In my early twenties I traveled to Shjiazhuang, a large industrial city south of Beijing to participate in a one-month homestay program of an organization called ‘Insight China‘. Although the email communication prior to the program was excellent, the program itself turned out to be a disappointment. This is a story about my experiences and the pros and cons of a homestay abroad.
I went to Shijiazhuang with high expectations: I would learn the language, practice kung fu and make new friends. I considered it the best (and cheapest) way to experience the Chinese culture to the fullest. At the first day, the homestay family picked me up from the train station and the same night we went to a fancy restaurant as a welcome dinner. The daughter was about 16, while I was 20 years old. She spoke some English, but the father and mother did not speak any English. They lived in a big apartment building just outside the city center of Shijiazhuang.
After a few good first days the struggles came. One of the main problems during the homestay was the limited contact with the organization and other participants. This was not as was promised and due to this I was really pretty much on my own and often felt lonely. To complicate things more, the daughter of the family had completely different interests than I had. This was of course partly due to cultural differences and also because of the age. However, the biggest problem of the homestay program was the lack of privacy and freedom. I had to share a room (and even bed) with the family’s daughter and even though we could get along okay, spending 24 hours together each day was a bit too much.
I don’t blame the family for the failure of the homestay. I actually feel sorry for them because I know they also had high expectations (e.g. improving the English skills of their daughter). They were very kind. I guess my first homestay experience mainly failed because of my wrong expectations. After a 1,5 week I requested a transfer to another family. I was transferred all the way to remote northern China: Xilinhot in Innermongolia which was fortunately (and unexpectedly) much better!
But anyway -to avoid disappointment- here’s a list of all pros and cons of a homestay program abroad!
Pros and cons of a homestay program
PRO #1 Truly engage in the culture of a country
It’s basically the one and only way to truly engage in the country’s culture. Homestays provide a unique and authentic cultural experience since you will be involved in all aspects of your family’s daily life.
PRO #2: Locals’ know best!
It’s the best way to explore places and activities that only locals know of. A host family is the best guide!
PRO #3: The best local food!
Home-cooked food everyday
PRO #4: It’s budget proof
A homestay is a relatively cheap way to stay abroad for a longer period of time.
PRO #5: Learn the local language quicker
You will be forced to use the local language, speeding up your learning process.
PRO #6: Challenge yourself!
It’s an adventure. You will have to cope and adjust to the local lifestyle.
PRO #7: Your host family may become your ‘second family’
Make friends for a life-time and find a second home ‘away from home’.
CON #1: Limited freedom!
Since you’re living in someone home you are expected to live according to their rules. This may mean a curfew, rules about bringing guests etc. You’re restricted in your freedom since you take part in their life, not yours.
CON #2: Cultural differences
Due to cultural differences your family may have different expectations of your behavior. My homestay families were both worried when I -being a female and all- went out alone.
CON #3: Lack of privacy
Compared to living in a hotel or appartment, you may experience a lack of privacy.
CON #4: You may feel lonely!
Even though you will live within a family, it can be a bit lonely. For example it’s less easy to meet other travellers.
CON #5: Game of luck
The success of your homestay depends for a large part on your family (and even though I’m sure organizations do their best to find a good match) it’s still a game of luck.
Some final homestay tips:
– Bring a small gift from your home country
– Dress appropriate, respect the cultural norms and help out in the daily household tasks
– Teach your family something (like you language and things about your culture) and learn from your family!
– Be open-minded, flexible and interested
Note BoB: This post was revamped and updated in March 2015.