“They go back home to four walls”: Homestays and international secondary school students

Year: 2018

Author: Mahoney, Caroline

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

International education is a multi-billion dollar industry in Australia and enrolments of international students in secondary schools are increasing. As these students are too young to live independently, those arriving without family members will usually seek accommodation with homestay families. International secondary students can also nominate family friends or relatives to live with. However this paper focuses on students living with homestay families that are unknown to them, in arrangements facilitated by educational providers. Our analysis draws on interviews and focus groups with international students, teachers, principals and administrative staff in schools, to explore the homestay experiences of international secondary school students in Australia. The schools include comprehensive government schools, elite private, and Catholic independent schools. The international students come from predominantly Asian countries.
Departments of Education in various Australian states and territories claim that staying in a homestay provides linguistic and cultural benefits, as well as access to a warm, welcoming ‘second family’. However, our findings, in line with previous literature (Rodriguez and Chornet-Roses 2014, Zhou and Chen 2008, Campbell 2004, Benson 2017), paint a far more complex and problematic picture of international students’ homestay experiences. In this paper we will identify and elucidate two elements that influence students’ homestay experiences: ‘tough love’ and ‘real love’. Tough love refers to the kind of unpleasant but necessary, and ultimately caring acts of homestay parents such as making students go to school and do their homework. Real love encompasses the daily acts of emotional warmth and affection that make international students feel like part of their homestay family. The delineation between tough love and real love is far from clear, however, and cultural differences, expectations and power relations further complicate these elements and their impacts. Furthermore, underpinning and affecting both of these elements is the unavoidable fact that homestay arrangements are always commercial. With this in mind, this paper will also consider the implications of a commercial contract, the ‘commodification of care’ (Claassen 2011), on homestay/student relationships. Using theories of affect and analytical approaches drawn from the sociologies of education and youth, we argue that scholarly interrogations of homestay experiences must address  both the commercial and affective economies (Ahmed 2004, Blackmore 2011) in play with homestay in order to unpack issues of power, race, class, and gender, and better understand the experiences of international students and their hosts.