My aunt studied abroad in Brazil when she was in college. It was her first time abroad and she was placed in a really large family where she was quickly integrated into their lifestyle. She went to parties with her host sisters, helped around the house and practiced Portuguese with the family everyday. When she came back to the United States, she had a family in Brazil that she would continue to communicate with forty years later.
From the moment I entered the house, I knew that this family would change my experience entirely.
When I filled out my housing application, this is the experience that I had in mind. Being the only child in my family, I have a very strong relationship with my parents, and the thought of leaving them for five months was extremely daunting. I knew that I would need a close-knit family that included me in their activities in order to feel comfortable in my new home. I knew that I couldn’t develop unrealistic expectations, but I was hopeful that I would have the same experience as my aunt and develop a connection with my host family that I would have for the rest of my life.
Am I Part of the Family?
When I got off the plane and was whisked away through the city of Buenos Aires, I was so anxious that I began to question my whole decision to study abroad. My host mom met me downstairs and helped me carry my bag up to our second floor apartment. She let me get settled in my room and introduced me to my host sister, who was my age and seemed so excited that I would be staying with them for the semester. I found out that my host mom had two more children who wouldn’t be living with us, but would be dropping by for lunches and dinners on occasion. I made it my goal to become friends with my host sister so I could go out with her, hang out with her friends and hopefully one day have her visit me in New York.
Unfortunately, I got a little bit ahead of myself and didn’t have the ideal experience that I had imagined with this family. My host sister had a boyfriend, who she spent a lot of her time with, and even though we ate dinner together, shared a hair dryer and got ice cream once or twice, to her I was just another host student who would be gone in five months. My host mom and host sister were as close as I was to my own mother, but they never made me feel like a part of the family, and I was disappointed.
Not the Right Fit
There was one night where we watched a soccer match between two local teams, and this was the closest I ever felt to my host family. We sat on the couch together, ate dinner and talked about my life at home. I explained the concepts of sororities and fraternities to my host sister, who thought that they sounded like cults. She was so curious about my social life and asked me to tell her which sorority she would be in if she was at my university. I thought that this would be a breakthrough moment for us, but the next day, the magic of the night before was gone. This is when I decided that it was time to talk to my program about switching families. While many students appreciated a host family that let them have their independence, I was looking to develop a stronger bond, and this was not my ideal situation. I contacted my program and was placed with the Deluca family.
Home Sweet Home
From the moment I entered the house, I knew that this family would change my experience entirely. I was initially greeted by a woman and a huge dog and before I could even say anything, she told me that she would treat me as she would treat any of her other children and to consider her my “Argentine mother.” Her name was Laura, and her husband’s name was Carlos. They had four children who were all in their thirties or forties. Three of them lived in the house and one of them lived thirty minutes away with her husband and two children. One of the sons had a three-year old daughter who sometimes stayed at our apartment and sometimes stayed with her mother.
The first night my host brother came to talk to me and showed me his collection of movies. He gave me a jar of Jif peanut butter (my weakness) and three Argentine movies, which sealed our friendship. This family was drastically different from my first family. They included me in all of their activities, asked me about my day and corrected me every time I made a mistake speaking Spanish so that I could improve.
The hardest part about living with this new family was learning how to live with so many other people. I had to deal with the reality that when my host mom bought bananas, they were likely to be gone the next day and no matter how badly I wanted to shower, my host brother sometimes needed the bathroom more than I did. While these experiences seemed trivial, there was definitely an adjustment period. Luckily, this did not take away from the incredible two and a half months that I spent with them. For Mother’s Day Weekend we had a four-hour family lunch, where I got to speak to all of my host siblings, play with their children and take family photos. My host mom also drove me three hours to our family’s farm, where I got to have lunch with her, tour the house and visit the closest shopping mall. Our “girls’ day” together was one of the highlights of my experience abroad.
Staying with a host family abroad is not an easy adjustment and it is important to know what you are looking for in a host family experience before you arrive in your host country. It was hard to cope with the fact that my first host family was not an ideal match for me, but after I spoke with my program and was placed in a new family, my entire experience was changed for the better. It is important to communicate with your program so that you can make your experience the best it can possibly be. My time abroad would not have been complete without the Deluca family and although my experience was not identical to my aunt’s, I will continue to talk to my family and will never forget my time with them.
Casey Lipton is a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics student at the University of Pennsylvania and studied abroad with the IFSA-Butler Argentine Universities Program in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2015.