8 Surefire Tips to Have an Amazing Host Family Experience
The host family experience on our Spanish immersion programs in Costa Rica is always a highlight for the majority of our participants. At the same time, it’s also one of the components of the Spanish immersion programs that participants and prospective participants are most curious and, to be honest, apprehensive about.
There is a lot of mystery around staying with a host family; and you’re taking a significant risk by entering an unknown person’s home. You rightfully have safety and security questions for your host family provider; it’s important to know what processes are in place to ensure that the families who are hosting are legitimate and safe to stay with. Assuming the provider has great references and you trust their ability to deliver a great experience to you, what’s left is insight on WHAT you can do create a successful host family experience.
Since few people have had the pleasure of hosting someone from another country and culture, this adds to the mystery. You’re not really sure what it will be like. Additionally, most people have heard a story or two from someone they know about an experience abroad that involved host families, or possibly a personal experience that left them hesitant to repeat. So how can you set yourself up for host family success? Keep reading – we’ve converted our years of successful programs using host family lodging into 8 actionable steps you can take to help you have an amazing host family experience!
8 Surefire ways to have an amazing host family experience:
- Engage life with them! You’ve been placed in a home with a family for anywhere from a handful of days to a whole semester, possibly a year abroad. This is an amazing opportunity for you to add value to your immersion in ways that are impossible to quantify. We set up host family lodging for our programs because living life with people is the best way to understand others and their cultures that, on the surface, may seem very different from you. It can be so rich! I say “can” because it’s not automatic. You must ENGAGE life with your host family, and let’s face it – engaging takes effort. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just join them in their day to day life. If host mom walks every morning before your routine begins, ask her if you can join! Do what the family does, when the family does it, and as often as you can fit it into your schedule. Odds are that you’ll learn more going to the local market with your family than you will doing your homework for the next day’s class. So, whether it’s telenovelas or spinning classes, go out of your way to spend time with your family. There are some enemies of engagement that must be discussed because they are so detrimental to making a real connection with your family. These are things that you need to intentionally NOT do. The list could be longer probably, but here are some of the biggies:
- Social Media – turn it off! Resist the temptation to spend your time in the host home online sharing all of your thoughts and day’s work in English to your network back home. Update your status from language school or somewhere else you can get a WiFi connection – don’t waste the amazing opportunity to live life with your host family!
- Don’t retreat! Immersion is really challenging, and you probably will be tired at the end of the day. You’ll have homework to do, you might need some personal space, and you may have a headache because you’ve been working all day in a foreign language! Yes, you need to take care of yourself, of course, but be conscious of the amount of time you’re spending in your room and try spending less time alone day after day. Push yourself to interact with your family and little by little you’ll probably notice that spending time with your family can be a diversion, and not another activity that drains your energy.
- Busyness – slow down! This one is pretty simple; moderate your activities to make sure that you have time to spend with your family. Don’t be out every evening with your English speaking friends, and don’t be gone every weekend on another English speaking tour. Make sure you reserve time for your host family. You should explore the country on the weekends of course, but maybe reserve 1 -2 weekends a month to spend with your host family. You’ll get to see them in a different mode, and probably meet some of their extended family as well.
- Be honest about food & offer to cook a meal! This one is pretty straight forward as well. Your host family wants you to be comfortable in their home. They understand that you are out of your element, they understand that there is probably little that they can actually “give” you that will help you have a better command of the language or be more comfortable. But what they can do is make sure that you are well fed and they will do that the best way they know how. You can guarantee that any wrong sign here will be interpreted and acted upon. If you don’t like mystery meat pâté, but you stomach it and fake a smile; you can expect to have it again. At some point you’ll need to tell them that you can’t handle it and then it will be weird because everyone thought you “liked” it at first. You’re better off if you politely explain your food preferences to your family; your family will be glad to know because they want to take care of you. Of course you HAVE to try something new if you’ve never had it before, there’s no excuse (apart from deathly allergies and religious obligations) to avoid trying that soup with interesting animal parts in it. Give it a whirl – who knows you might like it! At the very least you’ll have a fun story to tell later. You might also want to print out a few of your favorite recipes before you travel and take them with you to try and cook with your host family. Make it a special night! You can do the shopping and ask the family for help with the prep work; it’s really fun to share your favorite dishes with your host family.
- Get to know them, and let them get to know you! One of the most common misinterpretations in a host family setting is that the student (usually a lower language level) is uninterested or stuck up. This usually happens unintentionally because the student is hesitant to speak the target language. Instead of risking sounding silly, they remain quiet – and quiet usually isn’t interpreted positively. Even if your host family can theoretically accept the possibility that you’re quiet because of language barriers, quiet means they have no idea what you’re thinking. You have to let your host family know what you’re thinking because the odds are that they won’t guess it right. There is usually a propensity to think that something negative is happening when you’re quiet. They may think that you are uninterested in them, they will definitely feel distant from you, they won’t know how to make you comfortable and happy in their home if you’re not open and chatty with them. Small talk is actually an art when you’re traveling abroad. Not only is it a great way to open relationship doors, in many cultures it’s considered polite and socially required before you can actually get to what you might consider “real” conversation. So, do it – master your small talk skills and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the growing connection you feel with your host family.
- Be open minded! This seems so cliché, but it’s really important. Many people have a handful of absolutes in their lives (moral, spiritual, etc.) and that’s fine, probably even great to hold tightly to those absolutes; but with most things we’re just creatures of habit and products of our own cultures. There may not be a right or wrong way to cut a mango or cook rice. As long as you end up with an edible product, any method is probably fine for your time with the host family. In most areas of day to day life, we could live a little and learn a lot. Have fun doing things differently! If something strikes you as odd about a particular routine or process, ask yourself and your host family what’s behind that. How did this process or thought pattern get rubber stamped as “the way” to do things in this culture? Even the mundane tasks of cooking or cleaning can get really interesting if you’re understanding the “why” and “how” behind it. I have to make a special note here about food in a host culture. North Americans are pretty adamant about certain food choices and eating habits; we idolize food and in a lot of ways it dictates our experiences. I would challenge you to let go of your diet if there is any way that you can. Of course don’t eat peanuts if you’re allergic – that would be silly. But honestly, if you’re vegetarian or vegan consider the reasons why you’ve chosen that and if there can be any flexibility in your diet while traveling. What you don’t want to do is let your diet get in the way of building relationships with your host family. Note: if vegetarian or vegan is one of those moral absolutes for you, you have some research to do on the ability and likelihood of living that out while traveling abroad.
- Express your gratitude! This one is kind of simple because no one likes an ingrate, right? We all know that being ungrateful is a pretty ugly quality in a person. But the trick here is actually going out of your way to express your thanks. You can’t imagine how much a “thank you” with a smile means to your host family. You’re communicating that you recognize the effort they took to do something for you. Whether they prepared a meal, did your laundry, changed your bedding, showed you around town, helped you with a project – whatever it was – actually recognizing it and thanking them directly for their efforts helps them feel good about what they’ve done for you. There is an unintended benefit here as well when you are quick to express gratitude; your host family is likely to do more of the things that you’re thankful for. This will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more thankful you are, the more reasons you’ll have to be thankful! So, look for every opportunity you can to say “thanks” to someone.
- Check in like a child (or a good spouse)! This one is most difficult for our single adult participants. Most adults are not used to checking in with “mom” or “dad” every time they go out or have a little schedule change. If you are a teen or if you’re living with someone who you share life with, this may come a little more natural; but you may not think about needing to treat your host family like your family back home. The truth is that your host family needs a high level of communication from you on logistical things. They are responsible for preparing your meals, they may need to ensure that someone is home to receive you when you arrive, they may want to make weekend plans with you, etc. The biggest potential expectation mismatch here is the family wanting to include you in everything they do, and you not realizing that they are probably waiting around for you and wondering what you’re up to if you haven’t made that clear. A lot of this misunderstanding can be cleared up with sharing a general itinerary of your day to day activities with your host family, but it also takes more intentional communication because you’re going to want to capitalize on new and unique opportunities that present themselves and are “unplanned”. Your family will likely encourage you to do that, just help them know what you’re doing, where you’re going, and when you expect to be back home.
- Ask for help! This one isn’t difficult at all. Use your host family as a resource. This will give you natural and relevant things to talk about and give them an opportunity to be the expert on their town, country, or language. Common things you should consider asking help for are: how to get somewhere on public transportation, where to find that must-have item that you need, what recommendations they may have for a weekend away, or help with your homework. The point is that you have a need or want, and they can probably help you satisfy it based on their experience living there. Remember, they want to help you in any way they can. Worst case scenario is that they don’t know the answer or don’t know how to help you for whatever reason; but think about it – at least you generated some small talk! If it’s not urgent they’ll probably ask around and come back with some ideas to help.
- Be quick to laugh! Most of the time (if it’s not life-threatening) when you take a step back, miscommunication is pretty funny. You’re going to make so many mistakes in the target language on a regular basis that you just have to sit back and laugh at yourself and the situation. It takes some time to train yourself to make laughter your natural reaction to a frustrating experience, but you’d be surprised at how it changes the nature of the experience and lightens your mood. So lighten up, don’t take yourself too seriously, and find something to laugh about when things go wrong. You’ll make others more comfortable around you, and you’ll actually begin to create happiness all around you!
As you look at the 8 tips above, some of them probably resonate with you on the “duh, of course” level. While they may be obvious once someone lays them out for you, keep in mind that you’re going to be stressed in several unusual ways while you’re living or studying abroad. Experiences abroad often challenge some of the most basic and essential “norms” of what we think about life and how we live. When you’re stressed, out of your comfort zone, and philosophically challenged it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees; and what is “obvious” now can be challenging to remember.
The one thing that ties most of the 8 tips together is the idea of going “out of your way” or giving “extra effort” to the host family. It’s hard when you’re tired, but it’s totally worth it in the long run! If you’re able to remember the 8 tips above and implement them consistently, you’re going to have a great time with your host family!