Cultural Differences or Deal Breakers? How to Navigate Living with a Host Family

Living with a host family can be the best way to get to know a culture or a language. There are language benefits as well being a part of a family instead of being an observer - but it's not easy. Dealing with major cultural barriers and learning to follow the rules of a completely different household may take some getting used to. It's important to consider what is a cultural difference and what is inappropriate behavior if there is a conflict with your host family. Living with host families can present a number of challenges, and it's easy to throw in the towel if you don't think you get along or adapt well to their way of life. 

Here's a few issues you may encounter with your host family and how to overcome them.

1.) Language Barrier

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Not being able to communicate effectively with the people you're living with can present a major problem, like accidentally telling my host mom for several months that I like riding horses (I don't) or telling her that I bought a woman in Amsterdam (I didn't). It is pretty likely that your host family will have at least a minimal English speaking ability, but if yours doesn't (like mine), it can be difficult to communicate if you can't at least reference your home language.

I encourage you to stick with speaking the language of your host country as much as possible. Even if your host family does speak English, you will benefit overall from avoiding it. If you don't know the word for something, try describing it in whichever words you do know, and asking what the word in their language is, and repeat it! If it's important, you can rely on asking your friends, teachers or locals how to translate something. I can't count the number of times I used Google Translate on the Metro on the way home because I didn't know how to say something that I wanted to tell my host mom. I repeated it over and over and over and over in my head on the train until I got home, and that's how a lot of things stuck.

Learning a new language requires a sense of humor, patience, an open mind, and a willingness to play charades every once in a while. 

2.) Cultural Differences

More than likely, you'll face cultural differences in your new home. Be patient. You're in a new country to learn these things and to adapt to them, so don't immediately write them off as being "weird" or "different" because what's weird and different to you may not be weird or different to them. Some things you may not ever get used to. I could never get used to the 10:30pm dinner time in Spain. And sometimes, I just wanted more than plain cereal for breakfast. But being flexible and adaptable is imperative in living with a host family.

There are smaller things that you may not even think of that relate to what you/they think is acceptable or appropriate behavior. Find out what is considered rude and polite. Research about cultural and social norms. Learn as much as you can about the culture beforehand. There are things you can never learn from a class or from the internet that you will notice. So take note of their behaviors during the first few weeks and try your best to adhere to them. 

3.) Relinquishing Control

Some host families are stricter than others, but regardless, it will take getting used to living with a parent-like figure, especially if you've been living away from home for a few years. You may have to get used to curfews, particular eating times, shorter showers, and letting them know when you've arrived somewhere safely. These freedoms may have to be relinquished, but that doesn't mean that you have to give away all of them. If you're having trouble adapting, perhaps try to have an open discussion with them. Things like eating times, shower lengths etc. are cultural adjustments that probably won't be changed. But if you explain the value of experiencing a culture in all its glory (nightlife and all!), you may get a little wiggle room on things like curfew. 

Just remember, they're not trying to infringe on your personal space! They're trying to look after you. Remember - you are their guest. They want you to be safe and they want you to have a good experience. If there are major issues, contact your study abroad program. They've dealt with these families before and can help you decide if switching to a new family would be beneficial or detrimental to your stay.

4.) Dietary Needs

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Make sure they know your dietary needs before you arrive!! I don't eat red meat, and neither did my roommate. But we still were served ham almost every day because "ham isn't meat." Ok sure. 

Your study abroad program should ask you about dietary restrictions beforehand. But make sure you reiterate to your host families what you can and can't eat, because sometimes foreign families aren't familiar with things like Crohn's disease, or a gluten free diet. Be explicit and clear. If your dietary restrictions are severe, you may have to rethink living with a host family. It's an unfortunate reality but you want to be able to enjoy your experience while being full! 

Also, TELL YOUR HOST FAMILY if you don't like something they make. They shouldn't be offended. If you just let it sit, they'll keep feeding you those things until you tell them otherwise!

Say thank you! Offer to help around the house. Go out and sit in the living room with your host family. Try to engage as much as possible.

The more comfortable they feel around you, the more comfortable you'll feel around them.