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How to Deal With Host Family Problems Abroad

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Living with a host family can be a blessing or a curse. Homestays give you a chance to immerse yourself in another culture and learn the language and traditions of the country you’re staying in.

Some collegiettes and their host families just click. But just as not everyone gets along with their roommates, not everyone gets along with their host families.

Cultural differences and misunderstandings can make living with a host family difficult. Unfortunately, some host families are more interested in the check they will receive for hosting you than making sure you have a good experience. However, you still want to make the most out of your time abroad. You should expect that you’re going to have to deal with some problems throughout your homestay, but you should do the most you can to ensure you have a positive, comfortable experience. We’re sharing common problems you may encounter while staying in homestays abroad and tips for what to do if these issues happen to you.

Common problems you may experience

Close quarters

You’ve been wondering what your host family will be like for months. You may have exchanged emails with them, but you really won’t know what they’re going to be like until you get there. Of course, we all hope for the picture-perfect family who accepts us as their own and a perfectly cute house to live in, but your family and house may be completely different from what you expected.

When Meagan, a senior from Boston University, arrived at her homestay, she found that her room wasn’t just small—it was tiny. “I feel like as Americans, we expect big rooms. My room was actually as big as my wingspan—probably 5 feet by 10,” she says. Meagan could lie on her bed, stretch her arms out and touch the sidewalls, and she could touch the other two walls by stretching out her arms and legs.

Although having a tiny room wasn’t exactly what she had expected or wanted, she still enjoyed living there. “Living there was worth it,” she says. “I had my own little bathroom, and my host family was awesome and had little kids.”

Your living arrangement may not be your ideal or perfect situation; however, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it work! Focus your efforts on having a good relationship with your host family rather than yearning for the perfect room. Try your best to stay positive and be open-minded. After all, studying abroad is all about learning how to adjust to new situations and environments!

Different standards of cleanliness

Just like a roommate, your host family may have a different standard of cleanliness than you. You may stay with a family who keeps the house tidy, while you like to keep your things in a bit of an “organized” mess. Try to be respectful of how they like their house, and go out of your way to be neater than you normally would. Talk with your host family to see if it bothers them if you keep your room messy; this may really upset some host families, while others may not care at all. Being proactive can help prevent problems before they start.

On the other hand, it can be just as uncomfortable when you are the neat one and your host family is a little messy. “Knowing that I am somewhat of a germaphobe, I did my best to ignore [my host mother’s] dishwashing methods, but I had a very hard time eating off of forks that still had bits of food stuck to them or glasses still stained with last night’s wine,” says Katie, a senior at Boston University.

Katie found a simple solution; drinking out of her own water bottle made her feel better than drinking from glasses she felt were dirty. “I often used my own water bottle to drink out of and on occasion got up to rewash things subtly,” she says.

Try to see if a small fix or trick like this can help solve the issue, or if it’s really bothering you, try talking to your host family about it. You should be able to find a compromise. “A little uncleanliness was entirely worth the homestay experience,” Katie says. “Students should expect to have to make compromises for the families that are feeding them and introducing them to a new culture.”

The food isn’t good

No all programs require the host families to provide food, but many do. When host families provide meals, there are a number of problems that can come up. One issue that can occur is that your family provides meals that aren’t very high quality, which may not be enough or appealing to you. “They served the cheapest possible food—you could really tell that it was the cheapest possible and that they were trying to save a few pence,” says Iris, an HC contributing writer and sophomore at UCLA. “One night we had spaghetti Bolognese; it looked like dog food and my friend and I gagged multiple times. We’re really not picky, but this food felt poisonous.”

To deal with this, Iris bought extra food from a grocery store. Having a few snacks on hand to munch on to eat when you might not like the meals or as an extra pick-me-up can make a big difference.

However, you should check with your family before storing snacks in your room, because some families don’t allow food anywhere other than the kitchen. However, if you find that you’re buying yourself every meal when your program is supposed to include meals, you should definitely talk with your host family or program director—you deserve to get your money’s worth, too!

Another issue could simply be that you don’t like the food you’re given (you may be given food that is completely different than what you are used to). Or, you may be given portions that are far too big. “I would tell [my host mother] to not give me that much food, but she wouldn’t listen,” says Tatiana, a senior who studied abroad in Madrid. “I would eat everything that she gave me even if it meant ending up sick to my stomach because the portions were so large.”

Be upfront with your likes and dislikes right away, and try to have an open discussion about what you need to feel healthy—you want to be polite, but you should never feel you have to eat something that will make you feel sick or uncomfortable. Keep in mind that you will have to make compromises, and you should do your best to eat the local cuisine.

The environment

You may think that staying in a home would be a more relaxing environment than in a dorm, but that’s not always the case. Demi, a junior at Boston University, had an extremely loud host family that was a bit too much for her at times. “There was never a dull moment in my homestay. My host mom and siblings were always running around,” she says. “They were great people; they just had really loud ways of expressing themselves.”

There are some differences that you’ll have to get used to, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find ways to make yourself more comfortable. Demi found that for her, it was best to do homework when her host family wasn’t around, and she would spend time outside the house with friends when she needed a break from the hectic environment. “I would either try to hang out with friends to get away from the craziness for a little bit or listen to music to tune it out,” she says.

Your host family may have little kids who are noisy all the time, they listen to the TV too loud 24/7 or they may constantly talk to you when you need some alone time. Whatever the case, you might find that you need a break from your host family sometimes. Find a spot outside your house that you can escape to if you need some time to yourself.

Financial differences

You’re probably not the only one interested in saving money—your host family may be watching their budget, too! Because of this, it’s not unusual for some host families to set strict guidelines for water and electricity usage to save money.

“I wasn’t allowed to use the lights when I showered, and I couldn’t turn on lights if I walked through the apartment,” says Tahlia, a Boston University senior. She says that she constantly fought with her host mother—mainly about the Wi-Fi use. “She complained about the cost of the bills, so she would shut off the Wi-Fi at any point when I wasn’t using it. She would also get up at 2 a.m. and turn it off when she knew I was Skyping with my parents.”

Tatiana had a similar issue. Her host mother felt she took showers that were too long, and the two discussed the issue together. “She brought this up to me and requested that I turn the water off when I shampoo and wash myself, so I agreed,” Tatiana says.

Unfortunately, the compromise wasn’t enough to resolve the issue. “Even when I turned the water on only to rinse off she still wasn't satisfied and complained to me that I was spending too much time in the shower,” Tatiana says. “I didn’t know what else to do to please her.”

Talk about energy and water usage guidelines early on with your host family so that you can find a happy medium. It’s important to ask about your host family’s guidelines and try to adhere to them. If you are uncomfortable with the guidelines they set, try to talk to your program director about it. Some families are more concerned about making money from you and having your stay cost as little to them as possible.  “I definitely think she was just in it for the money,” Tahlia says. “She would hound me for the rent check the minute she found out that we had been given them.”

Personality differences

It’s also possible that you simply may not get along with your host family. “I stayed with a family in Scotland, and they were so mean! Literally, they would barely say hi to my friend and me,” Iris says. “We only saw the family very briefly in the morning and at night. Our only interactions consisted of ‘hello,’ ‘goodnight’ and, ‘dinner is served.”

Unfortunately, some host families just aren’t interested in talking to you, learning about your life or helping you learn about their culture. They may think of you more as a boarder than a new family member.

Think about what you want from your experience and if you’re getting it or not. Is your host family mean, or just quiet? If they are mean and you feel uncomfortable in the environment, talk with your program director right away! If they aren’t mean but just don’t want to be involved with your life, decide if that is something that is okay with you. Are you finding cultural enrichment elsewhere in the program? Do you enjoy being more independent? If so, this arrangement could work out for you. However, if you really want to speak the language with them or be more involved in your host family’s lives, you may want to think about switching families.

How to bring up problems with your host family or program

Don’t be afraid to speak up about issues you may be having! The best way to work through problems is through communication with your host family. Let them know how you feel; they may have no idea that a problem exists.  Conversely, you may be doing things that they aren’t happy with. You’re both living with someone from a completely different culture, and cultural misunderstandings happen!

“What I quickly discovered is that the best way to handle situations with host families is to be open and honest with them,” says Maddie, a junior at Boston College. “If you have a problem with your host family, I would try first to solve the issue internally. If that doesn't work, then I would suggest talking to your group supervisor or housing contact to discuss other options.”

Before you sit down with your host family, you should consider asking your program for tips for how to address the situation. Different cultures have different norms for what is considered rude and polite, so your program advisers may be able to help you best approach your situation without accidentally insulting your host family. You should also talk with other students in your program—are they having some of the same issues as you? How did they handle it? There might be a major cultural difference that a lot of students are experiencing, and you can learn how to handle it together.

If you are having major issues, such as if you and your family get into big arguments, you feel very uncomfortable in your home, you aren’t being fed properly (if your program includes meals) or you don’t feel you’re getting the necessities you need, talk to your program director right away. Find out what the exact agreement is with the host family, and then sit down with your host family to discuss it with them to make sure the terms are being met.

“I found the best way to enter these conversations was over dinner, when we were all together,” Maddie says. “I would casually bring up the issue and then ask for clarification on a rule or cultural norm as politely as I could, and then give my host mom or dad (usually it was my host mom) [the opportunity] to explain further.”

These conversations aren’t always easy, but it’s important to have them anyway. “Sometimes the conversations were really awkward, and more than once I ended up crying, but after it was all over I was really glad that everything had gotten into the open,” Maddie says.

And if you’re still having problems? “Don't be afraid to switch host families if the situation seems irreparable!” Maddie says. “It’s better to get yourself into a better situation and enjoy the rest of your time abroad than try to suffer through a bad home situation.”


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