own homework.
Here are some sites to help you find a host family:
Related Language and Educational Programs
Research universities, non-profits, volunteer organizations, and language schools in the place you’ll be traveling to. For example, I contacted a Spanish school in Guatemala, even though I wasn’t interested in studying Spanish at the time. They told me I could stay with one of their host families without even taking classes!
The benefit of going through a program is that there is an outside party who has negotiated everything for you. The price, meals, and rules with the family have all been set-up. They may have even provided them some training on hosting and cooking for foreigners.
Social Media & Home Sharing Networks
There are other ways to connect with potential host families if you’re feeling a bit adventurous. Try checking local or foreign Facebook groups for recommendations. Look on websites like AirBnb, Workaway, Hostelworld, and even Instagram. Even though you may not think of these as typical avenues, I have seen host families listed on all these sites. Community-based tourism is a growing industry, and you might also be able to find a local non-profit or social enterprise that connects travelers to host families. If you follow a religion, try contacting local faith communities to see if someone in their congregation is interested in being a host.
Of course, you can always ask friends of friends for introductions to a potential host family.
How To Prepare For Meeting Your Host Family
Find A Gift To Bring
Norms around gift-giving vary from place to place, but it is generally well-accepted if you give a small gift or souvenir that represents your home. Giving a gift can help break the ice as it may be awkward at first, especially if there is a language barrier.
Learn a Few Words of the Language
Don’t let a language barrier discourage you! Try to learn some phrases in the local language before you go. Once you are there, get creative with your communication, and use a dictionary or a translation app to help you. Here’s a pro tip: many languages are available for offline download on Google translate so that you can use it without internet.
Learn About Cultural Faux-Pas Before You Go
It’s important to understand that integrating yourself into a new family, even if just for a few weeks, won’t come without challenges. In Guatemala, I lived with a family in a small village, where everybody knew everybody. I quickly discovered that my actions were a reflection of my host family in the entire community!
Do a little research beforehand to learn about cultural norms regarding family, modesty, communication, and orientation to time. To help build cross-cultural understanding, I recommend doing a little reading on the differences between cultures. You can’t learn everything before you go, and you will likely make some communication blunders. However, a little knowledge and respect will go a long way in navigating the cultural differences you will experience with your host family.
Tips On Having A Positive Stay With Your Host Family
1. Be mindful of the host family’s schedules and rules
Every family is unique. You may notice it feels different living with a host “parent”, especially when you are used to freedom and independence as an adult. Your family probably wants to know about your schedule and will ask when you’ll be coming home so they know when to lock the door or prepare food for you. They may or may not be comfortable with you inviting people over that they don’t know. It is best to have open communication about these topics right at the beginning of your stay, so that you and the family understand each other’s expectations the best that you can.
2. Bathrooms & Food. Both may be very different!
Eating food and using the bathroom are universal human experiences, but they can vary a lot from place to place. These will likely be the two most talked about topics during your stay.
You might get a surprise here! Depending on where you are in the world, the bathroom can look VERY different to what you are used to at home. They might have a squat toilet, a toilet with built in bidet (or ‘bum gun’ as many call it), or maybe a shower you use with a bucket and hand scoop. In some countries, flushing toilet paper is not allowed due to weaker plumbing systems, or may not be used at all. Again, do your research beforehand. Don’t be afraid to have an initial awkward interaction where you may need to ask your hosts questions about bathrooms you never thought you’d have to ask. Trust me, you’ll laugh about it later!
You will likely be eating different foods than you do at home, so may experience some indigestion or discomfort adjusting to a new diet. If you have a sensitive stomach like I do, my advice is to come prepared with some simple over-the-counter remedies such as pepto-bismol, bags of mint tea, and ginger candies. Although it depends on the individual and their health, I generally recommend trying to eat whatever the host prepares for you. It signals that you appreciate them and their traditions. In my experience, my host families have all been very understanding when there were circumstances when I needed to ask for smaller portions, less spice, more fruit, etc.
Generally, sharing meals together is a very positive experience. You get to try new flavors and textures, and you can learn about different traditions from your host. Be curious and ask questions!
What is the biggest meal of the day? Do they cook special foods for birthdays or holidays? Do they avoid certain foods, and why? Do they eat with only their hands?
You may discover some surprising customs. My Indian host family advised me to eat later at night and to cover my head while going outside during the full moon in order to promote better digestion. My Ecuadorian hosts taught me that a shot of tequila mixed with herbal tea would help me digest the roasted guinea pig they fed me for lunch.
3. Make it an exchange
I gained so much from each of my host families, and I always tried to look for ways that I could share something special with them too. Show them photos of your family and life at home. Offer to help out around the house. Bring them sweets or cook them a meal. Share a skill with them! I have given my host siblings guitar lessons, helped with the grocery shopping, made chocolate-covered strawberries for Valentine’s Day, and helped one of my host moms figure out how to use email. It is such a privilege and impactful experience to be welcomed into someone else’s home and subsequently their life. These little gestures will show the family that you appreciate how they’ve opened up their home to you.
I hope that you have the opportunity to stay with a local host family abroad. You will certainly make some incredible memories and learn something new. If you make a genuine effort to connect with them, step out of your comfort zone, push past the awkward moments, and stay curious about their culture, you just might become friends for life!
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About The Author
Kellie Rock was born and raised in Minnesota, and currently lives in Guatemala. She is energized by learning from community activists and is passionate about empowering women around the world. She is on a lifelong quest to find her ultimate karaoke anthem and is always down for some good pizza. You can follow her endeavors on Instagram, or her new blog.