Thoughts on living with a host family

This evening my host family and I went out to eat, both to celebrate my host mom’s boyfriend’s birthday and to celebrate the semester I’ve spent with them. We went to a local Brazilian buffet style restaurant, it was delicious and fun especially when the waiters and the family sang happy birthday in Portuguese, Spanish, and English and brought us a complementary bottle of champagne. We all made toasts, they wished me luck and I thanked them for having me in their home for the semester. They even bought me a present, a cookbook of international recipes. I said, “Great! So I can learn to burn things other than scrambled eggs!” (I used to predictably burn my scrambled eggs in the morning, filling the upstairs with smoke) and they all laughed. We had a great time and then came home for some tea and lemon meringue pie.
As unreal as it seems, I do need to start accepting that my time here is fast drawing to a close. It’s strange to think I won’t be seeing my host family every day, playing PS3 with Seba and Benja or talking with Cami and Gloria. I’ll even miss Toutín, the little white dog.
If you are planning on studying abroad, especially for a language immersion experience, I highly recommend choosing a program with a host family or home-stay component. I could cite endless studies  that demonstrate the benefits of living with a host family to language learning but I think the cultural aspect is also vital; the only way to truly understand another culture is to involve yourself in it as much as possible.

If I were to attempt to describe what it is like to live with a host family, I would have to say it is a progression. At the beginning it can be awkward, but towards the end I would say it feels a lot like being at your childhood best friend’s house: you feel very relaxed and comfortable just like it were your own house, just a little better behaved. Every host family is different and unique, all come with their own culture and habits and dynamics. Some of my program buddies live with a single older woman or widow, some live with young families with children, and everything in between. So here are four general pieces of advise to help make your home stay experience as wonderful and fantastic as possible.

1. Communication, communication, communication.

Ask questions. Ask for clarification. Tell them where you are going and when you will be back. Tell them your favorite foods and your least favorites and your allergies. Ask them about routines. Ask them what you should call them. Tell them about your day. Ask them about their days. Tell jokes. Tell stories. LISTEN to their jokes and stories.

2. Make like a chameleon and blend.

Think of it as when you are at your best friend’s house: adapt to the house rules as if you were just another son or daughter. If your mom asks you to keep your room clean, do so (I failed miserably at this). Find a chore niche and help out where you can: I would wash the dishes left in the sink at night on my way to bed and wash the dog every few weeks. Eat with the family, share with them. Try to spend as little time as possible with your door shut, when it wasn’t too noisy I liked to do my homework in the dining room so I would still be present in the flow of things.

Be the host student you would like to have. Don’t be a pig, don’t spend a billion hours in the shower, don’t leave the lights on when you leave or the milk out on the counter or track mud through the living room. But also listen, be open minded and nonjudgmental. Remember, you are here to learn new things not lecture people about your same old things.

4. Enjoy this time.
For US students who often live on campus or in an apartment close by, living with “parents” can seem like a loss of independence, and in a way it is. You need to follow the house rules, tell them where you are going and when you will be back, call ahead if you are bringing a friend, etc. But also for many of us it will be the last time our dinner is homemade for us every night, the last time our laundry is lovingly washed, ironed, and folded for us, the last time someone will be worried if you don’t come home on time. With the right dynamic, your relationship with your host family can be very meaningful and special. My host family has been there for me in my good days and bad, they’ve laughed with me and listened when I needed to cry, they’ve explained and shared things with me. I hope to stay in touch with them through the years and if I ever find myself back in Chile, as I am planning to do, I will most definitely be coming to visit!


Sopaipillas, Amigas, and Spanish

¡Hola a todos! I had a really fun day today, despite waking up to a torrential downpour outside my window. I reluctantly hauled myself out of my cozy bed and onto the micro to class, grumbling at the sky from under the umbrella I bought from a man outside the metro station for 1.500 pesos (USD$3.00). Class was interesting as usual, but nothing too exciting.

After class, my friend Tabea invited me to her house to partake in a traditional rainy day Chilean pastime: making and eating sopaipillas. Sopaipillas are a kind of fried dough made with squash. They can be topped with a variety of things or eaten plain; we made ours plain with pebre (a spicy salsa) and also soaked with chancaca (a sweet sauce made of raw unrefined sugar crystallized with honey and flavored with orange peels). I’m a terrible chef so I was more of an observer while Tabea made the dough from scratch and fried them in oil, and made pebre and the chancaca to top them with. If you want to try your hand at sopaipillas, here’s a good recipe.

More than the sopaipillas, which we delicious, I enjoyed the company and the conversation. Because we have different native languages the temptation to speak English (or in her case, German) wasn’t an issue, and for me listening to non-native but fluent speakers is easier because they tend to speak more slowly and deliberately than native speakers.

The temptation to speak one’s native language when abroad is strong and requires a great deal of willpower to resist, especially with a group of people who are also native speakers of your language such as in my exchange program. Many an evening or outing has started in Spanish only to quickly deteriorate into English. It’s only natural to want to express oneself with the ease and precision that one’s mother tongue offers, and to want a momentary sanctuary from the foreign culture that you are immersed in night and day. All the same, it is of vital importance that you resist the urge and make friends who do not share that language with you so that you won’t be tempted. Living with a host family helps with this immensely, of course, which is why I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about improving language skills and learning about the cultural context in which it is spoken.

Thinking about my own language skills, I am extremely impressed at how much I’ve advanced over the semester. Sometimes my brain doesn’t even notice which language I’m reading/listening/speaking/writing/thinking in at the moment, and it is an exhilarating feeling to realize you’ve been planning your day effortlessly in Spanish without even noticing. On the other hand, as I am writing this I have to continuously proofread for little Spanish words, especially prepositions, that have started to sneak into my English. Tricky prepositions!

Another encouraging sign of my improvement are those words that, unbidden, spring to your lips when things go wrong. For example, yesterday I woke up and blearily squinted at my phone. Realizing that I should have left for class five minutes ago, I swore loudly in Spanish. It was only after my frenzied dash out the door, onto the micro to the metro and then to class twenty minutes late did I realize what I had done. In my moment of panic, my mind still clouded with sleep, the first word of the day that my brain reached for was Spanish and I didn’t even notice! Now to you kids out there, I’m not condoning swearing, but I think the words your brain reflexively reaches for to express fright or pain or panic speak volumes about its subconscious processes.

That’s all I have for now. Tomorrow I’m going on a volunteer excursion to help some of the folks affected by the rainstorm we had a few days ago that experienced some flooding issues so it’s off to bed for me! ¡Buenas noches!

How to take a Shower in Chile (with some Famous Chileans and make-believe swearing)

So an important aspect of living somewhere and getting along with the locals is not stinkin’ up the joint with your smelly people odors. Another important aspect is knowing a little bit of the cultural history, such as notable historical figures. To save time, I’ve combined the two. Presenting:


In which I pretend to curse but actually use the names of notable Chileans from history. You can click their names to view their Wikipedia pages, or I’ve tabled them below for quick reference.

  1. Light the Michelle Bachelet-ing heater.
    1. Unlike in most of the United States, the water heaters (or calefón) in Chile are lit by hand as opposed to being always lit, to save on gas which is very expensive. Usually the calefón is mounted on the wall in the kitchen, but in some older homes it may be in the bathroom. This is a Francisca Valenzuela terrible idea because they can emit carbon monoxide if not ventilated properly. But if it is in the kitchen or similar open space, there’s no problem!

This is our calefón, lit and ready to heat my water!

    1. To light the actual calefón, you adjust a slider and hold down the button to let some gas build up. Then you usually press another button to create an electric spark, but ours is broken so we use matches. Once the little flame inside is lit, you adjust the slider to how hot you want the water. For dishes or clothes it only needs to be a little warm, but for this shower you want it Joaquín Toesca hot, so slide that little Bernardo O’Higgins all the way over!
  1. Get your stinky Arturo Prat in the shower!
    1. Now you´re going to need to hurry the Snooki up (Yes, unfortunately I did say Snooki. Turns out she’s actually not Italian, but Chilean). Because utilities such as gas and water are so Gabriela Mistral expensive, it’s best to keep showers brief.
  2. Dry your Quintrala off, put on some clothes, and turn off the Luis Pardo calefón.
  3. Don’t forget to hang up your Violeta Parra towel to air dry, since electricity for the dryer is also expensive!

I hope that you found these directions to be informative and amusing. I couldn’t think of any other way to make directions for using a water heater more interesting. Here is a list of the famous Chileans I listed for your enjoyment

Name Dates of birth/death Famous For…
Michelle Bachelet September 29, 1951- First female President of Chile
Francisca Valenzuela March 17, 1987- Chilean-American singer/songwriter
Joaquín Toesca 1745-
June 11, 1799
Architect who designed the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral and the presidential palace, el Palacio de la Moneda
Bernardo O’Higgins August 20, 1778-
October 24, 1842
Considered one of the founding fathers of modern Chile.
Arturo Prat April 3, 1848-
May 21, 1879
Navy officer, considered a national hero and appears on the 10,000 peso bill.
Snooki November 23, 1987- Born in Santiago and adopted by Italian-American parents, famous for being the first Chilean Oompa Loompa to escape from custody.
Gabriela Mistral April 7, 1889-
January 10, 1957
First Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, currently appears on the 5,000 peso bill.
La Quintrala 1604 – 1665 Aristocratic landowner, noted for her extreme cruelty, accused and tried for over 40 murders.
Luis Pardo September 20, 1882-
February 21, 1935
Captain of the ship that rescued the survivors of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed Antarctica expedition.
Violeta Parra October 4, 1917-
February 5, 1967
Internationally well-known folk singer

Routines are Good

I like to have routines. A good routine is like a good gif: it’s soothing in its predictability, and if you pick a good one it’s still satisfying to watch it repeat. Like this super creepy one of Bill Nye the Science Guy demonstrating the science of pianos and the stuff nightmares are made of.

So what I’m trying to explain is that now that all of my classes have been finalized this has been my first official week of my new routine. Every weekday morning I wake up to my first alarm, laze about in bed and curse the morning until my second alarm 5 minutes later, get up and get dressed. The rest of the family has usually already left for the day, so I make myself breakfast, usually toast with peanut butter and homemade raspberry jam that my host mom makes with black tea. (Two side notes: peanut butter is ridiculously expensive here so I bought my own little jar for like $5 USD, and I drink tea now because energy drinks are also expensive here). I make a sandwich for lunch, arrange my hair and brush my teeth, and I’m off to the micro. The micro takes me to the metro, and the metro takes me to class.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I am at the Universidad Diego Portales from 10-12:50, and Tuesday and Thursday I have one class at the Universidad de Chile and then a class at the IFSA office so I end up in class from 12 to 4. I really enjoy my classes, they are super interesting and all of my professors have been super understanding and helpful. Soon I am going to post a Survival Guide to your First Week of Chilean Classes because things are a bit different. I’ve made some friends, all of which have also been really helpful by teaching me the ropes and showing me where things are.

I usually get home from 3 to 5, take a little 20 minute siesta, and then get started on my homework with a mug of tea. Dinner on a weeknight is around 8:30, on a weekend more like 9 or 9:30. My host mom almost always cooks, but sometimes her boyfriend helps too. The food is excellent and there´s always way too much of it on my plate! Everyone eats together at the table.

Weekends are great, my friends from the program usually try to get out and see something interesting (see my posts about the zoo, cemeterio general, etc.) and then I spent the rest of the time hanging out with my host family. They are all so kind to me and super inclusive but without being overbearing. I can hang out in the living room and do homework while the boys are playing video games and feel completely at ease. Also Tutín (too-teen), the little dog that belongs to my mom’s boyfriend, loves me and always snuggles up to my feet which is adorable. Here are some pics of Tutín, aka Tito or Tontín (a combo of tonto, which means stupid, and his name).

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Moved in!

Hey everyone! I know its been ages since I last posted, I’ve been busy settling in and spending time with my host family. They picked me up at the hotel at around 1pm on Thursday and brought me here, to their adorable little house. The house is one of about four houses surrounded by a gate that you need a key for or get buzzed in, so it feels very safe. The house has two floors, the ground floor has the living/dining room, kitchen, my room and bathroom, and a fenced in backyard with tables. The second floor has a bathroom and three bedrooms. Here are some pictures of my room, which is only about 6 feet by 4 feet plus my bathroom which is maybe 3.5 feet by 6.

My host family is awesome. My mom is Gloria, she is super nice and really helpful. My host sister is 21 and she’s also really nice although I haven’t really had any chances to hang out with her one on one yet. And then there are the boys: Sebastian is 13 and Benjamin is 10. So far I’ve spent the most time with them, and they’ve been showing me how to use the Micro (buses). We’ve gone to a video game store, to their school, to a salon to get their hair cut for school, and a shop where I bought a new wallet and a watch for only 5 mil pesos (like $4US).

The Micro is complicated because each bus has a number that corresponds to its route. The routes are posted on a sign at the bus stop as a list of numbers, for example bus 104 might stop at stops 123, 124, 157, and 188. But they don’t post what stop corresponds to the numbers, you have to go online to to get that information. I will learn but for now the boys have been taking me everywhere.

Which leads me to a funny story: When we went to the video game store they didn’t tell me we would be taking the bus, so I didn’t grab my Bip! card. When we got on the bus to go there, there was such a crowd of people that I just slipped on. But on the way back there was a guard on the bus to make sure people were paying. So Sebastian explained to the guard that I was foreign, and that I didn’t have a Bip! card. So the guard turns to me and says, “Talk to me in English.” So I said “Hi, I’m from the United States and I don’t have a card, I’m really sorry!” and he was like “Ok, you can get on.” Sebastian recommends that if I’m ever in a jam and don’t have my card I can always say I’m a foreigner and they will let me on. I plan on having my card with me.

Family News!!!

Today while I was getting the oil in my trusty Ford Escort (named Curtis) changed, I checked my email on my phone and received some VERY EXCITING NEWS! MY HOST FAMILY HAS BEEN SELECTED!!!

My Chile family is made up of four people and a dog. Gloria is the mother, Camila is close to my age and is the daughter, and Sebastián and Benjamin are twelve and ten, respectively. The dog is an old beagle, I don’t know his or her name yet. The boys like to play soccer, and as a family they enjoy going on walks in the park and spending time with friends and extended family. The message also had pictures, but I won’t post pictures of them until I have their permission.

I am super super excited. Knowing who I will be living with really helps to lower my anxiety and worries. I will be sending them an email soon to introduce myself and to let them know how excited I am. I don’t think I could have picked a better family myself. I especially hope Camila and I will get along. For the first time, I will be the younger sister! (My sister is four years younger than me, and Camila is one year older). I hope the two boys are like most boys that age-I hope they want to show me interesting things and ask me lots of questions! Maybe I can help them with homework, since I’m not very good at soccer! And my host mom seems really kind and patient, just like my own mom.

I won’t have to wait too long until I meet them. My flight leaves in just 24 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes, and 3 seconds! Eeeep! On a related note, I submitted my notice at work. I work at a local Sam’s Club, and my last day will be February 10th. I will miss my Sam’s Club family, but I plan on reapplying when I get home.