“Cabra chica, a comer!” My host mom endearingly called to me from the kitchen when it was meal time. I helped set up and the two of us, along with my host sister and dad, sat down for an evening meal called “once”. This is a particularly Chilean meal that resembles an extravagant tea time more than a traditional dinner. Each member of the family usually made a little sandwich with various spreads, drank a warm tea, and shared stories from the day. Some of my favorite hours in Chile were spent around that table–the conversations lingering long after we had eaten and the tea had cooled.
Is Living With A Host Family That Great?
The short answer is, absolutely. During the five months I lived in Valparaiso, Chile the host family experience proved to be one of the most formative. During my stay my family helped me not only grow in terms of my language skills, but also as a person. For example, when I was stressed about making friends and insecure about my ability to connect with other students, they would provide their wisdom and advice, which helped me build confidence and create the freindships I wanted. The deep emotional bond with my family was always a source of support and comfort when challenging experiences arose, and allowed me to be my best self during my time abroad.
The Power of Language
One of the greatest opportunities living with a host family can provide is a space for you to practice your language. My Spanish was okay coming to Chile, but nothing helped more at improving it than speaking daily with my host family. Spanish was the first thing I heard in the morning and the last thing I heard before I went to bed. I learned the names of dishes and recipies, funny Chilean phrases and even swear words from my sister. One of the most relatable was “Cabeza de Pollo” which is what my host family would say to me when I repeatedly forgot the keys, which translates directly to “Head of Chicken” and implies that someone is forgetful. At school you will learn Spanish and hear it from your professors as well as reading texts. All this helps with learning vocabulary and listening skills, but the speaking component of language can only be acquired through practice.
Your host family members are the ones who will patiently listen to your stories, ask questions, and be the people in front of whom you aren’t scared to make mistakes. This is invaluable, because to grow at all you need to feel comfortable making mistakes. Although other people I met would talk with me, not everyone had the patience to really listen and give me their time, especially at the beginning.
A New Family and A New Self
Language component aside, my host family helped me grow on a more personal level. Since your host family doesn’t know your entire life context like your real family does, it gives you an opportunity to reinvent yourself. There were no expectations of how I should act or what I should achieve. This allowed for a kind of freedom because I didn’t have the same burden that I sometimes felt at home, which was an ingrained knowledge of what my family would and wouldn’t approve of and therefore it dictated my actions.
This didn’t mean I was reckless, crazy, or disregarded family “rules”, but just that the rules could be re-written. What I considered successful was no longer filtered through a lens of what my family would find successful. I felt supported by my host family to take on new challenges and be more independent. Another aspect was that I had to be more open and honest with my host family about things that were or weren’t working and be open and accepting to criticism and feedback about my own behavior. I am not the most organized or clean person in stark contrast to my host mom. So, for the first few weeks I kept up the appearance, but then I could no longer be as neat as I tried to present myself. I had to have an open conversation with my host mom that I in no way was trying to disrespect her or her household, it was just some bad habits I had. She understood, even though she would still make fun of me for my messiness, we were able to live together comfortably without judgment or animosity. In the long term, I think those types of conversations even helped improve my communication skills with my family back home.
A Long Lasting Bond
Not every host family experience is the same though, and sometimes it can be challenging to find a connection, especially at the beginning. I struggled with feeling comfortable for a bit, but realized that like a lot of the studying abroad experience, it was up to me to make the most out of it. I intentionally had to work at building the relationship with my family. Although it is also important to understand that the family is working on building a relationship with you and sometimes these mutual efforts may be more successful than others. Trying to think about what you want your relationship with your host family to look like and how you can work towards that end is an important step. However, if it really isn’t working out, which sometimes it doesn’t and that is totally okay, the IFSA staff was helpful in relocating students to other families that were a better fit.
I am so thankful and lucky to have formed a connection with my host family that went beyond just living in their home and sharing meals. We shared life experiences. My host dad began volunteering with me, my host sister and I would go for runs together and talk about our love lives, and my host mom and I would spend Sundays at the mall where she would share with me her superior fashion sense. We had inside jokes, we shared tears, and most importantly many hugs.