A home stay is one of the best ways to experience authentic Chinese culture and family life. I’ve enjoyed more than a dozen home stays, and they are my preferred way of travel when in China. They allow people to celebrate common bonds with foreign families through music, food, play and work. They are also affordable and provide the fastest way to learn a language, city or culture. Additionally, home stays are easily arranged and customizable, ranging from the simple to the complex.
Most recently, on a trip to China, I decided to do a brief home stay along the East China Sea shoreline not far from Shanghai, in a village called Zhujiajian. The seaside town was home to less than 100 people and was nearly invisible from the main road.
My guide pours some farmer’s wine during a home stay visit.
// © 2010 Christopher Batin
I was warmly welcomed by Yuzhen, a middle-aged Chinese woman with a large smile and curly hair. Although she spoke no English, we had no trouble communicating in basic sign
language. She immediately offered me some hot tea and ripe tangerines growing from her courtyard tree.
Shortly thereafter, preparations began for my abbreviated visit. Yuzhen sent her husband out to buy a live chicken from the local villagers. She then sorted through some large turnips from her root cellar and began cleaning them. As my guide and I watched her, Yuzhen encouraged us to explore the village while she continued making our meal.
My guide and I walked the tree-lined road of houses and farms, stopping at a nearby Taoist temple. Several nuns watched our approach, and their curiosity engaged them to converse with us and give us a tour.
The temple was sparse by most standards. Taoist deities adorned the small altar, surrounded by candles made by the nuns using a traditional hand-dipping method. I found it
difficult to comprehend how this temple could survive based on a few candle sales and donations from local villagers. As I left, I decided to make a donation.
Soon, the nuns scurried inside, smiling and crying out happily as they surrounded me. They bowed and said “thank you” repeatedly. My guide told me that they said my name would go on a large plaque as a special benefactor.
Yuzhen later found us and said lunch would soon be ready. We returned home, and I watched her cook over a simple wood stove. The just-bought chicken had lost its feathers and head while we were gone and was now slowly baking in the oven. Some fish sizzled sharply in a nearby wok.
Yuzhen brought out a large gallon jar filled halfway with various fruits and liquid. Even in its unfiltered form, this “farmer’s wine” was among the best I have tasted. After dinner, I watched her husband show me how to repair fishing nets and carve fishing weights from stone.
In China, a good home stay through a reputable agency can start at $3 a day (based on a three-month minimum) and go up from there. This fee generally covers room, placement and breakfast and dinner. Because prices and services vary greatly, agents should carefully examine each contract and the rules pertaining to guests and hosts.
Agencies are usually good about matching client needs to families. Dietary restrictions and any handicaps should be noted and negotiated ahead of time.
While many home-stay families have an English speaker in the household, many do not, so a phrasebook is a good idea no matter where you stay. It’s also wise to have an overseas medical insurance plan in place.
Rewards are many. I have seen parents glow with pride as their kids practiced speaking English with me at the dinner table. I once watched an entire village show up to sample some canned Alaskan salmon that I brought from home. I delight in seeing the mesmerized faces of hard-working rice farmers as I show them my travel photos. In return, I have collected honey from a wild bee hive, caught fish in a rice field, planted vegetables, picked fruit and spoke in many foreign classrooms. I even attended the funeral of a loved one, where I had a hand in actually making the coffin.
Such cultural experiences, I’ve learned over the years, truly bring people together, almost like a family, even if it’s only for a few days or a few months. And with each home stay, that surrogate world family continues to grow.