Sunday, January 26, 2014

Musings on Life with Host Families

I've been with my Moroccan host family for only a few days, but already, they are wonderful. They've shown me around the city, taught me about a million vocab words, and been incredibly patient with my ability to only remember one out of every million words they teach me. I'm sure we're going to have fun together!

Adjusting to a new family has got me reminiscing about the many, many families who have hosted me over the last five years. If I'm counting right, I've lived with eleven different host families, for anywhere from three days to six months. Some were incredible, and have become lifelong friends. Some were a bit more difficult, requiring adjustment and more than one night of comforting myself with ice cream. All have taught me lessons about life, lessons that have an impact on me still today. I thought I'd share a few of these thoughts with you.

1) It's going to be a change. That's the point, right? If you didn't want change, you'd still be living where you lived before. Expect this change, and don't try to recreate your old environment in your new one.

2) The host family can't be the one to do all the adjusting. Many families are regular hosters, with new students/etc every few months. Imagine if they changed their entire lives to accommodate each person? Diet, schedule, language, etc. They are doing plenty of adjusting to fit you in; don't expect them to cater to your every whim. The more you expect it, the more resentful your relationship will become. It's hard to change all your habits, and you will be forgiven for clinging to certain things, but for the most part, try to model yourself after the household. Be as clean (cleaner!) as they are, eat when and what they do as much as possible, try not to disrupt their schedule. No midnight dancing around the house with music blaring!

3) That said, never be afraid to speak up. Your host family can't read minds. If you don't like a food, don't keep eating it and saying how delicious it is. In many, many cultures, it is rude to let guests go hungry, but for many of us, the constant pushing to eat (a sign of love) is draining and annoying. Learn to say no. If you are cold, if you are sick, if you need help: say something.

This especially applies if there's a serious problem. If you feel unsafe, if the environment is making you sick or unhappy, tell someone! I can't stress this enough. The organization that placed you with a host family doesn't want you to be miserable or in danger. I made this mistake once, thinking I'd just tough it out, because I thought that was expected. Nobody knew until after I left how unhappy I'd been, because I never said anything.

4) Try. We all love it when visitors make an effort to learn our language and customs. Host families are great teachers of these things. They know you are new to this, and most will give you an incredible amount of grace, especially if you are willing to laugh at yourself. I have a week's worth of stories about screwing up the language (just this week, I'm relatively sure I told my neighbor, a teacher, that I dislike teachers...) 

Try other things too. Try that strange looking food, that different style of bed, that Turkish toilet. You may learn to like it, or at least get used to it. Going abroad has taught me to like an awful lot of vegetables, because I tasted them and slowly but surely came to enjoy them. From public baths to horseback riding, sketchy roller coasters to fried grasshoppers- you never know what memories you'll make!

5) Be independent, but don't hesitate to ask. I've seen the look on host sisters' faces when they are asked to take me yet again when they go out with their friends, and that's when I know: time to get my own life. Living with a new family is draining for both sides, especially if language is an element. In my experience, though, it's easier for me to make a change than it is for them; they tend to fear being rude, even if they are secretly thinking it. If you cling too much to your family, they and you will be missing out. Find other friends, learn your way around, get involved in other things, say "no thanks" sometimes when your sister invites you out. Don't know how to do any of those things? Ask. They'll be happy to answer.

6) Your experience will directly correlate with the amount of effort you put in. You can hide in your room for months and ignore the family, or you can become a part of them. There will be moments when you need personal space; take them, and don't feel guilty if that's what lets you recharge. But do your best to join in activities, to help around the house, to show an interest in whatever they are doing. One of my favorite activities is helping my host mom cook- bonding and a cooking lesson, and often a language lesson too! (The lessons half worked. I speak the languages, but I'm still an awful cook.)

7) Give back. Your family will spend a lot of time giving to you- time, needed items, patience, space in their house. Show your appreciation; offer to make dinner, help clear the table, treat them to ice cream one night. It doesn't have to be a big production, but it goes a long way toward breaking stereotypes about Americans (and other countries) and toward building your relationship.

8) Watch your tongue. Cross-cultural relationships inevitably yield something discomfiting, scary, even sickening. Sometimes it's small: not wearing seatbelts, eating too much mayonnaise. Sometimes it's bigger, harder to swallow. I really struggle when my family doesn't treat their children well, or things like that. I have to remind myself that the best thing I can do is model other behaviors, rather than criticize theirs. You aren't there to "fix" them, no matter how much fixing may seem to be needed. Hold your tongue, bite back those harsh or condescending words. Once you've gotten to know them, you might be able to approach the situation better, engaging them in productive dialogue rather than just criticizing. And who knows? Along the way, you may learn the reasons behind the action, or discover that their way of doing things is actually better than your own.

Every host family experience is different, and that's part of the charm. But I hope these tips will help you enjoy your family and get the most out of the experience!

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