Out of My Comfort Zone: Homestay In Shanghai

Bo Donners learns to see Shanghai through the eyes of a local family.

It’s half past seven in the morning, and my alarm rings after just five hours of sleep. As any other student, I stay up late to finish homework, and as any other family member, I wake up early to have breakfast and start our day together. I walk into the living room -smelly, eyes only half open, and still in my PJs-, upon which Keyla shouts: “Who is it?!”. My five-year-old sister hides behind the door of her bedroom and gives me shy looks when she peeks around the corner. It takes her about ten minutes every morning to adapt to my presence as a foreigner in her house. By the time Keyla goes to kindergarten, the ice is broken. I sing her a song with the lyrics “Put. On. Your. Shoes… your shoes, your shoes”, receive a big hug, and wave her goodbye at the door. I take a shower and start my day.

At half past four, Keyla gets back from school. She slams the door, quickly takes off her shoes, enthusiastically shouts out my name (mispronounced as “Bon”), and runs into my bedroom without knocking. “Bon, Bon, come on let’s play!” she exclaims in Chinglish. I lift her up and hold her in my arms, when I tell her with a smile that I’d love to play together. “Let’s see if Elsa and Anna (Barbie dolls based on the characters of Frozen) want to play with us too!” is what I suggest when she untangles herself from our hug and happily skips to the play room. For the next hour, she opens the gate to her imaginary world, in which baby dolls go to the doctor, mommy Keyla cooks dinner, teddy bears roll down the slide, and monsters use their dark magic. It’s a pretty world, and what an honor to be part of it.           

The homestay program requires us to spend five hours a week learning English together, but in reality, I play with Keyla around ten hours each week, and we both love it! As a student, I am continually working on personal progress; quite a self-centered and lonely path to take sometimes. Empowering Keyla has been incredibly rewarding, and helping a child obtain skills for her future is a beautiful way to spend your time. Keyla speaks like me, uses the exact phrases I used a day before, and murmurs the songs I taught her. I’m proud to be her teacher, and though I am a busy student, playing with Keyla is high on my list of priorities.

To be honest, spending time with your family and giving back to the people you live with should be on your list of priorities in a homestay. In return, you build unforgettable relationships with your new family members and get a chance to improve your Chinese language skills. Where NYU’s Chinese courses teach us to talk about China’s opening up and reform, environmental protection, and ancient dynasties, living in a homestay family taught me how to say strawberry, TV drama, and hug in Chinese. My homestay has been an amazing experience, and though it’s risky to apply for one, it can be a beautiful way to integrate into the local community of Shanghai.  

Of course, I was nervous to see whether there’s a click with the family and whether I could adapt to family life again, worried about the strength of the internet connection and the presence of a washing machine, and afraid of their judgement -to the extent that I spent three days contemplating what to wear to our first meeting and which presents to bring. Now, two months later, living with this beautiful family feels so normal and comfortable, and it turned out to be a great decision to apply for a homestay. Since school no longer offers a homestay program, I searched online and applied to HomestayShanghai. This organization found a family for me in less than a month after I applied. The deal was: I pay 300 kuai a week and tutor for five hours, and in return my meals and accommodation are taken care of, and the family speaks Chinese with me.       

爷爷 knocks on the door of my room and asks with his 东北 accent: 你要打球儿吗? After he tested my level of badminton in the first week of the homestay, I had been admitted to the crew of 爷爷’s who play badminton at Zhongshan Park every weather-permitting day. Today is spec l, because Wang 爷爷 invites us for lunch. A long oil-dripping skewer of lamb meat ends up on my plate, and out of politeness I eat the meat even though I’m vegetarian. When we get back, 奶奶 and I sit down at the table and start a conversation whilst cracking open walnuts. We talk about her childhood, about Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution, and about hunger during the Great Leap Forward.

Living with my homestay family allows me to see Shanghai from a new perspective, and allows my family to learn more about this alien species called 外国人. Whether it’s through a homestay or not, I hope NYU Shanghai students find creative ways to engage with the local community. It can be a rewarding experience, but also, it’s your role as a new, foreign member of a community to reach out and leave a good impression. Perhaps, it’s time to step out of your comfort zone too!       

This article was written by Bo Donners. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Bo Donners

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