The plane landed in San Diego, Anita was located and our entourage made it through the zoo that is an airport under construction. Even with 6,000 miles behind her, the real trek was just getting started.
We Americans in our welcome party were starving, so we stopped at Pokéz to pick up some vegetarian burritos. This is the thing about Spaniards: They aren’t Mexican, they don’t do spicy food and they definitely don’t eat California-sized burritos.
Part of being an exchange student is being open to trying things you aren’t used to and teaching your host family about your culture while they teach you about theirs. Anita, being the model exchange student she is, graciously ate the burrito and set the tone for her trip.
She taught me about the dissimilarities between the way Spaniards and Mexicans speak Spanish, the deep-rooted rivalrybetween Barcelona and Madrid and the regional differences in her country. I taught her the phrase “kick back,” how to make s’mores and quesadillas and what lies between San Diego and New York.
While navigating through the early stages of such a relationship, you will find that you may have misconceptions about others and be ignorant to certain aspects of their lives. For example, Anita told me quesadillas and avocados aren’t eaten in Spain. Who knew?
This provides an interesting opportunity to be the student and teacher. However, it may bring up challenges for the exchange student. While the host family will be enthused about serving their regional specialties, it is also important to incorporate foods the student will enjoy.
From my experiences as an exchange host, I have found the best thing for students traveling abroad is to find a balance between being open to new experiences and being honestwith your host family.
Don’t tell them you love going to museums if you can’t stand them. Don’t tell them you will eat anything if you actually hate seafood and tomatoes. Your family wants to make sure you are having the best time possible, so give them a road map.
The hardest thing for a host family is when you say, “I will do whatever you want to do.” While it may feel like you are being accommodating, it is extremely difficult to make decisions without feedback. If they give you a few options to choose from when picking the day’s activities, give them some input. Everyone will have a better time if you are at least a little bit opinionated.
Though it can be difficult to integrate yourself into a new family, it won’t be long before you pick up on their habits and start to feel comfortable. Careful observation is key to adjusting to a new environment. They will likely eat different foods, eat at different times and work around a different schedule than what you are accustomed to.
Take a few days to get a feel for how things work and do your best to be another member of the family. Tidy up around the house where you can and help yourself to food, as long as that’s appropriate in your host family’s house.
One day I came home from work and Anita had been home alone. She had been here for about three weeks, so she was comfortable roaming the house and I found her out in the pool. It was nearly dinnertime and when I asked her if she had eaten anything all day, she replied,“I ate some cookies that I had leftover from yesterday.”
As a host, it made me feel like there should be some sort of exchange student protective services and I should have certainly been hauled away for negligence. More often than not, your host family wants you to help yourself to food and avoid starvation. It is surprisingly difficult to make sure a grown adult has eaten enough for the day, so do your best as an exchange student to take care of yourself when you can and when it’s appropriate.
Living in in a different country with a new family can be daunting, but if you genuinely try to fit in and help your family, you will likely succeed. A host family is only half of the package; you have to make the effort to make it the best possible experience.