Kathy had never expected that life in Canada would mean two pieces of ham per sandwich and two thirds of a glass of milk. But that was the reality that greeted the student from China when she began her stay with a Canadian family.
The 15-year-old came to Canada two months ago from Shanghai to study in Ottawa. Her mother, through a Toronto-based homestay agency called Golden Source International, found her what she thought was the perfect place to stay: a "single-mom family with one teenager." At a price of 750 Canadian dollars (US$787) a month, Kathy would have a furnished room and three " balanced nutritious" meals every day.
What she got was far from that.
"I always feel hungry," said Kathy, speaking in Mandarin during a recent telephone interview with Xinhua.
Kathy said one morning early in her stay, she was preparing a sandwich and milk for herself, when her landlord informed her that she could only have two pieces of ham for a sandwich and no more than two thirds of a glass of milk.
"The lunch I take to school is two pieces of bread with one hotdog, one apple, one tin of juice, and several crackers," her voice raising, "It has never changed for a hundred years! And the vegetable I have had for the past two months is forever cauliflower!"
Xiaoying Hong, Kathy's mother, said she is very concerned over her daughter's life.
"It's such a difficult thing to go through when you are new to another country," Hong said, speaking in Mandarin from Shanghai, " she's so young, I'm really worried about the long-term psychological effects."
Kathy is not the only homestay student to complain about her landlord in Canada, which draws thousands of students every year from overseas. According to Larry Guo, director of Golden Source agency, 20 to 30 percent of students who find homestay families through the agency are dissatisfied with their host families. Most of the complaints are about distance to school, food and cultural barriers. Guo's company places 500 students each year in homestay.
Guo said his agency has special personnel to deal with the complaints. They encourage the students to communicate with the host family first. If differences cannot be resolved, the agency will switch the students to another of its host families.
According to Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Ministry, there were 156,955 international students in Canada in 2006. There is currently no official record of the number of international students who live with Canadian families. But Canada requires that foreign students younger than 16 years must live with a custodian. And many others choose to live with Canadian families to improve their language and learn about local culture.
Homestay fees vary from program to program and are often split between the host family and the agency. Best prices range from 700 Canadian dollars to 750 per month and include three meals per day. But the students also are asked to pay a registration fee, from 50 Canadian dollars to 350 Canadian dollars, which is non-refundable.
Homestay is an apparently big industry but so far the government has not come out with much-needed regulation or monitoring on it, which has led to various problems.
For one thing, although agencies and most of the school boards offer homestay services for international students, there are a substantial number of students who find homestay families without going through school boards or agencies.
"There's nobody who oversees it," says Geoff Best, director of the Ottawa International Student Program of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
The school board has designated Canada Homestay International to find host families for its students. The agency, started in 1994, has a self-regulation system to make sure the homestays they arrange are comfortable and safe. It screens host families via phone and in-person interviews. It also asks for police checks.
The importance of doing so became evident this year when a man paid by language schools to look after international students visiting Canada was charged with brutal robberies of Asian women in east Vancouver.
Even so, not all the agencies conduct detailed screening of host families. Stewart MacDonald, a senior consultant from Canada Homestay Search, said his organization does not ask for police checks from host families.
Sometimes even some agency offers screening, it is not so satisfactory. In the case of Kathy, while her mother thought she was placing Kathy with a "single-mom with a teenager" family, Kathy said she found out when she arrived that the single mom also lives with her boyfriend. A second, older son often comes home at night to crash on the sofa.
"It's an unregulated industry," said Brenda St. Jean, a senior executive officer from Canada Homestay International.
Having been in the business for eight years, Guo believes there should be a regulation body to safeguard international students' rights. But if this organization were to exist as a non- governmental body, he doubts it would have the authority to act very efficiently.
MacDonald said there were discussions about regulation early this year, but so far "nothing is coming up."
(Xinhua News Agency November 13, 2007)