The Nomadic Life

Sleeping With Strangers: What it Means to do a Home Stay

Reflections on the awkward and awesome of doing a home stay abroad.

The host family's goat.

At the age of 19, and still very much a natural born introvert and novice world trekker, I daringly set out for a month-long home stay with a family in Senegal — a notoriously candid and extroverted country. In all honesty, I wasn’t terribly excited about it, because no matter how much I weighed the glossy study-abroad brochure promises of “cultural insight” and “rapid language immersion,” having my independence compromised and living by someone else’s terms simply seemed awkward. And whether my preconceived notions perpetuated it or not, I never did feel totally comfortable at my host family’s house. And this wasn’t so much because of differences in what is considered obscene/revealing (apparently, being topless ain’t no thing if the men aren’t around…), or my host sister’s persistent attempts at finding me a nice Senegalese boyfriend, but more because of how little independence I had.

To some extent I had been prepared to have no say in when I ate, what I ate, or when I had to be home by but traditional Senegalese hospitality seemed to take things way further than I could have ever imagined — part of the cultural insight, right? As was emphasized in the cross-cultural training I took at ACI Baobab, hospitality, or teranga as it’s known in Wolof, is a strong source of pride and families demonstrate their teranga by treating guests “like kings”. Coming from America, where independence and respect for the individual’s choice reflects strong character, this was by far the most difficult thing to adjust to (even moreso than my host mother walking around topless). As a my family’s guest I never had to do anything for myself. Someone always hopped up to fetch a bucket of water to flush the toilet with when I headed towards the bathroom. They even had a hot towel warmer ready for my every use. I was more or less being barred from helping in any household chores. Even my morning baguette was buttered for me, and my American disposition always had me feeling awkward about not being able to repay my hosts’ by helping around the house. One mistake I made was never letting go of this, and never giving in to my new position. Looking back on it now, I wish I had had this list in front of me every day, reminding me to relax, laugh, and immerse myself in my host family’s life.

However, when I tried it again a few years later in Costa Rica things went far more smoothly. By that time independent travel and accepting hospitality on the road, both through networks like Couchsurfing and random events of serendipity, had taught me to feel comfortable in other peoples’ space — a skill that doesn’t always come naturally to us quieter nomads. Ultimately, they do want you there and at least through my experiences as a (CS) host, I always feel best when my guests treat my home as their own. And oddly enough, it was these briefer stints hosting or staying with couchsurfers that in the end made my home stay in Costa Rica less awkward. When staying with couchsurfers, CS suggests being respectful of space and bringing gifts, but while taking advantage of the fact that having someone open their home to you is a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchange, and a unique social interaction. Home stays are similar in a lot of ways, so having the CS philosophy down and well practiced helped immensely.

Even so, home stays are more of a commitment than a few nights on someone’s couch and even with a better idea of what this entails, I would give it a lot of thought before electing to do another home stay elsewhere. Although it can be an incredibly enriching experience, there are the inevitable sacrifices of comfort as well.

Is it worth it? What experiences have you had?

3 thoughts on “Sleeping With Strangers: What it Means to do a Home Stay

  1. I’ve used CS a lot as a surfer and it’s an odd feeling to have to adapt to a culture and to the individual guest. I’ve had guests in the same country who treated me completely different- both in good ways, but different. Some told me to take what I needed to be comfortable and some told me they would take care of everything. It’s certainly strange to have to adjust when CouchSurfing or in a homestay, but it’s a great exercise in flexibility. I’ve found now, back home, I’m adjusting better to people that I meet, through CouchSurfing or outside of CS, and I can relate better to them because I can find our commonalities easier.

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    1. I totally agree — it seems like even within the same culture/country there is no one idea of what hospitality is but it certainly is, as you say, a great exercise in flexibility. I’ve even seen skills (if you dare call them that) from CS come in handy while temping and working in a new office every few days. Thanks for your thoughts!

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