Unless you were abandoned as a child in a woodland area somewhere and were raised by wolves, you’ve likely lived with other human beings for your whole life. Living with others can be challenging – everyone has bad habits and, on the other side of the coin, habits of others that ticks them off. You’ve probably have been told by your mother, who likely used your full name to address you in a not-so-affectionate tone, to make your bed and clean your room. You’ve also probably entered your shared bathroom to find that one of your roommates left toothpaste stains in the sink again.
Living in a homestay is a unique experience. In some ways, you revert back to childhood levels of dependence. My host mom, Maritina, is like a second mother to me. She takes care of me when I’m sick, she scolds me when I do something that bothers her (“please Julia, do not use your computer on the bed! It will catch on fire and this entire apartment will burn down” whatever you say, mom), she makes me veggie-centric dinners and insists that I need not help her prepare the food… living with a host parent or family can be awesome but, like any living situation, it comes with some sacrifices. Many people cite living with a host parent as one of the best parts of their study abroad experience, but still more leave their abroad programs ready to return home to their real parents or to their own apartment. My experience with homestay living falls somewhere in the middle: it’s great to live with a native Argentine on one hand but I miss the independence I had at school and home on the other. Below I’ve listed honest pros and cons of homestay living.
PRO: (Some of) your meals are taken care of. If you aren’t accustomed to cooking for yourself, this will be a huge plus for you. My host mom is an amazing cook, and has provided meals for me that I can eat. Some students I’ve spoken to aren’t so lucky. For example, some friends of mine live with a host mother who fears the stove solely uses the microwave to cook meals. If your host mom does happen to be a good cook, like mine is, you’ll really look forward to dinnertime.
CON: You likely sacrifice a lot of independence. Your host parent will want to know where you are at all times and where you’re planning on going. My host mom checks my room every day to ensure that I’m keeping it tidy and organizes it if I’m not (perhaps I should list this as a pro???) Many host parents allow their host students to cook, but some, like mine, do not. This can be a huge adjustment if you are used to cooking most of your own meals like I am.
PRO: Your living quarters are likely a lot nicer than the resident hall you’d otherwise live in. Homestays in my program are situated in the nicest neighborhoods of the city and in some of the nicest apartment complexes. My program requires that hosts place us in our own rooms, so each student has their own living space. My host mom’s apartment is spacious and complete with a beautiful view of the city skyline and a balcony with a small garden.
CON: Language barriers can make communication difficult and can lead to unnecessary complications. My host mom probably asked me to do the same thing 8 times before I followed her instructions during the first week. Smiling and nodding in response to questions you can’t understand isn’t going to get you anywhere – asking for your host to repeat themselves more slowly can be uncomfortable at first, but it will help eliminate unnecessary consequences that result from poor communication.
PRO: You’ll be fully immersed in the language – just to turn the last con on its head. My host mom speaks less English than I do Spanish and loves to talk which has forced me to speak the language from the beginning. It’s hard to gauge my improvement day to day, but considering I did not know that “aprender” meant “to learn” and “entender” meant “to understand” when I arrived, I can discern that I’ve learned a lot and understand much more than I did when I arrived.
CON: Most hosts have strict visitor policies. This can make coordinating plans with friends difficult. It’s easy to be jealous of my friends abroad who live in apartment or dorm settings with new friends. Their living situations are more lax, and they’re constantly surrounded by those they take classes and go out with. There can be negatives associated with this living situation as well, no doubt.
PRO: You’ll be fully immersed in the culture. Not only are you being fed your host country’s native cuisine and speaking your host country’s language, you are living with a native. You will watch them interact with their friends and others, prepare their dishes and carry out their daily routines.
CON: Your friends could live on the opposite side of the city. Homestays are typically not concentrated on one block or even one neighborhood. In my case, I have friends that live 30 minutes south of me and friends that live 30 minutes north of me. Once you’ve learned your city’s taxi and bus system, this frustration is eased drastically.
PRO: To end this list on a positive note, your host parent will care for you when you’re sick, sad, or just missing home. Having such a person there for you at all times is extremely comforting and crucial to the adjustment period. There were several times during the first month when I felt miserable, like I just wanted to go home or hole myself in my room for the remaining few months of my stay in Argentina. Maritina always sensed my sadness and would convince me not to be upset, to get up and do something and turn what I was perceiving as a negative experience into a positive one. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the mostly Spanish-speaking hospital and gotten myself the proper medication and antibiotics to cure my sickness without her assistance. Living with a host has been vital to my adjustment period in this foreign place.
Living in a homestay can be great. It can also be frustrating and exhausting. It can provide a dichotomous amalgamation of great comfort and immense challenges. Overall, it is a blending of positives and negatives and a unique element of the study abroad experience.