The decision whether to do a home stay or to live in a dorm while studying abroad is a personal one. In order to make this decision effectively, you need to honestly evaluate yourself – specifically, what you can handle and what do you want out of your study abroad experience? Many people will tell you that without a doubt you should do home stay if you want a completely immersive experience while living in another country and studying another culture; however, home stay is not for everyone and there are opportunities to get involved in the wider community if you stay in a dorm. I have outlined below some important things to think about before determining whether or not you participate in a home stay program.
First here is a brief outline of my host family:
Mama-san (late 50s), Papa-san (late 50s), Yuka (28) and Mika (25) (Mika no longer lived at home since her marriage, and I occupied her room). I attended Kansai Gaidai University and lived in a more rural (although I thought it was suburban) area of Osaka outside of Hirakata City called Kawachi-mori. It took around one hour for me to commute to school.
If you would like to read more about my host family, you can read about my first day staying with them below. If not, skip ahead to the info sections.
The first 24 hours of my home stay experience:
There was a scream in the alleyway behind my house that brought me swiftly to a hazy consciousness. The dark, unfamiliar surroundings of my newly appointed bedroom provided little comfort, but even in this confused state, I managed to maneuver myself to view the clock that read 5:13AM. The room was already swelteringly hot and I was drenched in sweat, twisted uncomfortably in the sheets in my coverless bed. I heard a child outside yelling, “ka-san!, ka-san!” and then a siren started that caused me to abruptly sit up. I heard movement in the house on the first floor. I was up on the second trying desperately to understand the message being broadcast along with the siren. I worked out part of its’ meaning in English, “Please be careful…water main….” Due to the now full on racket taking place outside, continued sleep was impossible (I was seriously contemplating it though despite the warnings, which goes to show you how much of a morning person I am.) I tried to be optimistic. This was my first morning staying with my host family who I would continue to live with for the next 9 months.
Forcing myself to get out of bed, I thought about the previous day. I had already been in Japan for a month living in a dorm at the school because my host family was unable to pick me up for a few weeks due to family reasons. I finally met them on a late September afternoon the day before the “water main incident” and I so far was having a rather interesting time. My host mother or “Mama-san” as she preferred to be called, was a fast-talking, older, Osakan woman. She always had more energy than me (especially in the morning) and she had a very distinctive curly perm that occasionally gave her a sort of frazzled look. She adamantly hated the English language (she told me this on many occasions) and she only spoke Japanese and some broken German. She was usually incredibly kind to me although she could be a bit rough (she would routinely hit my ankles if my jeans touched the floor of the house which meant I was to roll them up and if I put my elbows on the table during dinner she would swipe them out from under me), but I knew that deep down she meant well. Mama-san and my host sister Yuka picked me up from the school. My host sister was 28 and even though she still lived at home she had a very independent life from the family and I hardly saw her at all during my time there. My host father worked in Tokyo even though his family lived in Osaka. He would come home every two weeks and stay for the weekend. Sometimes he would stay longer, but most often he lived in Tokyo. So, it was usually just me and Mama-san.
When I first arrived at the house, she told me all of the single room air conditioning units they had were broken. I was disappointed (it was so hot!) but since I didn’t have one at all in my bedroom I figured it was better to get used to the lack of a central air or heating system straight away. The house was a more modern, two-level Japanese house. It had a small front yard with a beautiful garden that Mama-san lovingly tended to daily. The house had a nicely sized genkan and an incredibly steep, narrow twisty staircase that I was a little intimidated by with good reason (Later that year, while walking up it wearing slippers my host mother fell and badly twisted her ankle. After that she no longer insisted that I wear slippers at all times in the house.) We had one tatami mat room on the main level with a butsudan (Buddhist altar) and one that my host parents slept in upstairs. The dining room/kitchen (just one room), living room, shower room and toilet room filled out the rest of the first floor, and there were 3 bedrooms upstairs.
My suitcases were too big to bring up the stairs, so I had to unpack on the main level and carry everything up to my room. My host mother was very worried about me doing this in the heat since my cheeks tend to get very red, then move on to a slight purple when I’m exerting myself in such conditions. She insisted I wear shorts (I was wearing jeans), but I did not own a pair. She tried to offer me some of Yuka’s (who had since disappeared) and then some of her own. I was much too large around the waist to wear them- which she eventually proclaimed rather loudly. Finally, she insisted I wear a pair of my host father’s elastic banded shorts. So on my first day at their house, I turned slightly purple from the heat and wore my host father’s shorts. I looked rather silly.
The evening went well, but I was exhausted from unpacking and staying up late watching Korean drama in Korean with Japanese subtitles with my host mother. I figured the following morning would go a bit better after I had the chance to sleep….
Now, at 5 in the morning, after giving up hope of going back to sleep, I stumbled down the treacherous stairs to see my host mother running back and forth carrying buckets of water. The immediate stream of speech that was a constant for her began when she caught sight of me. Around her third iteration of the same information (she tried to repeat herself often for my benefit, but it would always be at the same speed and occasionally it would be in a heavy Osaka dialect), I began to understand the issues at hand. A water main in the neighborhood had burst causing some slight panic but more importantly a loss of water to all the houses on my street. Everyone was scrambling to get some buckets of water into their houses while the pump outside still worked so that they would be able to prepare breakfast, and use the restrooms. I was planning on catching a 3 hour bus from Hirakata Station (about 30-40min away from my home-stay house) to visit a friend living in Tokushima on Shikoku later that day. I had planned on a few more hours of sleep and a nice morning shower to wash away the layer of sweat caused by the high humidity and daily average temperature of 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit. As my host mother handed me a bucket of water to use the restroom I realized the shower was not going to happen.
I showed up at the Bus Station in Hirakata unwashed and completely disheveled. I almost burst into tears when I saw my twin sister and friends waiting for me due to a sudden pang of the feeling “What the heck have I gotten myself into?”
I share this story with many people nervous about living with a host family. Not only do I find it pretty amusing now, but I also wound up having a good experience with them. I’ve already mentioned that home stay is not for everyone and my first day experience by far was not the most amusing/scary/uncomfortable. A guy in the same program came back from the first night with his home stay family and told me his three young host siblings, two boys and a girl, liked him immediately. So much so, that they jumped into a bath with their new foreign “Oni-chan” after dinner all just as stark naked as he was, crawling all over him and talking to him incessantly to get to know him better. Needless to say, that was an uncomfortable and unforeseen experience for him, although it is not unusual in Japan for young children of both genders to bathe with either of their parents or other members of the family.
I’ve broken the home stay experience down into a few basic categories. I’ve included some more anecdotes to explain what my own experience was like and to give you an idea of what types of things you should consider before making this decision.
Complete immersion in a language is one of the best ways to learn it. Home stay can provide you with a great language learning environment but you might want to think about these possibilities:
-Host family only speaks Japanese
This was the case for me and I learned a great deal from them, but there were some confusing moments. One of the more memorable ones was when I told my host mother via cell phone that I was going to make the train home “geri-geri” instead of “giri-giri.” Look up the meaning if you don’t know, but my host mother got a kick out of it and never let me forget it.
-Host family expects you to teach them (or just their children) English while you are staying with them.
When you are taking classes at school, do you also want to teach them at home? Do you enjoy teaching English or think you might?
-Host family speaks a little English or is fluent in English; therefore, you may have to ask them to speak to you in Japanese.
Food – Can you handle it?
Most home stay families prepare meals for their host students as part of the program. You will most likely have next to no say in what you eat unless you have an allergy or really hate something. In my case, we had a meeting up front to discuss food allergies or foods I could not handle. My only limit was mushrooms. I really do not like them. If you really dislike a food, it may even be better to use a white lie to say you are allergic to it otherwise they might just think you’re picky and may try to convert your taste buds (my host mother tried this constantly with various mushrooms. I always detected them and still just do not like them). Be very honest about your eating habits, but try and be open to new things as well. I love Japanese food and if I did not take the plunge on a few things (eel, octopus, fish eggs, whole fish including intact eyes) I would probably have never discovered that I really enjoy them.
-Do you have a very restricted diet by choice or for a medical reason?
You need to discuss these things with your program if you would like to do homestay. It can be difficult, but not impossible to find a home stay family that would be able to follow your dietary needs.
-Vegetarianism is almost unheard of in Japan, it’s sometimes hard to explain to Japanese families (especially if you don’t eat fish)
-Food allergies (especially soy).
If you are unfamiliar with a food you may not be able to detect something you are allergic to in it. Soy is especially prevalent in food in Japan.
My host mother would prepare what I considered to be normal size portions of food for other members of the family and then what she considered “American size” portions for me. For example, for breakfast my host sister would have one cup of yogurt with a glass of juice while I would have toast, eggs, yogurt, another large roll of bread (melon bread or red bean bread), sausage, a small salad, tea, some kind of juice and maybe also coffee sitting at my place. It took a few weeks to explain that I really don’t eat that big of a breakfast and eventually I just received a cup of yogurt and some tea (although she couldn’t resist giving me bread as well to take with me to school). Dinner was the same way and even after I tried to explain that I don’t eat that much (it’s difficult to do this tactfully) I still always received a slightly larger portion of whatever we were eating.
As another point of view on portion sizes, in my sister’s first home stay family her host sister went on a diet and the whole family decided to go on it as well to support her. This included Rachel, who received daikon salad with steamed daikon for dinner every night for quite a while.
General Culture Shock
– Independence, rules, curfews, usage of appliances etc.
Some people are worried that they won’t be treated like independent adults while staying with a home stay family. Sharing someone’s home and being treated like a member of the family does mean that you will have to follow their rules. If they have young children, it may not be possible for you to stay out until 2:00AM and come home intoxicated. Families’ rules are, of course, extremely diverse, but here are some common ones.
Some, not all, families institute a curfew. I feel that the primary reason is that they don’t want you coming home to late when they have to get up early, if they have younger children, or if they will worry about you.
I did not have a set curfew, but dinner was promptly at 6:30PM. I could call ahead (by 5:30PM) to say I wouldn’t make it to dinner, or I could go out after dinner if I wanted to, but if I came back home past 10PM on a weekday or even on the weekend without calling (or sometimes even if I did) my host mother would worry incessantly. I felt bad that she worried so much and my host sister, Yuka, always stood up for me explaining that I was in my 20s and could probably look out for myself. However, it was always awkward coming back late to a speech about all the dangers that could befall a single girl walking alone at night.
- Entranceway (genkan)
I included this as a category to illustrate thinking about inside/outside. Books are written about this division in Japanese culture and on the many names used to describe inside/outside relationships whether it be physical, familial, emotional etc. I am just going to mention the most basic physical aspect – the outside is considered to be dirty; therefore, shoes are not worn in the house. There is an entry way where shoes are kept and in the house you are generally expected to wear slippers except when you enter the restroom (there are sometimes separate “toilet slippers”) and, in my house at least, we were not allowed to wear slippers in certain tatami rooms, just socks.
- Regulated Meal Schedule
In our program, host families had to provide 2 meals a day for weekdays (breakfast and dinner) and three on the weekends if you were staying home. If they were unable to make a meal, they had to reimburse you the money. Only once during my stay was my host family completely unable to provide a meal for me. They gave me 1000 yen to cover the cost. If no one was cooking (they did not really let me cook for myself), they took me out to dinner or bought me a pre-made bento. This was specific to my experience. Other host families were more relaxed about these rules or they allowed their host students to use their kitchens just like they would at home.
- Personal Space
Most likely your program will require that you have your own room at a host family’s house. In our program this was the case, but I am not sure if others allow families to share rooms with a host student. However, even though I had a room, it was filled with mostly Mika’s things. I was allowed 3 drawers in the 4 drawer dresser and that was basically it. I wasn’t allowed to open the 4th drawer. All the surfaces had all of her old toys, keepsakes and books from her youth. The walls were covered with her posters or puzzles she had completed. It was very much like living in someone else’s room. There was a small outside balcony where Mama-san hung the laundry. The only way to access this space was through my room. Therefore, she was in and out almost every morning doing the laundry. It was my job to take care of the laundry drying outside if it suddenly started raining. Usually, everyone would just run to my room to save it though. My privacy was respected inside my room unless a laundry situation occurred. I was expected to clean my own room (vacuum once or twice a week, dust when needed etc.).
Using appliances etc. (laundry, kitchen, air conditioner, heater, bath)
My host mother was adamant that she do my laundry. She did not want me to do it at all. I offered many times and was haughtily rebuffed. Your own situation may, of course, be different.
I offered to help in the kitchen, but only rarely, after months, was I allowed to help set or clear the table. Other host students were expected to help out with these things on a daily basis, so this serves to illustrate how different the home stay families’ expectations can be. I wanted to learn how to cook Japanese dishes but I was never insistent enough and often gave up after my host mother told me that I could just relax and watch TV while she cooked. I personally, felt bad about taking up space in the fridge, but occasionally I would bring home a snack for the whole family that needed to be refrigerated. I would have felt awful if I brought home something just for me.
- Air conditioner/heater
There is no central air/heating in most Japanese homes. There is usually a small air conditioning unit in individual rooms. There was one in the kitchen and one in the dining room. There may have been more, but there wasn’t one in my room and those were the only two I ever saw being used. I had a small kerosene powered heater that smelled horrible. Also, in order to use it, you had to leave the window slightly open so the fumes would not over power you. It was apparently very dangerous to breathe in the fumes for long periods of time. My host mother demonstrated this while explaining the heater to me by mocking choking and coughing to death. Cooling units and heaters were expected to only be used while you were in the room and they had to be off while you slept. This is a very common custom throughout Japan.
Bathing culture in Japan may be very different than what you are used to. First of all, the toilet is often in a separate room from the shower and the bathtub. This was the case with me. Showers are usually taken in spurts – meaning you don’t use continually flowing water. You rinse, then use soap, then rinse, then use shampoo, then rinse and so on only turning the shower on to rinse. There is usually some type of little stool to sit on while you are doing this. Baths are taken after you clean up in the shower. Bathtubs are deep enough for you to submerse yourself in water. You never use soap in the bath. You just use the bath to soak and relax. Also a whole family will probably use the same bathwater. You are supposed to be clean when you enter it, use it to soak, then, the next member of the family will use it. Traditionally, the father goes first, followed by the mother then the oldest child and so forth. The traditional bathing structure is not very strict today. In my family, they always let me go first since I was a guest. Or, if someone needed to be somewhere by a certain time they would go first. Bathing schedule was pretty casual. Of course some people feel uncomfortable sharing water, and just opt to take showers.
My host family was very nice about welcoming my friends into their house. I didn’t want to ask them to do this too often, because Mama-san would go all out cooking a meal and worry about all of my friends having a good time. My house was small and at most I would invite 3 people over at a time. Usually, I would only invite one person over. My host family was not receptive to friends spending the night, other host families were. However, our program emphasized that having members of the opposite sex stay over was just not done. Also they warned that having someone of the opposite sex just come into your room was also taboo. This was not the case for all host families but works as a general rule.
Distance from School, the Commute (could be in the boondocks or right around the corner)
My house was a one hour commute from the school via walking and train. I was one of the students farthest away from the school. Others lived much closer – 10min walk or so. This was completely left up to chance. I had no say in the distance decision making process. Programs usually prioritize different compatibility parameters when pairing host students with families (gender, allergies (pet/food), teetotaler, smoker etc.)
I hope that the above information concerning host families with a focus on my experience will help you decide if it is right for you. I welcome others’ advice or stories of their own experiences in the comments section. No two experiences are the same, and sometimes, when making a decision like this you just have to take the risk to reap the rewards. Good luck!