I think I am now ready to relate a painful but defining point of my exchange student experience–switching host families during my high school exchange year. It’s been 10 years this year, so I believe the statute of limitations to stay silent out of respect for the parties involved has expired. If you were involved in the events described and would like to share your view on things, I will be happy to post it here.
As I previously wrote in this blog, I was selected to take part in a year-long high school exchange program in the US. I was supposed to stay with a family in the rural US and go to a local high school in order to learn more about the local community and, hopefully, become a part of it.
A month or two before the start of the program I was given the name and phone number of my future host mother — let’s call her Ella. She was a single 63-year-old woman living in a small town in Pennsylvania. I called Ella once before I left for the US. She was excited I was coming and told me she had told the priest at her church and that he was excited to meet me, too.
Once I arrived, Ella seemed to like me. I could overhear her calling her friends, telling them how I was “mature for her age.” She took me places and introduced me to people in the community. I started spending time with my upstairs neighbor Lauren, who became my dear friend during my time in the town. I joined the youth group at my host mother’s church and went on various trips with them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we had been told about culture shock during our pre-departure orientation, so I did expect the “honeymoon period” to wear off. I had been told in a month or so we could start feeling homesick, getting headaches from speaking English all the time, hating the local food, etc. That didn’t happen. Instead, what happened was a series of red flags that belonged in the interpersonal relationship rather than cultural realm.
My host mother would get annoyed at certain things I said, which I thought was normal to happen between people from different backgrounds, who were just getting used to one another. Yet, sometimes her reaction would seem unwarranted to me. For instance, she would take me to a festival, and I would say something like “You can park your car here.” Ella would answer, “I know what I can and cannot do.” (While I understand the directness of using ‘can,’ one could probably have a little more patience and flexibility with an international student.) We would be walking to the church and I would say, “They need to plow the sidewalk.” Ella would answer, “You have an opinion on everything.” Other things would come up. According to the program rules, the host families were supposed to give us $1.25 a day for school lunches. Ella said that was teaching us the wrong things about the US. (This may be true for all I know, but imagine what it feels like for a 15-year-old foreign student, who can’t work legally, to be told the $1.25 is spoiling them.)
I suppose it might have been that my host mother was used to more vocal displays of gratitude and humility, and it might have been that I lacked them. She had a picture of a young girl in India, to whom she sent money, and from whom she would get thank you letters with pictures. Perhaps that was the kind of low-involvement interaction she was used to.
As I said, I see how the little things I did could be annoying, but I thought this was a normal part of the host-and-student dynamic. We were supposed to get upset at one another and figure things out. After all, they had told us at orientation that we were to be not guests, but members of the family, with all the chores and other forms of involvement in family life.
The first external warning sign came as early as October. My host mother didn’t have internet at home, so I went to the library to check my email. I received a letter from my coordinator Lea asking how bad my cat allergy was (which, to this day, is pretty bad). I put two and two together and, once I returned to Ella’s, I asked her if she wanted me to move to a different family. She avoided answering me directly but was visibly displeased that my coordinator had asked me that. My guess is that Ella wanted to negotiate my transfer with my coordinator without me being in the know.
Every now and then Ella would mention that I may be better off with a larger family who could take me places. Whether she meant it or just needed a pretext to have me transferred, I don’t know. Perhaps a little bit of both.
Fast forward to December and a few confrontations in between — by confrontations I mean nothing that an average US teenager wouldn’t do to their parents, such as ask for a ride at the last moment, so the parent damages their mirror pulling out of the driveway. I was getting excited about Christmas and meeting my host-mother’s children and grandchildren, who she talked a lot about. As I already mentioned, we were told by our program coordinators that we were going to be part of the family, taking part in all the celebrations and what not.
One day Ella approached me and said she would like me to move out of the house for Christmas because she wanted some “private time” with her family. This was fully unexpected and ran counter to all we had been told. Looking back, I think the smart thing to do was to involve my coordinator right then, but I felt so powerless in the face of this change. So I asked the leader of the youth group if I could stay with her, and she agreed.
The whole situation was so awkward and surreal. I remember going to the drugstore where my friend Steve worked and looking at the pet adoption ads. I had been to Steve’s house only once or twice before, so his father looked surprised when I showed up at the doorstep. No one was expecting me, and I knew that, but I wanted to share with someone what I was going through. So I told Steve how I soon would be like the kittens in the adoption ads. Before I did move to my youht group leader’s house, I confronted Ella and told her, “When I come back, I’m not staying, am I?” She wouldn’t give me an answer and said she needed time to think about it. I already knew what the answer would be, and I wasn’t mad, but I just wanted her to tell me once and for all.
So, Christmas went well, if a little awkwardly, being away from the town I lived in with Ella and all my friends. I didn’t feel quite at home at my hosts’ place, so I would collect my laundry in a plastic bag. I went back to Ella’s once the week was out. She was upset I had brought my dirty laundry back. And she did tell me she couldn’t host me any more (anyone surprised?).
At that point, I called my coordinator Lea. She told me that, ideally, they would try to keep me in the area, going to the same high school, and asked if I knew of anyone who would be interested in hosting me. I started naming some people I knew. My host mother stormed into the room and told me I wouldn’t be going around begging to stay with people.
It was decided that Lea would pick me up as soon as possible and I would stay with her until she found a new family for me. She was going to try and place me with a family that had a cat to see how I did. I spent the rest of that day crying at my friend Lauren’s and her mother’s. I might have spent the night there, too; I can’t recall any more. I just didn’t want to be around this person who obviously wanted me out as soon as possible.
Lea did pick me up, and I spent the night with her. I ended up staying with the family who had the cat for the balance of the year. They had to open my locker at the high school to return the books to the library. Because my move was so minimal notice, I wasn’t even able to finish the quarter at the high school. My stay in the first town was very abruptly interrupted. I did visit Ella once or twice on subsequent visits to the town. She asked if I liked it better with the new family. I told her I was having a great time.
I will leave this story without any moral. Perhaps appearances of decency were more important to my host mother than actual decency, but, most likely, she just didn’t realize what she was getting herself into, and once she saw it wasn’t what she had hoped for, she couldn’t find a graceful way out of it.