The Forgotten Youth: A Walkthrough of the Homestay Program in Canada

By Rachel Jiam

I once saw a nervous and quiet Chinese girl named Rose, who had a locker not far from mine in high school. She passed me everyday and never once failed to deliver me a faint smile. It might have been the look of constant confusion on her face while she wandered the halls that made me believe she was an international student who had just arrived to Canada. Perhaps she was trying to project friendliness to me because I was one of the few Asian students at the school in Kingston, ON. Regardless, I decided to approach her and offer any help she might need, since I had a tough experience when I emigrated from Malaysia. She explained to me that she was from Shanghai, in pursuit of a Canadian education and was involved with the homestay program just like myself. Needless to say, I had no idea how similar our migration experience was, largely due to similar living arrangements. The homestay program is an opportunity for international students to find accommodation in a local’s home in Canada. A student would be able to go to school nearby the house while improving their English and learning the Canadian culture.  The common rate for homestay in Ontario is $800/month, which includes easy transportation to school, a furnished room and meals provided.  Although the homestay program looks like a great opportunity on the surface, there are many hidden issues that result in long-term impacts.  These homestay students, who often are at a pivotal developmental stage when participating in the program, are a forgotten portion of Canadian immigrants.  The program does not provide the necessary care ubiquitously, and as such, has many detrimental impacts on the youth.  As such, the program is in need of proper policies and regulation instead of being privatized.

Firstly, there are different kinds of motivation that would prompt an international student to study abroad and pick the homestay program. Motivations differ between cultures but the primary reasons a student would want to study abroad includes an interest in learning new things, a new language, meeting new people, advancing ones career with a foreign degree, and the pleasures associated with going abroad and satisfying curiosity (Popadiuk, 230). For example, Rose had come to Canada in search of a better education and to improve her English skills so that she could return to China with better credentials for her future career. However, I had moved here in search of a new life in a foreign society, which I hoped would teach me life skills and transform me into a better individual.  While moving to a new country is an adventure, it begins with a stressful and emotionally depressing period due to the change in environment and social contexts. According to Joanne, the Limestone District School Board Homestay Coordinator in Kingston, “the program is meant to provide a safe and comfortable environment so that the process of assimilating can be easier” (Natalini). This is a considerable goal for the program and, if executed properly, has the potential of helping a large number of students adjust fluidly and avoid the negatives.  Students who partake in the homestay program frequently desire to have a relationship with the local people, get cheaper rent for better houses, and have a sense of being at home and experiencing authentic culture (Agyeiwaah, 20). Being submerged within the new context, even when alone at home, can be very beneficial.  Constant interaction with the spoken language of the host country and practicing cultural norms in the comfort of one’s new home gives you an opportunity to grow at your own pace. Rose was given the option of staying with a Chinese Canadian family in Kingston which was quite tempting to her; however she chose the more educational route by requesting to stay with a local family.  Unfortunately for Rose, she had to change homestays three times due to continuous problems. I made the same choice, and I moved five times; I would never have guessed how similar and unpredictable our experiences would be living with local families.

According to the British Columbia Adolescent Health survey, when it comes to boys and girls in homestays, one out of ten boys reported being in fair to poor health.  For girls, that number increases to one out of four girls, but one out of four girls have also reported sexual abuse (Homma). This is a staggering statistic. It is higher than the average student, and the only being that these children live in homestays. What is causing the bad health of these students? When I was a homestay student, I actually experienced declining physical health during my stay. My lack of desire to go out, get fresh air and exercise was mostly related to my mental health condition, especially at the time upon my arrival. In addition to the lack of accommodations for mental health conditions, the diet is often unsatisfactory and unhealthy. Rose and I are both of Chinese descent and therefore had a specially tailored diet related to our culture. Arriving in Canada, the difference in food quality was easily interpreted by the popularity in fast food and the convenience of preparing frozen foods instead of fresh meals. Quite a number of students actually gain weight after arrival because of the change of diet to more ‘Western’ foods. This surprisingly leads to body image issues such as bulimia and anorexia when international students are struggling to keep their weight constant while eating foods provided in the homestay (Natalini).

During my interview with Rose, she rated her eating situations as ‘bad’ at the first house, ‘good’ at the second, and ‘bearable’ at the third. She rated the first home as an overall awful experience, where the food was poor quality, if food was even provided. She spoke about her weight gain as well as bad habits she had learnt from the daughter of the household, who barely ate to be skinny. I had a similar experience with my first and third homestay, where all the food provided was premade frozen food, and sometimes there would be no food provided since the hosts had a “busy” schedule. In my interview with the Homestay Coordinator, Joanne was defensive of the program stating that the families are taught and urged to provide good food to the students. However, she also added that “in Canada, both parents work and therefore have no time to cook, and fresh foods are expensive here” (Natalini). This was a reoccurring excuse during my stay where a homestay guardian would say “in Canada, we work and have no time to cook”.   These statements implied that only one parent works in Asia, which is not only incorrect, but symbolizes the cultural ignorance therein.  Additionally, the excuses are not satisfactory justifications for not providing proper meals: if families are too busy, they should not be taking on foreign dependents.  On an optimistic note, Joanne did express her desire to rid the program of issues like bad quality food and international students developing body image issues by conducting more training for the homestay families, urging proper care of students, as well as conducting regular checkups on the student.

Mental health is a sensitive and serious problem among many people, let alone international students. Past work has examined acculturative stress, socio-cultural adjustment, depression and suicidal ideation among international high school students (Homma).  These statistics are particularly high for students from Asia. Students in homestay are often young and still developing; hence the change of environment, cultural difference and longing for home can create large amounts of mental and emotional stress. Joanne talked about the issue with quite a bit of leniency, mentioning that the main cause of the stress was “homestay students refusing to go out for fresh air.  Instead they stay in their rooms with their computers” (Natalini). While this may be partially true, I would like to argue that the issue is far more complex and can be largely based on the environment of the homestay. During my involvement in the program, I had gone through different phases of depression and anxiety without being very conscientious of my mental health, especially due to my culture’s view on mental illnesses. I would often be introverted, homesick, furious and sad due to factors like depressing weather, inability to adjust and from the negative environment in the homestay. There were a lot of arguments within the homestay family which made it difficult to relax, which is a core component to dealing with stressful situations. My lack of talking, eating and sleeping was met with hostility by my first and fifth homestay as a sign of rebellion instead of a cry for help.  However, even I was unaware of what help was needed, much like many other Asian international students.

Rose went through a similar situation where she would often lose her appetite, feel homesick and uncomfortable in her homestay. She often was stressed for no reason and was emotionally hurt on a few occurrences by her first homestay family. An example would be the night that she and another Chinese international student in the household were in a room when her homestay mother came in and started yelling about them doing chores. The two girls responded appropriately but was met with a hostile statement from the guardian saying “you Chinese are poor people who will never assimilate, go to university, graduate or get jobs and should just go back to China” (Yu). This came from someone who works as a guardian for international students and continues to do so today. As soon as it happened, Joanne was contacted by Rose and she was moved the following day to a new home but the homestay family was never taken out of the program. This sort of hostility is incredibly emotionally damaging when someone is racially discriminated in such a way that they would not feel safe where they live. Troubled immigrant youth who have moved to Canada by themselves have more than enough to deal with besides emotional distress caused by their homestay families.

The adolescent health survey mentioned prior to this revealed that one in five homestay students became smokers shortly after arrival (Homma). While there are many factors that could contribute to this, it is mainly due to the students being away from their biological parents.  Joanne brought up that a lot of the time when the students are confronted about the habit, it is revealed that the matter is highly stress related. The same cause can be related to international student’s drug use or alcohol abuse problems which in most cases, the homestay family does not want to deal with or get involved by any means. The homestay policy regarding this problem is that when a student is caught misbehaving by means of cigarettes, alcohol or drugs they are immediately taken out of the program and sent home (Natalini). It is a brutal sentence for something that is solely tied to the student’s mental wellbeing. However, international students from Asia often hold negative perspectives of mental health problems, believe that family and close friends are in the best position to offer help, and generally do not understand the largely Western view of counselling services (Popadiuk, 1530). Furthermore, school counsellors often do not possess the level of cultural competency needed to work effectively with international students from Asia (Popadiuk, 1531). Homestay families are encouraged to report any strange behaviour but most of them can’t pick up on signs that their student is dealing with mental health problems, which is understandable if they haven’t had training on the matter. It is a hard issue to deal with when many of the students are uncomfortable discussing such matters but comfort starts at home and with a strong relationship built between the homestay family and student, it may help resolve the issue and ease the lives of both parties.

The homestay can be a positive experience as long as there are better policies put in place, such as additional mental health and cultural training for the homestay families to keep them constantly educated. As homestay coordinator, Joanne had expressed her ideas on how to improve the system by having a drop in centre, seminars to educate homestay families and having Canadian students mentor the international students to help them assimilate. Also, a pre-trip briefing session can prepare participants for some of the cultural differences they will encounter and will help them formulate personal and professional goals (Parent and Craft, 96). When I asked Rose about what could improve the program, she simply wanted the students’ voices to be heard as much as those of homestay guardians. She felt that when an issue had risen, the agency did not search for the truth in the matter and simply moved the student. This is a passive way of dealing with things, which not only makes the student feel like they are never rooted, but implies that every problem can be solved with avoidance. I had lost quite a bit of respect for Joanne when she stated that “international students are a business” (Natalini). When these international sojourners are treated as commodity, then the problems with the program will be very difficult to fix and the lives of many students will suffer.  Food will continue to be of bad quality so long as the homestay parents make money and mental health issues will be ignored so long as the agency does not have to seek out better trained counsellors. Emotionally abusive homestay parents will continue to be involved if they still profit the agency and students who are suffering from stress related substance abuse will just be sent home so that no effort has to be put in. This program should not just be about business but there should be genuine care for the wellbeing of these students. They are someone else’s children who are experiencing a tough life change that many immigrant adults struggle with. The homestay program is a great opportunity for immigrant youth; however more work has to be put into the system before it further changes into an unsafe environment where irreparable damage can be done.

References

Homma, Yuko, et al. “The unmet health needs of East Asian high school students: are homestay students at risk?” Canadian Journal of Public Health 101.3 (2010): 241+. Academic OneFile. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Parent, James, and Charles Craft. “An Overseas Experience: Preparing Administrators to Prepare Students.” NASSP Bulletin 74.522 (1990): 95-6. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Popadiuk, Natalee. “Asian International Student Transition to High School in Canada.” The Qualitative Report 15.6 (2010): 1523-48. ProQuest. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Popadiuk, Natalee. “Unaccompanied Asian Secondary Students Studying in Canada.” International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling 31.4 (2009): 229-43. Web. 19 Mar. 2014

Agyeiwaah, Elizabeth, Oheneba Akyeampong, and Edem K. Amenumey. “International Tourists’ Motivations to Choose Homestay: Do their Socio-Demographics have any Influence?” Tourism and Hospitality Research 13.1 (2013): 16-26.ProQuest. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Yu, Rose. Internet Video Conference Interview. 15 Mar 2014.

Natalini, Joanne. Telephone Interview. 16 Mar 2014.

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IMG_0615-EditRachel is in her final year majoring in Media Studies, and minoring in Diaspora & Transnationalism and Psychology. She was sent to Canada from Malaysia at the age of 15, to pursue a fruitful life of opportunity. During this impressionable time of her life, Rachel had to adapt to a completely foreign environment and take on the bigger challenges that come with living on her own. This was the start to an exhaustive journey of finding out that the feeling of home and reassurance of her identity did not come from external causes but from a deeper self-understanding that is built over time.

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