During the course of one year, I stayed with over 50 homestay families in 7 different countries.
You might be wondering if maybe I am a bad house guest, seeing as how quickly I moved around. Like a misbehaving dog who just can’t seem to find a forever home. However, let the record show that I am an absolute joy who loves to play board games and ALWAYS leaves a thank-you note on his pillow (my parents taught me right)!
If you’re new here, you may also be thinking, “What the heck is a homestay?! That doesn’t even sound like a real word!” I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have no idea who came up with this term, but it definitely feels weird to say it out loud.
A homestay is a type of travel accommodation in which you stay with a host family, typically as a part of some sort of exchange. Some people use it as a cultural exchange, some use it to learn a language. I was doing both, and, in exchange, was teaching the children of these families to sing and dance! Like a modern-day Maria von Trapp, if you will.
You live in their house and go about your daily life as if you are suddenly part of their family. Kind of like what Armie Hammer’s character did in Call Me By Your Name…. apricot trees optional.
I must say, I saw a lot of beautiful things during this year, but my homestays were by far my favorite part of the entire experience. Hotels are great, but they are virtually identical wherever you go: tasteful, sterile, curated. With a homestay, you get to experience that place’s culture in a much deeper way, by truly living like a local.
In a notebook I received as a graduation gift, I decided to collect memories from each of my homestay families to remember them by. This has become one of my most prized possessions, and it feels like a sacred museum of that vibrant year. Littered with postcards, drawings, handwritten notes, and photos, it is truly a storybook that I can’t wait to share with my children one day (but let’s not think thaaaat far into the future).
When you think about it, the experience of homestaying is a two-way street of trust: They are letting a complete stranger into their home, but I’m also walking right into the home of a stranger. Everyone is trusting that they’re not going to be killed and end up on the local news. Both parties are going out on a limb, a little out of their comfort zones, which is where the most genuine connections are formed.
I have so many vivid memories of staying far past my bedtime getting to know my new families, and asking them a million questions about how they live life. Choosing to be 20 minutes late to school in order to take the scenic route and watch the sunrise over the beach (worth it). Playing basketball for hours with my Polish sister because we had no other way of communicating. Taking a trip to a Japanese hot spring with my family and having to cover up my tattoos with oversized bandages because they are “marks of the devil.”
It is truly invaluable to have this gigantic extended family spanning multiple countries, languages, and backgrounds. Once-strangers who took me in with open arms and not a single judgment, no matter how effeminate my voice or how smelly my laundry. And so many went out of their way to take good care of me, preparing special vegan meals after extensive online research and recipe-swapping with their yoga teachers.
And though this wondrous year of travel is now two years in the past, I feel like I could waltz right back into the doors of any of my host families, sit down at the table for breakfast, and carry on like no time had gone by. I am still in contact with almost all of them, exchanging letters, emails, Facebook messages, and packages for holidays and birthdays.
Of course, saying goodbye at the end of my stay was never easy.
Tears were often shed as if we had spent our entire lives together, and promises were always made to one day return. It’s funny how it takes months to feel comfortable saying “I love you” in most romantic relationships, but with homestays, we found ourselves dropping those words after a long weekend like it was nothing.
The next time you are planning a trip to a new place, consider opting to stay with a host family instead of your typical accommodations.
You never know which doors will lead to a new addition to your chosen family.