Studying abroad is hard. Upon boarding the plane to your destination, you leave behind your friends, family, food — basically your entire culture. Some students choose to attend programs that allow them to be with students and professors from the United States, if not from their home institution as well. However, others choose programs from different schools or external programs that are exclusively for study abroad (i.e. a host family).
Yet, regardless of whether you know everyone with whom you will be studying, the environment in which you live can make or break your experience.
Because I am in Spain, I chose to live with a host family in order to further immerse myself in the Spanish culture and language. With that being said, I was choosing to have a much different study abroad experience than many of my friends. Many people who study abroad choose to live in an apartment or dorm with other Americans in their program.
In contrast, I decided to throw myself deeper into a new culture because I chose to have a Spanish home environment. Host families, or host mom in my case, and their students definitely have their ups and downs, and it’s usually not an easy transition adjusting to one another. Here’s what I learned through my experience.
It’s Great, Most of the Time
Overall, host families are great. I live with a single woman, so it is typically just us and my roommate in the apartment. What’s great about solely having a host mother as opposed to an entire family is that my roommate and I can get to know her really well.
Between class and studying, I really do not have much time to bond with my family; however, because it’s just us and our host mom, when we are home, we have a lot of one-on-one time to bond and speak with her in Spanish. If we had a larger family, it would be more difficult to form relationships because our limited time would be diffused between several people, as would other family members amongst each other.
I also enjoy having a host family because it allows me to delve deeper into Spanish culture than I ever could if I were living in an apartment or dorm with other Americans. In my homestay, I must speak Spanish practically the entire time I’m home throughout the day, and I also get to learn more about Spanish culture.
Not only do we experience siesta and later mealtimes, but our host mom also takes the time to talk to us and teach us about certain Spanish customs. Through living with her, I am learning and experiencing so much more than is possible in other living situations.
Even though my time with my host mom is usually great, sometimes, it’s a little uncomfortable. One very common awkward situation between us is the language barrier. While I am proficient in Spanish, I am not fluent, and by no means would I consider myself bilingual. Also, my host mom does not speak any English.
With that being said, I can’t always remember how to say what I’m trying to tell her, which usually ends in my trying to explain it in Spanish or say the word in English, and her ending up really confused. Similarly, I don’t always know what she’s trying to say to me, which ends in an uncomfortable, drawn-out silence while she searches the word in Google translate. However, if we both remain patient, everything usually ends up being fine.
Things can also get awkward or tense with house rules and cultural differences surrounding home life. Obviously, I’m used to being at home with my family during breaks from school, and I’m used to the standard rules: clean room, do your own dishes, do your own laundry, etc. However, with Spanish host families, things are a little different.
My host mom never sat down with us to go over a list of rules and expectations. Instead, we took the “learn as you go” approach, and sometimes, things got awkward. For instance, in Spain, respect and appreciation for one’s family is shown in ways much different from keeping a tidy room.
Rather, my roommate and I quickly learned that things like leaving food on your plate after dinner can be rather insulting. So, it’s better to tell your family if they have served you too large of a portion. Otherwise, they might believe you don’t appreciate the time they spend cooking and preparing your meals.
Another difference is that our host mom doesn’t want us to do things like dishes and laundry, but I was not aware of those expectations at the beginning of the semester. So, you could say I was pretty startled when she yelled upon seeing me washing dishes and told me to stop — she even walked to the sink to turn off the water.
Obviously, her yelling at me for doing dishes was not meant to scold or scare me. However, Spanish women are typically blunt and abrasive, so it’s important not to take sharp scolds too personally.
Most students who study abroad do so during their junior year of college, so they are around 20 or 21 years old. I am 21, and since I have been living at school for the past two years, I am very used to being independent. Obviously, I follow general rules when I am at home with my family during summers and vacations, but I still do my own laundry, choose what I eat and decide how I spend my time outside of my obligations.
Going into the study abroad program, we were all told that our host families would not oversee what we do and when we do it aside from general house rules. So, I assumed it would be fine to come and go as I please. Most of the time, it is.
Albeit, my roommate and I did have a rough encounter with our host mother when trying to leave during siesta to study. Instead, she told us to go back into our room to take a nap because we looked tired, which lead to some arguing and intense discomfort when we had to surrender and retire to our room.
When going through a difficult situation with your host family, it’s important to remember that while your host family deserves respect and to know of your whereabouts, they really don’t have the authority to keep you from leaving to go out at night or to a coffee shop during the day. So, if you have issues like my roommate and I have experienced, talk to your housing coordinator about it, and he or she will know exactly how to handle the situation.