Study Abroad - The Korean Homestay Experience
Living in another family's home during a study or travel abroad experience can be fun and meaningful.
Living in someone else’s house for an extended period of time takes flexibility. It’s their rules you must abide by. Add in a language barrier and cultural differences and you have a recipe for awkward encounters and plenty of charades. However, with the right attitude and commitment from both sides to build your relationship, the homestay experience can lead to life long friendships and be a cultural and language accelerator for your learning.
I have had two amazing homestay experiences while studying abroad. I lived with the Kim family from March - June 2011 in Seoul, South Korea, and the Scherer family from June - August 2013 in Florianopolis, Brazil. In the following, I’ll share my experiences and takeaways from living in the Korean homestay program.
South Korea Homestay
In Aug 2010 - June 2011, studied at Yonsei University in Seoul as an exchange student from my home University of Cal Poly, SLO through CSU IP. During the fall 2010 semester, I lived in the SK Global House, a dormitory for international students. That was an amazing experience in itself, but a much more global one as opposed to Korean-focused. I wrote about my takeaways from that experience here. During my Southeast Asian winter holiday break, I organized my homestay situation for Spring 2011. I don’t recall the service I used, but I just googled around for homestay situations, and found a service where I submitted a profile and then viewed family profiles where I selected a few options that sounded good. The families did the same thing from the other perspective, and an intermediary person helped facilitate this process. When I returned to South Korea, I met the Kim family at their Yeomchangdong apartment near the Deungchon Metro Station.
My commute to Yonsei University was simple and one of my favorite parts of the day. I walked to the bus stop and took the 672 Bus to school as the sun rose over the city. Then I walked through campus to wherever I needed to go. We crossed the beautiful Han river on that bus, where I sat as the only foreigner. I listened to either Korean music or to the sounds of the bus driver conversing with passengers, immersing myself in the Korean language and culture, soaking it all in like a sponge. It was about a 40-minute venture, from door to door, as long as you caught the correct bus. Below shows the commuting options from my host family’s apartment to Yonsei University.
The Kim family was made up of a Mother and Father. Mr. Kim drove the family car to work each day, and Mrs. Kim maintained the home and kept us fed and on track. They both shared my love for golf, so we occasionally visited the screen golf course together and played a few holes in a new golf format. I also had two host brothers. The older brother (4 years older than me) was attending university as an engineer while living in the apartment, and the younger brother (a year older than me) was away serving his required military service. He visited home once while I was there and I expected his English to be similar to the rest of the family - slow and limited. But when I saw him and shook his hand he said, “oh hey, wassup bro!” He had studied in the states and had a strong command of English.
If you want to test your language skills, trying talking with your host grandparents. Ours came over to the apartment a few times, and we had a great time drinking soju, eating apples, and laughing at our situation of trying to understand each other in Korean or the occasional English word they knew. Speaking with elders is a great way to test your language skills.
If you’re going out at night in Seoul with friends, you’re likely going to sing karaoke, have some BBQ and soju, and have a good time. To get home, you have a couple options: Take the last train home around 11:30PM, or wait till the first train or bus in the morning at around 5AM. On one particular evening, I waited for the latter. I got in the early morning bus, tired, expecting to get out at Yeomchandong and walk to my apartment in the morning. However, I slept through my stop and woke up to the busdriver telling me we’d reached the end of the line. I got out, dazed and confused, without a strong idea of where I was. I hailed a taxi driver who got me closer but could not find my apartment. I finally made it to the house around 8:30AM to a worried host mother. She didn’t show it on the surface, she just said, “Jason, welcome home.” I later learned that she was very worried and didn’t sleep much that night.
Struggles in communication are going to happen. It’s important to overcommunicate your plans and backup plans.
There were countless interactions where my host family asked me questions I did not understand. Most of the time we’d get to a level of mutual understanding with a mixture of languages and body language or charades. I learned that communication is much deeper than words through those struggles. Most of the time we got through it with humor, smiles and a greater understanding of each other.
I’ve been back to visit the Kim’s three times, and they have visited me once in California. We follow each other on instagram and I get to practice my Korean as I comment on my host mother’s posts about pourover coffee. We played golf in California together with my dad, and they came over for dinner at my family’s house. They’ve been able to meet my wife. They truly feel like family to me.
Not everyone’s experience is the same, and I’ve heard of homestay experiences that were not as positive as mine. I think what made my experience so positive was maintaining gratitude and following their rules (for the most part). I was respectful of my host family, and they were grateful for my perspective, curiosity, companionship, and having someone to practice English with. It was also not a free program, so while their son was away in the military, I was able to supplement their income at a rate that was fair to me. Without knowing it, I did add value to their lives, and wasn’t just taking. It was a symbiotic exchange of energies, and I would recommend it to anyone traveling abroad if you are curious, respectful, and prepared to follow someone else’s rules.