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.
3. R.E.S.P.E.C.T! FIND OUT WHAT IS MEANS TO ME!
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!