Homestay Away from Home

07/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

With a population of more than 17 million, Beijing is crowded enough.

Now that nearly 500,000 tourists are expected to visit the city during the Olympic Games, where will everyone hang their heads at night?

For some, the answer is: together.

Nearly 600 Beijingers will open their homes to overseas visitors as part of an Olympic homestay program established by the city's tourism administration. Organizers expect about 1,000 visitors will live in Beijing homes during the Games.

City officials hope the program will immerse visitors in the Chinese culture and lifestyle, and there's no doubt in my mind it will. But Olympic homestay participants will find modern Beijing to be not very different from North America and some places in Europe.

During my first two weeks in Beijing, I lived with a host family. My family was better off than the average Chinese family. They had a townhouse outside the city, an apartment in the city and a car. Both homes had hardwood floors, at least two televisions, Western toilets, enclosed showers and air conditioning units.

In terms of culture, however, living with the family was quite enlightening. Everything is about family: talking with them, spending time with them, and, most importantly, eating with them. People often greet each other by asking if the other has eaten yet, and enjoy spending meals together.

Though both parents had jobs, the 14-year-old daughter seemed to work hardest, going to school from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and even on some Saturdays. She suggested I give her grades when she practiced her English with me, saying the competition would make her work
harder. I can just imagine U.S. students her age chanting "overachiever."

The parents often liked to bring me places with them, whether it was to the market or out with their friends. I think they liked to show off their "Meiguo-ren" (American).

Though living with a family was a little overwhelming at times, I ended up leaving because of the location, not because I didn't like them. As tourists staying in homestays begin to arrive
this week, I wonder what their cultural immersion experiences will be like: too much or not enough.