Foreign visitors become global family in homestay
By Kim Rahn
A number of Koreans have experienced homestay during trips or study abroad. They say they were satisfied with the specific lodging style, adding they had a glimpse of daily life of people in the country.
Good impressions make some of them provide homestay services to foreign visitors in Korea to give such an experience back to foreigners.
Homestay in Korea has been offered mostly through acquaintances, but state and local organizations have recently presented programs as part of a tourism promotion.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government, along with the Seoul Tourism Organization, has offered the Seoul Global Family program since 2009. Some 450 families have been certified by the city government after inspections and four-days of education on related service and guidelines. The Korea Tourism Organization is also recruiting host hopefuls for a homestay service named Korea Stay.
“The service is gaining good feedback not only because of the cheap rate — 40,000 won per night including breakfast — but also due to the unique chance to experience ordinary Korean life,” a city official said.
The city’s survey on 100 guests and hosts showed that 92.4 percent of guests were satisfied with the lodgings, while 82.6 percent of hosts wanted to recommend other Korean households to join the network.
Sarah Hsieh, an English teacher from Taiwan, visited Korea on Jan. 27 with one of her students and stayed at a homestay through the Seoul Global Family program. The home in northern Seoul was hosted by Lee Eun-mo and Lo Wen-huang couple, with the wife being Taiwanese.
“We had booked a hotel before we went. But the promotion of homestay made by Seoul Tourism Organization offered us another choice. I’d never had a similar experience before. That’s why we canceled the hotel booking and chose the homestay,” Hsieh said.
They originally planned to stay in the home for three days during their five-day trip to Korea, but Hsieh extended her stay to 14 days after she and Lo became friends.
“Hsieh and my wife became really close, speaking in their mother tongue. We proposed they stay more and my wife didn’t want to receive any additional charge besides the first two-nights’ fee,” the 50-year-old host Lee said.
As the Lunar New Year holiday was coming, the 33-year-old Taiwanese woman spent the three-day holiday at Lee’s father’s home. With a dozen of Lee’s relatives, she saw the ancestor worship service, performed a New Year’s bow to his parents and grandmother as they did, and played some folk games like “yutnori” together.
“The things we do in both countries are quite similar, such as ancestor worship, relative gatherings and so on. But the way you worship ancestors is totally different from ours,” Hsieh said.
Helping Lo with the cooking and worship service preparation, Hsieh said she sympathized with the role of Korean females during the holiday, when women prepare food all day long while men chat in the living room.
But generally she enjoyed the stay. “The experience was so great that I voluntarily wrote and posted an article describing my stay in Seoul and recommending the Lee family on Backpackers, one of the biggest websites for travelers in Taiwan.”
Lee has provided homestay for five years, even before the Seoul Global Family program was launched. Besides Hsieh, Lee had several guests from Japan, Canada, Australia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and China.
“Korea has some uniqueness, like Confucian culture. However, although some had difficulty adapting themselves to Korean food, most guests enjoyed Korea as it is, and I could see how Korea and Korean culture is well accepted by people around the world. I was surprised that some of them had quite deep a knowledge of Korea,” he said.
Tailor-made tour guide
Homestay hosts usually provide guests with information on tourist destinations and transportation.
Lee’s family also checked information about restaurants and tourist destinations Hsieh and her pupil had obtained before coming to Korea, helped them buy transportation cards, and gave them a ride to a bus station for their trip to a ski resort.
But hosts sometimes play the role of tour guides when they have time to do so.
“As Hsieh said she likes climbing, we proposed a trip to Mt. Bukhan, which is located near my house and is especially beautiful in winter. We guided her to our usual climbing trail, and she really enjoyed it,” Lee said.
Another homestay hosts in southwestern Seoul, Yu Jae-mu and his wife Michelle, took their guest Nawapan Kantacha from Thailand to many destinations in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province.
Kantacha is an exchange student from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. to Yonsei University since last August. After spending the winter break in Bangkok, she decided to stay at a homestay for a week before the dormitory opens.
“Even though I’ve been in Korea for quite some time, I haven’t experience how Korean family life is and I wanted to meet some Korean friends. At Yonsei, I have friends who are all exchange students because I live in an international dorm. They all speak English and I didn’t get to experience Korean culture and lifestyle much, so I decided to apply this program,” the 22-year-old Asian studies major said.
As Kantacha didn’t have specific travel plans herself, the Yu family drew up a schedule for her. As Yu had to work in the daytime, Michelle, along with their 23-month-old boy, took the Thai guest to a water park, 63 building, Lotte World, Bukchon hanok village and more. On the weekend, they went to Herb Island and Sanjeong Lake in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province.
Yu applied for the Seoul Global Family network after seeing a television program. A documentary showed that Chinese travelers had difficulty getting good and reasonable lodgings in Korea and went back with a bad impression of the country.
“When I studied in Shanghai, I had a Japanese friend who lived there. She invited me to her home and made me seaweed soup on my birthday, and I really appreciated it. I hoped foreigners could experience Korean culture and develop good image about the country,” the 33-year-old host said.
His wife Michelle, a 32-year-old housewife who teaches children English part-time, said she also got help from the natives when she stayed in Australia as an exchange student. “I think those in a foreign land need some love and family-like relationship and homestay can provide it,” she said, adding foreign guests can be hosts when they later visit their countries.
Lee also said it is rewarding to see foreigners coming here learn about Korea. “It is good to have new friends, understand new culture, and learn from respectable guests. One of my guests was an 83-year-old Australian, who was optimistic about everything and took a cheerful view of life. We learned a lot from him.”
To revitalize homestay, Lee emphasized having an open mind. “Koreans are familiar with foreigners now. But for direct contact such as homestay, what’s more important than language skill is an open mind to accept foreign guests as friends. In this global village, my guests today can be my hosts someday, and thinking in this way, we can all become good friends.”