In my global travels I’ve had extensive experience in living and staying in other people’s homes, as well as a variety of group living situations. Currently in Liberia I’m staying in an apartment adjacent to my Country Director. It is nice as I have a bit of privacy, but also the experience of sharing meals together.
The unique part is that my Country Director and his wife are Bangladeshi. This means that while I’ve been in West Africa for several days now, I’ve eaten nothing but Bengali cuisine. I’d have to say that while I do enjoy West African food, it has been quite delicious.
Now there are a couple of tips I’d like to share with those of you who may not have as much experience with staying in cultural homestays.
You are being watched. It might be slyly done, through glances at what you are doing or eating, or they may even be openly talking about you and you wouldn’t even know it. Everything you do is observed and noted. You might think this is one culture or another, but it holds true from Finland to Australia, Ecuador to Ghana, Bangladesh to Fiji.
Be aware of what you eat. Since you already know they are watching you, it is important to be careful what you eat and don’t eat. From multiple experiences, once you do something once, your host expects that this is what you do all of the time. For instance, if you take coffee over tea, you can expect coffee to come every time.
Same goes for new foods! For example, in Ecuador they often serve lime with tea. I found this to be delicious and used lime at tea time. One day my host mom came apologizing that the maid had looked all over the market but couldn’t find lime, and she hoped I could manage without it. How could my meager Spanish begin to explain that I’d never tried lime in my tea before living with her family.
You are what you eat. Also keep in mind that eating is a huge part of many cultures and you may easily offend at the dinner table. In Finland, you must eat every last morsel from your plate, while in Ghana it is rude not to leave something on your plate for whomever cleans up.
Open Mind. It is also best to forget what you do and don’t like. I’ve eaten a great many of things that I didn’t like, just to try them and have the experience. If you turn your noise at every bizarre looking food, you might also be very hunger. Later you will thank yourself.
Quantities. This is also essential to pay attention to. In many places you will be expected to eat what you are served. In Finland you are obliged to take seconds, otherwise you would insult. You also must eat everything on your plate. Thus, it is best to serve up a bit and then take a second helping of whatever you like best. Take too little, however, and you hosts will notice as well. Here in Liberia my hosts noticed that I take smaller amounts of rice, and thus presumed that I wasn’t getting enough – even though I was very much enjoying the food.
Inside Info. Don’t be afraid to ask what is appropriate before going into someone’s home. Use your resources to find out what might be best for your hosts. For example, in Afghanistan I was invited to a home only once in a year, after nine months of living there. I asked an Afghan-American colleague what would be best to bring. He suggested flowers. While the flowers were sent to the kitchen for the wife and and I never met her in person, I imagine she appreciated them a great deal and that it connected us in ways that otherwise would not have been. Also note, if you are in Europe, always bring fresh flowers. It is the way it done, and not a bad way to go in many other places as well.
Try. Overall, there is no perfect receipt for being a good house guest. The key areas are to be respectful, thankful, and understanding. You might feel bad about not cleaning up after yourself, but you also might offend your host greatly by insisting to do things for yourself.
Take your time and don’t be afraid to ask questions and share with your guests. You will both learn a lot. I know that I learn more with each journey I take. There are lots of other tips for living with houseguests, but we’ll get to that at another time.