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October 11, 2011

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Home stay: It's win-win

THERE'S nothing like living with a Chinese family to improve language skills, learn up-close about culture and clear up misunderstandings. And the host also benefits, as Judith Tietel reports.

When the Zhou family has dinner, they usually speak in a mixture of Chinese and English. Zhou Ying, his wife and their 10-year-old son are quite used to having regular dinner guests who come from different countries.

Since May 2010, when the World Expo 2010 opened in Shanghai, they have opened their home to foreigners who stay for a while. This home stay arrangement is becoming increasingly popular in China. It can be a good, short-term alternative for expats, in addition to youth-hostels and shared apartments.

Staying with a local family is a good way to improve Chinese-language skills, learn first-hand about culture and clear up misunderstandings. It's much cheaper and more fun than taking a course. Of course, there can be frictions.

But home stay is generally a win-win situation: The Chinese families get either money or language lessons in return for room and board. Many families want their children to have contact with people from around the world and to learn a second language.

Zhou, a legal director of the French company Rhodia, and his wife, a senior engineer at the Tongji Architectural Design Institute, both work all day and are happy their son is in good, responsible company. They hope he will become an open-minded, cosmopolitan person, partly due to exposure to foreigners while growing up.

Already three expats have joined the Zhou family. Right now their house guest is Alina Hoffmann a 22-year-old German from Kempen near Düsseldorf.

"I am very happy to have visitors in my house. I can only report positive things about them!" says Zhou. Well, there was one time he had trouble with an American fellow, because he was playing PSP (PlayStation Portable) virtually around the clock, disturbing the family's sleep.

Home stay and getting really up-close with laowai (foreigners) intrigue many Chinese.

"My friends are very curious about it. They always want me to tell stories about my guests and none of them is critical about having a foreigner in the house," Zhou says.

Still, not everyone adapts well, but they are mostly set in their ways.

Christine Shen, the owner of a home stay organization in Shanghai, explains that older family members, such as grandmothers and grandfathers, often find it a bit suspicious to have a foreigner in their home.

Together with a Dutchman and two Chinese staff, Shen refers expats to Chinese host families. She already has around 100 families up her sleeve. They are all over the city, but mostly in downtown area. Placement organizations like hers usually charge foreigners a placement or broker's fee.

Some families advertise independently online for home stay guests.

Different families charge differently, based on the total of quality factors they provide. Shen says her fees are around 65-92 yuan (US$10-92) a day.

Her organization ( requires host families provide the foreign guest at least one private bedroom and in most cases a private bathroom will also be arranged. Other requirements are basic furniture, air conditioner/heater, telephone and Internet connections, and at least one meal a day.

Cultural Immersion

Home stay is a cultural immersion.

"One time, a Chinese family called me to complain; they were very disappointed because an American girl put her shoes into the washing machine," Shen says.

Other problems are clubbing at night and the occasional return, if at all, very late or bring a friend to spend the night with them.

"Using the air-conditioner seems to be very different in other countries," Shen says. Americans like switching the air-conditioner on all day while the Chinese family, especially its senior family members, tend to be thrifty and will switch it off while they are out.

"Another cultural difference is that Chinese people prefer it to send SMS or phone me if they want to complain, instead of directly telling their guest. They don't want them to feel ashamed, don't want them to loose their face," says Shen.

But Westerner people often misunderstand this indirect way of dealing with conflicts. For them it often seems even more unfriendly and also childish not to speak to them directly.

Stefan, a 19-year-old Briton who asked his surname not be used, reports he had ongoing troubles with chopsticks. His host family was always amused, but after a while he took offense and felt he was always being ridiculed as a stupid laowai.

"I was also astonished by the fact that children have primary school until 4pm in the afternoon and have a lot of homework in addition," he says. He also found it odd and amusing that everyone always had to remove their shoes and put on slippers at the front door.

In another case, a 22-year-old German woman has been staying with a family for six weeks and is teaching their young daughter German. She finds it quite unusual that many Chinese families don't drink alcohol and often just stay home during weekends and in the evening.

"But when I bought a bottle of wine once, they seemed to enjoy it a lot," she laughs. Normally she eats dinner with her family, but sometimes she also prepares some German food.

"I really don't know why, but they just never try it. They just wrinkled their noses at first," she says.

Alina Hoffmann doesn't worry about cultural differences.

"Home stay was the best choice!" she declares. She has been staying with the Zhou family since August 24.

"My Chinese has already improved a lot. I'm generally a family-person, so I would feel very lonesome in a single-apartment."

Zhou's family and Alina eat dinner together nearly every day. Afterwards they often drink tea and discuss all kinds of things, some funny, some serious, from daily happenings and current events to different customs and the meaning of a good life.

"But sometimes I would like to have a good German beer and whole grain bread instead of rice, Chinese cabbage and crabs," Hoffman says happily.

Where to find a host family:


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