It’s not always easy. Yes, there are great benefits, but there are also a lot of challenges. It’s hard to be a guest all the time. You often feel that you are walking on eggshells, might not get along well with everyone in the family, and the kids can be distant and hard to reach. It’s also tiring to always be surrounded by people, especially when they aren’t your family and friends. Honestly, living with strangers can drive you crazy.
However, that does not mean that I don’t recommend the experience. There are still many reasons that living with a host family is valuable. Here’s my overview of the positives and negatives:
- The language and culture exchange is insane. Every conversation is a learning experience for all of us. There is a never-ending amount of culture and language to learn from each other.
- You automatically have a huge network. Spanish culture is very family-oriented and social. When you live with a host family, you’re also living with their relatives and friends. You’ll meet neighbors, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, in-laws, and everything in between. In other words, you will have a lot of support from people that can answer questions, travel with you, point you in the right direction, etc.
- You will live the culture. You’ll eat typical Spanish foods, adapt to their schedule, learn Spanish games, and go where the locals go. From morning to night, you’ll live and breathe the culture.
- Good Cooking. While I don’t necessarily like everything I try, my host mom is an overall good cook, and I’ve been eating well. On the weekends, the whole family (including relatives) gets together and eats the equivalent of a Thanksgiving dinner. They like to feed you too, so you won’t go hungry!
- It’s economical. Since I’ve arrived here, the most money I’ve spent was for personal travel. Between eating with my host family and at the school, I never have to worry about groceries. Most other necessities are also taken care of.
- You’ll always have a home in another country. The connections you make while abroad are invaluable and you will always have friends and “family” in another country.
- You may feel like an outsider. Let’s face it: you are an outsider. Even with a welcoming and warm host family, you may feel isolated because it’s not your family nor your culture that you’re surrounded by. It’s always a little uncomfortable to be new in any group, but especially one that speaks a different language and follows a different lifestyle.
- You are always a guest and, as a guest, you must follow the house rules. This is perfectly acceptable (if your family is reasonable), but you may feel that you lack freedom sometimes. In the end, you may find yourself worrying about what you should and shouldn’t do a lot and will start to miss the liberty of your own home.
- The children can be challenging. In my experience, the kids can be difficult to reach, especially if they are teenagers or pre-teens. They are always busy or on their phones or watching TV and may not be super enthusiastic about talking with you. This lack of enthusiasm may be disinterest, or it may be embarrassment over using a language that they haven’t fully mastered.
- Swapping lifestyles isn't easy. You have to make a lot of adjustments, which can be overwhelming and exhausting. You’ll start to miss simple little things from your own culture.
Sound difficult? It can be; but, despite all of this, I still recommend having the experience at least once in your life, especially if you are interested in language and culture. In all, the experience is so unique and enriching that the benefits outweigh the negatives. Where else can you overcome cultural and linguistic barriers to form such unique and interesting relationships? Besides, there are always ways to combat the negatives (though it may be impossible to eradicate them completely).
Here are some suggestions to make life easier:
- Stay connected with both your network back home and with your new connections. People back home are great to vent to when you need it, but your new connections can offer support as well. Traveling with other Americans allows you to share your experiences and commiserate over things that didn’t go as planned. Traveling with locals helps you connect to your host community and form new intercultural relationships.
- Communicate! You may not always be comfortable bringing up issues with your host family, but if you don’t talk about a problem, it will never get solved. Reach out to one of your program coordinators if you are too uncomfortable speaking with your host family.
- Come prepared. Brainstorm activities that you can do with the kids to break the ice. Music, card games, baking, art projects, etc, can all help bring you closer to them. Learn their interests and try to use those as much as you can. Lastly, it's important to use a lot encouragement and praise!
Overall, living with foreign strangers isn’t always easy, but it’s a valuable learning experience. Besides gaining intimate knowledge of a new language and culture, you will also gain new perspectives on your own culture and learn a lot about your own values, personality, and lifestyle. Living with a host family is certainly worth experiencing at least once in your life!