Home stays are a popular way to intensify one’s travel experience abroad. Programs vary, but generally, you share room and board with a local family and participate in daily life.
Having done them myself in Mexico, France, and Taiwan, I agree they offer unique engagement with a foreign country.
However, they may not be for everybody.
In fact, after my last home stay in Taiwan, I’m less inclined to do one again- or at least not for the entire time I’m abroad.
Home stays do offer many advantages, but they may not be what you expect. If you are considering doing a home stay, ask yourself these five questions to help determine if the experience will suit your needs.
In Taiwan, I lived with a family with two children while teaching English at a summer camp. After eight hours of work each day with middle school students, I was wiped out. I needed time to process the day and regain my energy.
I just wish I hadn’t felt like a battery that needed to be recharged the whole time.
My host family, however, wanted me to spend all my free time with them, drinking tea for hours, playing mahjong, or watching a popular Chinese soap opera – without subtitles.
No doubt my host family just didn’t want me to be bored. But no matter how politely I expressed I wanted alone time, they didn’t give me any space.
Don’t get me wrong. It was fun to play mahjong, and I still wonder what crazy plotlines have developed in that soap opera. I just wish I hadn’t felt like a battery that needed to be recharged the whole time.
I consider myself an adventurous person about food. That’s why I hate admitting I couldn’t eat my host family’s meals.
I tried everything I could to enjoy them. I chased a piece of bony fish with lots of tea. I tried to temper unpleasant flavors with globs of white rice. Nothing helped. The meals just didn’t sit well, and I didn’t know how to approach the subject politely with them.
Food, which is ordinarily a source of great delight for me when I travel, became a source of major stress. I dreaded eating breakfast and dinner every day, and I maintained a secret stash of Doritos to eat in my room privately at night.
Had I been more of a free agent in Taiwan, I could have found food to my liking and not felt intense pressure to eat things I didn’t want to eat.
My Taiwanese host family was incredibly gracious, but they were also homebodies. Apart from work or school, they never left the house and never introduced me to nearby historical or cultural sights. While I certainly did not expect them to cart me around, I didn’t want to miss out on those places.
When I tried to go alone, they were reluctant to let me. On one occasion I arranged an excursion with another expat, but they had already planned a visit for the whole family, including me, to visit grandma.
Towards the end of my stay, they did let me explore on my own, sort of. Wherever I went, even just down the street, Wu, my 12-year old host brother rode along on his bike beside me as my chaperone.
In the same way that we might do a home stay because we’re looking for a unique encounter, some host families may be looking for something from us.
In Taiwan, I often felt I was there to serve different functions for the family’s two children. Some days, I was supposed to be an English tutor. Other days, I was meant to be Mary Poppins. Once, my host mother even asked me to teach songs to the kids so that we could put on a little show for the neighbors.
When you’re living under the same roof with people, it’s natural that some of your business becomes everybody’s business. They’re interested in you and likewise, you’re curious about them.
But sometimes, things get intimate.
On one occasion I arranged an excursion with another expat, but they had already planned a visit for the whole family, including me, to visit grandma.
“Mary, have you ever kissed a boy?” my 14-year old host sister Ping asked me repeatedly.
Or there was the time my host mother barged into the dressing room while I was trying on a bathing suit, and said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Your breasts are too big for that one!”
Then there was my unfortunate stomach problem one day, for which the whole family (including Ping and Wu) asked for constant bathroom updates.
Looking back, I do think fondly of my Taiwanese host family. I don’t mean to suggest that I had a bad experience with them overall.
It’s just that as I get older and more comfortable with solo travel, I want more autonomy over how I spend my time. While I certainly did engage local culture there, I missed out on other experiences beyond their house.
Of course, families have different dynamics all over the world, and it’s impossible to generalize how a typical home stay might be. At the other extreme, a host family may not even notice that you are there!
However, if you’re considering living with a family abroad, at least be aware of the possibility that you may not have much control over your circumstances. If that makes you nervous, a home stay may not be right for you.
Have you ever done a home stay abroad? Can you relate with any of Mary’s experiences, and would you do a home stay again?