Exchange, Host Family, Study Abroad 101

How To Handle Living With A Host Family

Living with a host family is one of the most wonderful experiences you can have during your exchange. It is gives you the opportunity to really get to know a culture and forces you to integrate in a way that you would normally never have to.
Living with a host family, for the exact same reasons, is also one of the hardest experiences during your exchange, or maybe even for life in general. Studying abroad during university gives you the freedom of living on your own and locking yourself into your room whenever you want to, something a host family will probably not appreciate. Besides that you will have to learn the language because otherwise living together is going to get really difficult.

During my exchange year I have had multiple host families, which simultaneously makes the best and the worst person to give you advice on this topic. What I do know is that having both hosted several exchange students and lived with host families, there are certain things that are really important to keep in mind.

We were all born exchange students into our own families

If you spend enough time with someone and have an open mind, you will get to appreciate and love them. Think about it, you weren’t born knowing all of the habits of your family. You thought it was strange you had to sleep at night, and repeatedly complained about that to your parents. Their food was often strange, but they insisted you had to eat vegetables.
But ultimately, those strange habits of their became your habits. So much so that now you think people who do it differently are ‘strange’. As a baby you had to keep an open mind because you simply didn’t have a lot of other reference and well, where else would you go?
But living in a host family it is easy to fall back on the habits you had with your own family and say those of others are strange. The truth is, no habit is stranger or more normal than another, it is all about keeping an open mind and accepting that their habits, are your habits too now.

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You don’t choose your family, nor what they dress you up like

All families are weird

You are probably more likely to notice your own host families weirdness because of the cultural difference, but the truth is that every family has it’s own strange habits. The thing is, every family has their own weird little habits, you have just grown to accept those of your family. Don’t judge your host family on their weird family relations our the way they communicate with each other, because your family has just as many curious customs.

You need to earn their trust

They might be really strict on you but that is mostly because they don’t know you yet. You might be an extremely responsible person, but they need to know that because they are responsible for you now and when anything happens to you, they are the ones that have to explain it to your parents.
So tell them where you are when you are going into town or out with your friends. It might seem annoying and controlling, but put yourself in their position. You might tell them you wouldn’t do something stupid, but when something actually happens they can’t just say “Oh well but the teenager told me they were responsible, so what was I supposed to do?¨
Besides, you are new to the country and culture. Something that might be safe in your country might not be that safe in your host country.

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Every family has their own micro-culture

It is funny that when talking to some people they will see their host family as a representation of their (host) country while in fact every family has their own values and habits.
In all of my families I have found a different representation of the Panamanian culture and when I would tell them about something I did with my other family or something that had happened, they would tell me that that was not ‘really’ Panama.
The other way around, I have spoken to exchange students in my home country and they tell me things like “I hate it how Dutch people don’t lock their bathroom doors”. I mean, who doesn’t lock their bathroom door? In all the years I have spent in the Netherlands I have never met a family who doesn’t lock their bathroom door, or who thinks it’s okay to have pizza for breakfast, yet when I talk to exchange students they tell me that that is what Dutch people do.

It might be difficult to integrate into your host family, but even if you would live in a host family in your own country you would go through the same kind of struggles of different habits.

They are your family

So treat them accordingly. They are not a hotel, but they are also not your friends.

Even within your own family you have lots of arguments, disagreements, annoyances and what not. When you live with a host family it is easy to say that you want to change family because you are not getting along but living with other people as a family, you will never completely get along. There will always be something, whether it is an actual disagreement or you just didn’t get enough sleep. Try to keep in mind that it will never be perfect.

The great thing about living with a host family is that you get to know the culture and the family very very well. The bad thing about getting to know things very well, is that you also get to know the ‘bad’ side. The things that you don’t like.

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Every family is different

If you are having problems with your host family for some reason, and you see another family that looks just perfect, let me tell you; things aren’t always as they seem. No family is perfect and if you live with another family long enough, there are bound to be little annoyances. Those other ‘perfect’ exchange students who seem to be having the best time of their lives are most often the ones who change family. Don’t kid yourself that once you change family things will magically get better. Sometimes they do, sometimes families just don’t fit with students. But with any new family, no matter how well you think you know them, you will at some point annoy you or cause some sort of problem.

When I changed family for the second time I had found a family to move to. I knew them quite well and they seemed perfect. The kids loved me, they had a spare room in which I had stayed several times and every time I was with them, we just had a great time. They offered to host me and since I wasn’t having a great time with my family and the family was expanding, I thought his would be the best option. So I changed, again. But from the day I arrived to their house things slowly got worse. Every time they would find something to be displeased about. It was the most horrible feeling in the world, because I really liked them and I was trying everything I could to please them, but it was never enough. Two weeks before I was going back to my home country they told me I had to change family again because they couldn’t live with me anymore. I would never claim to be a perfect exchange student, but certainly with them I had always tried my very very best, which made it one of the hardest experiences of my whole exchange, but therefore also one of the most valuable ones.

What I would like to say is, I was naive enough to think the time living with them was going to be like staying over at their place, but it wasn’t. At all. And maybe if I had had more realistic expectations it would have had a more successful ending.

It is not all about your experience, but also about theirs.

We have always loved hosting people, but also because it is fun for us. We once hosted a student that kept being upset about not living in the centre of Amsterdam. He skipped school, refused to learn the language because his mother told him it was too hard anyways, and he ended up being sent home, and even though we knew it wasn’t our fault, it actually really hurt us. Because as a host family, you feel like you have failed. You wonder what you could have done better.

Having someone from another culture in their home is not only about giving you an amazing experience, it is also very much for them. They enjoy having someone in their house, learning about different cultures. For whatever reason they took you in their home, you should keep in mind that even though it is your exchange year, it is also an amazing experience for them. Don’t spend all of your free time in your room, partying or traveling, but also spend some time with them.

They have chosen to open up their house for you

Yes, maybe they are weird and sometimes you might not understand exactly why they did it, but you should never forget that they opened up one of the most sacred things in life: their home and family! So you better appreciate it!

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