Students in study abroad programs often live with a host family during their stay in a foreign country, both because experiencing the family life in another culture gives more depth to the experience, and because having a faux “family” for support can help students get over the initial culture shock (I also expect that having students stay with a family is often cheaper than having them stay at in an apartment or at a hotel).
Obviously, the student’s relationship with their host family partly determines what kind of stay they will have, especially if they are studying abroad for a semester or a year.
I think that the concept of having a host family is a great one. Of course, being suddenly “adopted” into a new family (or in the family’s place, having some zitty teenager dropped in your midst) comes with a set of difficulties, and there would probably be difficulties even if you were from the same cultures and you had previously known each member the family for a large part of your life. When you find yourself suddenly living with somebody, eating with them about twice a day, sharing the bathroom with them, negotiating chores with them, finding out what strongly held beliefs they have, and observing their daily ‘rituals,’ no matter how flexible and nonjudgmental you are, along with the wonderful parts of living with a new person there is also bound to be conflict for a number of reasons; *especially* if you find yourself living with a whole family.
I only have the visiting student’s point of view, and saw all the challenges of assimilating myself in with a new family as such:
First of all you have to silently negotiate exactly how much space you will take up for the next year. Are you aloud to use the computer? The telephone? Sit anywhere you want at the table? More importantly, do they say you can do these things but do they really resent you for it? Will doing chores be appreciated, or seen as the usurping of the position of the principal chore doer of the house? (I got in trouble for this). This part can be stressful.
Then you have to take into account any personality conflicts you have, and decide whether you need to repress parts of yourself or your beliefs around your family to keep the peace or make them more comfortable (for example if they think you’re a freak will you dress differently? If they are homophobic will you pretend you’re not gay? If they are racist will you keep quiet?). Conversations about conflicting beliefs are almost never taboo and are a very desirable part of the cultural exchange. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that you will be living with these people for a year, and while discussion (even heated discussion or debate) is a good thing, emotional, angry arguments are bad and can make your life very unpleasant for a very long time(and you want to take great pains never to be rude and consider if how you are arguing could be considered rude, because you are really in debt to these people for taking you in for usually very little money).
Another factor of living with people from any culture for an extended period of time is that you are bound to find a habit or tick or personality trait of theirs that drives you up the walls, and they will also quite likely find fault with you. The polite student tries as hard as they can just to get over it because it is them imposing on the family’s life, not vice versa. If the family voices their irritation over the behavior of the student (for example their table manners or their grammar) this can cause more conflict if the student is then in turn offended.
And of course, when living with people whose culture is different than yours there is an enormous possibility of cultural misunderstanding, which can either be turned into an (often funny) positive learning experience, or a huffy disagreement if you aren’t on your toes (the whole year long).
I absolutely adored being an exchange student. I never learned so much or changed so much in one year, I never had so much fun, I met my fiancée and other great friends, I ate delicious food and experienced a new educational system and a new language. However, I still, still, still have nightmares about my host family.