Changing Host Families

Exchange year in PA, US Stays

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.

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4 thoughts on “Changing Host Families

  1. My younger brother briefly went to Germany as an exchange student in high school. His host family had a son his age who was an only child and thrilled to have someone new to hang out with for a bit, and they all got along great. It was more of a cultural program than anything else, since it wasn’t long enough to actually pick up German (which he knew maybe 5 words of). The family was well-educated and spoke only English to him. He went to Realschule (Germany has a three-tiered system with tracking after grade 4; Realschule is below Gymnasium but above Hauptschule) with his host brother and had an especially good time in their English classes. They took him on a bunch of outings and out to various restaurants and he had a blast. He did have one extremely amusing experience one morning when he came down to breakfast and found his host parents watching the TV news in some obvious consternation. From the look they gave him, he gathered that something awful had happened and they were trying to figure out how to break it to him. Then, the host mother uttered the sentence that cracks me up every time I think of it: “[Brother], your country is on fire.” My brother was obviously quite taken aback and momentarily speechless at this, thinking of nuclear wars or some apocalyptic menace. He decided more information was necessary and hesitantly inquired, “Um, which part? ALL of it?” She pointed at the TV. He couldn’t understand the German announcer, but figured it out from the pictures on the screen. It turned out they’d been doing a report on some of the wildfires that spring up every year in California, and his host parents, unable to conceptualize how truly huge the US is, thought this meant that a large part of the country might soon be incinerated and that he might have no home to go back to. He explained this to them, then excused himself for a minute and hid back in the bedroom so he could roar with laughter.

  2. Hi! I am an exchange student from Spain living in The US!
    As I was reading it felt I was writing it myself, I’m going through so much and I’m having similar experiences with my host family… I just don’t fit in this family, but thanks God I am changing families in January (but because they only wanted to host me for a semester). I am having lots of fun in school, but once I get home I get sad. My host sister is so weird and mean to me. I get this feeling that they only wanted me as a spanish teacher for their daughter and haven’t tried to show me their culture or anything. It feels like I’ve waisted 5 months staying with them, but I’ve learned to become more independient.

  3. it was very good reading this, thank you. I’m brazilian and I’m in NZ for a year. I’m having some problems too, at first, everything was great, my host sister was lovely and everyone was very nice. But now it’s just ok… They just talk by themselves, once in a while I have space to say something, but then they don’t continue the conversation. Know my host sister is getting kind of annoying too. She has this overreactions of everything, and she is really forced and fake. We had great times together, but she just doesn’t give me space to say almost nothing, and she is inpolite with me also. Another problem, is that I’m vegan, so I have to buy some foods, like oats and fruits, because I eat that in two meals of the day, because is the cheapest thing I can get. So I don’t eat their food, that my parents are giving money for the to buy it. I think that is really wrong, they should buy it, not me. My family is spending so much money already with the exchange program, now if I keep spending like $70 per month, thei will fail. Maybe I will change my family, but I don’t know yet.

  4. Do you think it becomes mandatory to change host families when you’re 3 months in already and you’re not enjoing your exchange with your host fam? I like my friends at school and the ones I made by volunteering or going to extra curricular. But my host family is a problem. My host sister is impatient, mean and pushy. I hate that I have to be on time for her all the time and one time she literary wanted to drive away because I was almost late(even though I came on the right time and I even had 30 seconds left). Yes, she even counts seconds. But I had to wait for her for like 50 minutes. And she rushes me when we don’t have to go anywhere. And this week has been just the worst. The grandma told me that Russia is going to invade my country according to some weird propaganda christian news. Then today she tells me: “we wouldn’t want to send you back home, your mom wouldn’t like that” because I wasn’t at a place we decided to meet when I was done with volunteering. I was with a friend going back to that place because i had to use the restroom and they would’t come for 30 minutes. It took me 10 minutes to come back to that place and of course they didn’t wait 10 minutes of their precious lives. Then at dinner the uncle: “I don’t care if your black if you don’t have attitude I don’t look at your color. But it’s hard to look at people who have gaps in their teeth. Like they look funny and then I just look in their eyes.” So I have a gap in my teeth and my dad has it. I grew up beeing bulied by it. He obviously knew I had it. I don’t know why would they be so mean to me ,but I decided that I want to change my host family. I just don’t know if it’s serious enough. I remmember that 2 weeks in I was sad and unhappy just like i’m now. Now, for sure I know that it’s not culture shock or homesickness. I want to be in this country, but I hate this family. I’m lost. And hurt. But not alone. There are a lot of people that help me and support me. I just don’t think I can handle more of this. Should I wait longer? Because I said that to myself 3 moths ago because I tought that I was homesick. Now I don’t know what to do.

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