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10 tips for doing a homestay
Try new foods
When I did a homestay in Ghana, Africa, there were many meals that I was less than thrilled about. As a health-nut, I never would have made fried chicken a normal part of my diet, and eating (or drinking) rice water for breakfast left me less than satisfied. However, instead of getting upset about the food situation think about how much effort your host is putting into making your stay with them pleasant by spending time cooking for you and letting you stay in their home. Thank your host for every meal, even if you don't like it. And if there's something you really can't stomach, find a way to make it edible. With rice water, I learned to add chocolate powder and stir it into the mix. Moreover, to help myself feel better about eating fried foods I began going for morning runs, which also gave me the opportunity to see the village market stalls being set up in the morning, something I usually would have slept through.
While it may be okay to walk around your own home in your underwear or short shorts, think about how it might make others feel. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable in their own home, and even if they don't say it makes them uncomfortable, it probably does, so just make sure to cover up. Also, in certain cultures showing your shoulders and knees is inappropriate, so just be aware of a culture's etiquette.
Because this person/family is allowing you to live in their house, it is respectful to help out. That doesn't just mean doing your dishes and making your bed; offer to do everyone's dishes, help cook a meal, sweep the floor, or go to town and get groceries. It's a nice gesture to the host as well as a unique way to learn about the culture and what it's like to perform an everyday task.
Keep an open mind
While you probably realize the culture is different in terms of what you will be eating, bathroom habits, and house design, there are sometimes more drastic contrasts that you should be prepared for. When I did a homestay in Thailand, I remember at first having a little bit of a hard time getting used to the squat toilets, bucket showers, and always having frogs and lizards in the bathroom with me as I changed my clothes. What really took me off guard was one night when we were having chicken for dinner seeing my host mother literally chop a live chicken's head off. Of course, you know it happens, but it's definitely a little off-putting to see it first hand. There were a lot of adjustments for me in Ghana, as well. Once or twice a week, my host would have a prayer group over at 3AM to sing hymns until 6AM, which meant once or twice a week I didn't get to sleep. While it bothered me at first I began to go watch the group sing and tried to make it into a learning experience. Remember, you won't be here forever, so try to open yourself up to as many unique learning opportunities as possible.
While this could mean how you dress, it also means in general. While you may be used to taking hour-long hot showers while leaving all of the lights on and scarfing a bag of Doritos at home, you've got to remember you're now living on someone else's dime. Moreover, it is also possible that the area your homestay is in doesn't have the natural resources that your home town does, so try to conserve as best as you can. In Achiase, Ghana, the town would turn on the taps for about 3 hours per week, and everyone would rush to fill up as many buckets with water as possible so that we could wash dishes, do laundry, and take bucket showers during the week. While it may not be the easiest thing to get used to, you'll come to learn that showering and doing laundry every single day isn't a necessity.
Spend time with the host
Don't think of your homestay as a budget-friendly alternative to a hotel. Instead, get to know your host and form a relationship. Not only is it more respectful, it's also very rewarding. It'll give you the chance to gain a better understanding of life in the city as well as the opportunity to do activities that you may not have otherwise gotten the chance to do. In Ghana, I got the opportunity to attend church with my host mom. While I could have done this on my own, it was a whole different experience going with a local congregation member, and the pastor even had an interpreter sit next to me. I also got the chance to play soccer with the local team in Achiase because I would go running with my host brother in the morning. This was something I never would have been able to do if I had kept to myself, and it gave me a first-hand account of team interactions and sports in the country.
The best part about traveling to another country is immersing yourself in the culture and learning everything you can. Partaking in a homestay is a great first step to doing this and the perfect opportunity to learn something. Don't be afraid to ask questions and interact. If you see your host cooking, ask them what they are making and if you can have the recipe. If you like your host sibling's clothing, ask them what it's made of and what the local fashion is like. Help them with their school work and see what they are being taught. Depending on how close you get with the host and what the cultural norms are, you can even learn about more personal topics like community issues, relationships, and gender roles, which leads me to my next point.
Learn cultural norms before you go
If you know that talking about religion or the government is taboo in a culture, don't ask about it. That being said, I've done homestays in places where I was told a topic was off-limits yet became close with a family member and was able to have these touchy conversations; however, I allowed them to bring up the issue. In Ghana, the locals were very open to talking about everything, and would actually take me off guard with the questions they would ask. That being said, I got to learn a lot about dating norms, marriage proposals, government corruption, religious beliefs, diet regimes, and the religious structuring in the schools.
Learning the cultural norms goes farther than what you say; it also includes gestures, clothing styles, and rituals. For example, I researched Thailand before doing my homestay there and learned that it is rude to sit with your feet sticking straight out. This is something I do all of the time at home, especially if I'm eating while sitting on the floor, and was so grateful to have been given this information beforehand as all of our meals were taken on the living room carpet.
While you want to learn about the culture from your host family, they are most likely excited to learn more about your culture, as well. Bring photos from home of your friends, family, places you go, foods you like, your neighborhood; anything that you think someone who has never been to your city might want to know about. You can also teach them recipes, games, songs, dances, art skills, and other fun activities that you think might be interesting.
Exchange contact information
After your homestay is complete, you shouldn't just leave and drop off the face of the Earth. Most likely, you've established some kind of connection with these people, and even if you haven't, they were still nice enough to host you. Once you return home, a follow-up thanking them for their kindness is appropriate. Moreover, if you took photos your host family will probably be interested in seeing them. During both my Thailand and Ghana homestays I was living with families who didn't own cameras. I took photos of them and their families and the community and mailed them over for them to have for themselves. For both families, it was the first photos they'd ever owned, and both told me that the gift meant a lot.
[flickr photos via jasonlam, jessieonajourney, Wm Jas, jessieonajourney, jessieonajourney]