One of the best aspects of studying abroad can be living with a host family. A host family will give you a first-hand experience of everyday life and culture in your host country, as well as a good deal of language practice. But the experience of adjusting to living with a new family can also seem daunting and can present some challenges, especially when there are language and cultural differences. Here are some tips from a seasoned study abroad student to help ease the transition of living with a new family:
Tip #1: Bring a gift
When you arrive and first meet your host family, be prepared with a small gift to bring them, perhaps one with a story or explanation behind it. Try to find something that is particularly unique to your country, city, or household. This will make it interesting, spark some conversation, and let your new family get to know a little about you and where you come from.
Tip #2: Talk about special requirements and habits right away
You may stay up until 2:00 in the morning and sleep past noon, but what if your host family believes in starting early? You may define “vegetarian” as no meat at all, but your host parents may think it means no red meat. Talk to your host family about your own special needs as well as the general patterns of the family and come to an agreement about how to respect each other. Be flexible in areas that aren’t medical or belief-centered…after all, you are with them to experience a new way of life!
Tip #3: Discuss expectations
Host families choose to host students for a variety of reasons, from wanting to get to know someone from abroad to simply needing the money that comes with renting out a room. This can have a big impact on how your host family will expect their relationship to be with you. When you arrive and have gotten through the basic introductions, talk to your host family about why they decided to host a student. Tell them what you expect your daily life to be like while abroad (classes, outings, etc.) and ask them if they have any rules (such as a curfew) that they would like you to abide by. This is also a good time to ask about things such as family meal times, what rooms and appliances are off-limits, whether you may have a space in the kitchen for your own food, and any other household protocols.
Tip #4: Leave your door open
Shutting your bedroom door gives you privacy and blocks out noise from the family, but it also sends the message that you want to be left alone. Especially during the first few weeks with your host family, try to leave your door open as much as possible so that they know you are open to interaction. Consider doing your homework in the living room or doing it outside the house at a library so that when you come home you are free to socialize. If you really need a rest or some quiet, simply explain before shutting your door to avoid any misunderstandings or hurt feelings.
Tip #5: Offer to help
After dinner, help your host parents clean the table and wash up. Offer to do your own laundry, to help with household chores, or to pick up some groceries on your way home from school. You could also consider cooking a classic American meal for your host family so that they can experience some of your culture, too. All of this will help to break the ice and make you even more a part of the family.
Tip #6: Brainstorm conversation topics
There is nothing worse than sitting through an awkward and silent meal with your host family. Before you go home each day, think of two to three topics that you think could turn into real conversation pieces. Good ideas to consider could be current events in your host country or in your own country, questions about language or cultural differences, or stories about something that you saw or did during the day. Sometimes host parents and siblings can be just as shy and unsure as you are, so it’s a good idea to show them that you want to get to know them by making an effort to start a conversation every day.
Tip #7: Get out of the house
No matter how much you love your host family or how much they love you, you all need some alone time. Remember that your host family is a family and will require some time alone together. It’s also good for you to spend some time out and about exploring the area and meeting new people. Try to schedule at least two nights a week when you go out to dinner with your own friends, and two days (weekends are especially good) when you will try to spend the majority of the day out of the house. This will give all of you some space and give you the opportunity to do some exploring and to work on your independence.
Remember that things probably won’t be perfectly comfortable right away, so don’t give up hope if after a couple of weeks you still feel a little awkward around your new family. Keep trying and be sure to interact a little every day, and things should soon settle down.
Posted by Molly Quinn, contributing student writer, Skidmore College