What It's Like Living with a Host Family While Studying Abroad
The term "foreign exchange student" may bring to mind images of that random dude from Italy who played on your high school's soccer team during senior year, or maybe that one girl from South Korea who always brought interesting snacks to school, some of which you tried, others to which you said, "Thanks, I'm good though." Maybe it reminds you of some other guy or gal from Colombia or China or Germany. Whatever the case may be, there's a high likelihood that the term makes you think of someone other than yourself.
But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you've thought about it, considered taking your education international? Maybe the opportunity is there and you simply have some lingering questions you need answered before you go ahead and sign on?
Not everyone is afforded the opportunity to become a foreign exchange student, of course, and even when the option exists, studying abroad just does not appeal to some people. But if you're one of those individuals out there thinking about expanding your cranium overseas and you wonder, among other things, what living with a host family might be like, you've come to the right place.
Four years ago, I travelled with a group of my peers down to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where we would spend six weeks studying Spanish in May and June. In order to make the cultural immersion of the experience as, umm... immersive as possible, we were all spread across the city and assigned a family to live with. The program set us up with families based on preferences we had indicated beforehand by filling out a questionnaire which included such items as, "I prefer to live with A) no English speakers in the family, B) at least one English speaker in the family, or C) more than one English speaker in the family," and other related ditties.
I would end up staying with a woman who lived in the Belgrano neighborhood of Buenos Aires with her daughter and two 20-something-year-old grandsons. Having never spent more than two weeks traveling without my immediate family — let alone never being outside of the continental U.S. before — I did not quite know what to expect from living with an Argentinian family for close to a month and a half, in fairly tight quarters no less.
After arriving at the airport and being whisked away by taxi into the heart of one of the world's larger cities, I arrived at a decently tall apartment building along Virrey del Pino. Following some light chitchat with the doorman, my host mother, Mónica, appeared in the lobby and, after we dumped my stuff upstairs, we went for a walk around the block so she could give me a small taste of the neighborhood. She also helped set me up with a Subte card and showed me a place I could do laundry, if I so desired.
I remember being super nervous about sitting down for dinner with the family for the first time, which would happen later that day. I pictured the four of them, Mónica, her daughter, and her two grandsons, speaking Spanish in circles around me and me sitting there feeling totally lost. But they spoke English, as well, and, even though I still felt slightly self-conscious speaking Spanish in front of them — a matter that was not helped when I used the word expensivo (which does not exist) to describe something that cost a lot of money one night — I always tried to.
Even though Mónica's apartment wasn't all that large, I did have a room to myself and, in the mornings especially, it could feel like I was the only one living there. I would get up around 7:30 a.m. on weekdays, shower, get dressed, have a piece of toast and maybe a glass of juice, and finally head out the door around 8:15 or so without seeing anyone. Typically, I would be gone all day after that, attending class across the city, going out for lunch with classmates afterwards and maybe getting some homework done (but probably doing some independent sightseeing, in reality).
Dinnertime with Mónica and co. was never earlier than 9 p.m. as far as I can recall, and this sometimes left a rumbly in my tumbly, but it wasn't a huge deal. They would speak with each other in what felt like hurried tones but slow it down or switch over to English altogether when trying to include me in the conversation, which was much appreciated (even though I technically wasn't supposed to be speaking English at home — sorry maestra!).
Other than my walk around the block with Mónica on the first day and her helping me get to the on-site orientation session the day after that, the only other time I really spent with the family outside of dinnertime and weekend afternoons here and there was the one night that my host brothers, Benjamin and Ramiro, and I walked down the street to grab a late night snack at Burger King.
My most vivid memory from that evening is the two of them laughing at me for not knowing who Messi was. Of course, I now know that Lionel Messi is one of the most famous fútbol players in the world, but at the time I literally thought they were talking about a regional soccer team or something of that sort. Silly American me, am I right?
There were times, too, though, where after dinner I would talk with Mónica or her daughter about what happened in class that morning or about a certain homework assignment I needed help with, and they were always eager to hear about my day or assist me in whatever way they could. Sometimes they would even help me see an issue from another angle, such as when we were learning about state-sponsored terrorism that occurred in Argentina in the 1970's as part of what is referred to as the "Dirty War," or guerra sucia.
On the whole, my experience living with a host family was a pretty pleasant one. I say that especially as I think about another classmate of mine who lived with an elderly woman who knew next to no English and who was wary of letting my classmate go out on the weekends (meanwhile, I regularly got home no earlier than 3 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night). I'd have to guess that most families that offer to host a foreign exchange student are going to get on just fine with that student for the duration of their time abroad. But even when things don't work out, most programs give students the option to move to another household.
Hopefully, if you plan to study abroad and stay with a family, that option won't be necessary. And hopefully, after reading this post, you have some idea of what living with a host family in a foreign country is like. On the totally, 100-percent off-chance that you feel like you wasted five minutes of your life opening and reading this, however, at least I can leave you with this Huffington Post article to check out: "Tips for Living with a Host Family."
There, now everybody's happy.