Through the Eyes of a Host Family: A collection of interviews on what it takes to be a successful student or host family, language learning, culture shock in both Korea and the U.S., and many more topics.

By Alexi (NSLI-Y Korea AY 2015-2016)

An Introduction
As an intern at NSLI-Y iEARN, I spent quite a bit of time working with the NSLI-Y Interactive website. I noticed that stories were only submitted by students, alumni, program facilitators and partners. One of the NSLI-Y Program’s main goals is language learning, which is promoted by sending students to live in host families. Host family life is a significant aspect to the NSLI-Y language immersion experience. I realized that the Interactive website lacked any insight directly from a host family. While there were posts about a student’s experience with a new host family, there were no posts about a host family’s experience after inviting an American student into their life.

After living together with a host family in Seoul for nine months, under the NSLI-Y 2015-16 Korea Program, I decided to interview each member of my family to get a better understanding of the realities of host family life. I asked questions, such as: When did we begin to feel like family? What was the most enjoyable thing about living with a host student? The hardest thing? In order to be a successful exchange student, one must…?

This past summer the tables were turned. I was no longer an exchange student but the host of two students, two of my Korean host sisters. I had the amazing opportunity to show my host family around the U.S. and share my daily life and culture with them for one month. I continued to interview them on their time in U.S., how their views of the U.S. and its exchange student might have changed, etc. To get a better understanding of the host family experience, I also interviewed my own family on what it is like to host.

I have compiled what I learned via interviews into five main chapters, with the intent that each chapter can target different audiences involved in the NSLI-Y community. These audiences include, but are not limited to, exchange students, host families, supporters, educators, and prospective students and hosts.

Each chapter is then divided into main categories or questions, and are in both English and Korean. I interviewed three Korean host family members (Chapters 1-4) and two American host family members (Chapter 5). Their responses are divided up into sections, as well.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Hosting an American Student in Korea, Advice to Future Exchange Students

Chapter 2: Thoughts on the NSLI-Y Program, Advice to Future Host Families

Chapter 3: After Hosting an American Student, Koreans Experience the U.S. for Themselves

Chapter 4: Korean Family on Returning Back to Korea Post U.S. Trip, and Reflections

Chapter 5: Advice from an American Host Family

Chapter 1
: Hosting an American Student in Korea, Advice to Future Exchange Students

How did you feel upon first meeting your American host student? Were you stressed? Nervous? Excited?
미국 학생을 처음 만날 때 무슨 생각을 해요? 스트레스를 받아요? 긴장? 기대는요?

Response 1: Hmm… Compared to any stresses it was, of course, that we were more nervous. Since we will be living for a while in the same space together we hoped that we will receive a kind and nice student. So maybe excitement and expectations are about 50%, and worries make up the other 50%? Because there are a lot of differences between Korean and American daily life, such as things like doing laundry or dining manners/culture, we also worried that we, as student and family together, would not adjust.

2: We didn’t receive stress because this was something we wanted to do. We were more curious about what student we were going to get, and that we wanted to get close with that student.

3: When I first go to meet a student I wonder what kind of student and what our future together will be like. At the same time, I hope we receive a student that will be liked by our children. Through the NSLI-Y application process, excellent students are already selected so I was not so concerned about character or personality.

대답 1: 음… 스트레스를 받는다기 보단 긴장을 하지요. 앞으로 오랫동안 한 공간에서 같이 살 학생이기 때문에 새로운 학생이 올 때마다 착하고 좋은 학생이 우리 집에 오길 바랍니다. 기대 반 걱정 반?

미국 생활과 다른점이 많기 때문에, 예를들어 빨래라던가 식사할 때 반찬을 같이 먹는다던가 등을 적응하지 못할까봐 걱정도 하고요.

2: 우리가 하고 싶어서 신청한 것이기 때문에 스트레스를 받는 것은 없다. 어떤 학생이 올까 궁금해 하고 친해지고 싶어한다.

3: 미국 학생을 처음 만나러 갈때는 어떤 학생과 인연이 될까? 하면서 기대를 하면서 간다. 이왕이면 우리 딸들이 좋아하는 학생이었으면 하는 바램도 하면서. 미국에서 이미 어려운 미션을 통과한 우수한 학생들이라 품성이나 인성은 별로 걱정이 되지 않았다.

Alexi and her host family taking a photo at a dinner table

What is the hardest thing about living with an exchange student? The most enjoyable thing?교환학생과 사는 것에 대해 가장 어려운 거는 뭐예요? 즐거운 거는요?

Initially I thought that because students cannot speak Korean well at first, the language barrier is the hardest thing. However, I got some other interesting and unexpected answers.

원래 내가 미국 학생들은 한국어를 별로 못 했기 떄문에 언어에 대한 장벽이 가장 어려운 것이라고 생각했다. 그렇지만, 다른 재미있고 예상치 못 하는 대답들 받았다.

Response 1: First and inevitably, since we are not real family and at first living with another stranger, no matter how kind her or she is, simply living with another person is always on your mind and something of concern. For instance, if you are only among your own family, you do not necessarily need to close the door when using the bathroom or changing clothes. However, with another person in the house we must take caution and care. At first it is hard figuring out how we, as a family and student together, should go about daily life. Additionally, there are sometimes when we too want to be comfortably within only our own family. (Just like an exchange student might want a break to relax at their U.S. home!)

2: Hosting an exchange student is enjoyable as normal daily life feels suddenly new and special. Although it may seem small, talking about each other's countries was interesting and from it we learned a lot. Or when we went to traditional Korean villages or out to eat together. Additionally, when we did the house chores and activities together we really felt like family. The best thing is the coming of a new friend.

3: When we have a family activity or are at a party it is hard to know whether we should bring the American student to participate or to not. Our third NSLI-Y student, Alexi, really took the time to get to know me. After work we would sit together at the table and eat as we talked about this and that through Korean and short english we got to know a lot about each other. That time was the very best. 1: 일단 어쩔 수 없이 가족이 아닌 타인과 같이 산다는 것 자체가 아무리 친하다고 해도 신경이 안 쓰일 수 없습니다. 화장실을 사용한다던가 방에서 옷을 갈아입을 때 가족끼리만 있으면 문을 닫지 않지만, 다른 사람이 있으니까 그런걸 신경써서 생활해야 한다는 것이 어려운 것 같습니다. 가끔은 가족들끼리만 편하게 있고 싶을 때도 있고요.

2: 즐거운 것은 평범한 일상이 미국 친구가 있기 때문에 새롭고 특별하게 느껴지는 것입니다. 사소하지만 서로의 나라에 대해 이야기를 하는 것은 재밌고 배울 점이 많습니다. 그 외로도 같이 한옥마을에 간다던가, 외식을 한다던가. 또한 집안에 행사가 있을 때 함께 기쁨을 나누면서 정말 가족같다는 느낌을 받습니다. 가장 즐거운 거는 새로운 친구가 왔다는 것이다.

3: 어려운거는 가족행사나 친지 방문이 있을 때 미국학생을 데리고 가서 참여해야할지 말아야할지 고민이 되었다. 3번째 니슬리 프로그램 학생인 렉시는 엄마인 나를 무척 따랐다.퇴근후에 저녁을 함께 먹고 식탁에 앉아 이런저런 이야기들을 한국말과 짧은영어로 대화를 나누면서 서로에 대해 많은 것을 알게 되었고 그 시간이 가장 즐거웠다.

alexi and her host mom

From when did we really begin to feel like family? 언제부터 우리가 진심으로 가족같아요? (소님 말고 가족 느낌)

Response 1: When we were at home and simply conversing. Even though we were wearing pajamas, we did not feel embarrassed around each other.

Early on, showing a weird (no makeup) appearance is embarrassing and so, in vain, it seems that we avoided eye contact. However, as we ate meals together and conversed… as we shared daily life together it became comfortable and felt, naturally, as if we were simply together among family. It seems that being able to approach each other in a comfortable appearance (whether that be no makeup or while in pajamas) is a very big step.

2: If a student doesn’t approach a family and make the effort, even to the last day together, you won’t feel like family. In Alexi’s case she first approached us, did a lot of talking and was active so she naturally seemed like family.

3: From the first day that we brought Alexi to our house I treated her like family and a daughter. If my daughter went to an American student, I would want her to be treated this way. Also Alexi’s mother and grandmother sent us letters, which was very touching and made us feel even more like family.

대답 1: 집에서 잠옷차림으로 입고 대화를 해도 민망하지 않을 때?

초반에는 이상한 모습을 보이는 것이 민망해서 괜히 시선을 피하고 했던 것 같아요. 그런데 같이 밥먹고 대화하는 등 생활하면서 자연스럽게 가족끼리만 지내듯이 편해지더라고요. 서로 편한 모습으로 다가가는 것이 큰 것 같습니다.

2: 끝끝까지 다가오려고 하지 않으면 홈스테이가 끝날 때 까지. 가족 같지 않은데, 렉시 같은 경우는 먼저 다가와서 얘기도 많기하고 활동적이라서 자연스럽게 가족같았다.

3: 엄마는 렉시가 처음 우리집에 들어올 때부터 가족(딸)로 여기면서 지내왔다. 만약 내 딸이 미국에서 홈스테이를 하게 하면 홈스테이맘과 이렇게 지냈으면 좋겠다 하면서 렉시를 우리 가족으로 보기 시작했다. 그리고 미국에 있는 렉시 어머니와 할머니께서 보낸 편지를 받고 많은 감동을 받아 더욱 가족애를 느끼게 되었다.

alexi with two host family members in a selfie

Please give advice to American students that are about to head to Korea. In order to be a successful exchange student, you must… 한국에 갈 학생들한테 조언을 해 주세요. 성공한 교환학생인 되고 싶으면…

Response 1: I think there is no perfect answer. However, if anything I think it is important to maintain an appropriate distance or boundary. If you remain too shy, think that you cannot speak Korean, and do not try to start conversations first, it will be hard to get close with your family. Of course the host family will always try to reach a helping hand out, but it is important that whoever’s house you live at you must respectfully receive their cultures and ways and adapt. And, of course, you must be polite. Last year, we heard from one Korean host family that their American host student would eat snacks on their bed and not clean up well, which makes it hard for the family. Keep your room clean and, even though every person’s tolerance is different, in the beginning acting carefully around the house is unlikely to appear rude.

2: If you want to become a successful student, it is good to not see speaking Korean as something scary, and to just try speaking to your host family. Host families are not thinking about how a foreign student does not speak Korean, but instead how amazing it is if the student tries to speak even a little. The efforts are touching and makes us want to teach the student even more Korean.

3: Also, it is good if the student carries a lot of interest and affection for Korea, so they have a meaning or purpose behind their stay and time here. Additionally, the student must focus on their Korean studies and find a person who can kindly teach and help you improve at Korean.

대답 1: 정답은 없다고 생각합니다. 그러나 뭐든지 적당한 선을 지키는 것이 중요하다고 생각합니다. 너무 내성적이게 방안에만 있고, 한국말을 못한다 생각하여 먼저 대화를 시도하지 않으면 가족들과 친해지기 어렵습니다. 물론 호스트 가족들도 먼저 손을 내밀어주겠지만, 누군가의 집에 들어와 사는 이상 그 집안의 문화를 받아들이고 적응하는 것이 중요하다고 생각합니다. 그리고 너무 당연한 이야기지만, 예의를 지켜야 합니다. 작년에 다른 호스트 가족분께서는 미국 학생이 침대에서 과자를 먹어서 청소하기 힘들다고 말씀하신 걸 들었습니다. 자신의 방은 깨끗이 사용하고, 사람마다 허용 범위가 다르니 초반에는 집안에서 조심스럽게 행동하는 것이 무례하게 보이지 않을 것 같습니다.

2: 성공한 교환학생이 되고싶다면, 한국어를 말하는 것을 두려워 하지말고 그냥 홈스테이 가족한테 말하는 것을 시도하는게 좋다. 홈스테이 가족들은 외국인학생이 한국어를 못한다고 생각하는게 아니라 조금이라도 하는것에 신기해 하고 감동받아서 더 한국어를 가르쳐주고 싶어한다.

3: 한국에 대한 관심과 애정을 가지고 주어진 시간을 의미있게 보내면 좋을거 같다. 일단 한국어공부에 전념하고 한국어 공부에 도움이 될수 있는 사람과 친하게 지내야한다.

alexi and her host family hiking

(Future chapters to be released weekly.)