How To Overcome A Bad Host Family Experience
As you depart for your great adventure of studying abroad, I bet you’re full of mixed feelings. After all, you’re ahead of a year filled with new encounters, unfamiliar cultures and a different language. When you are taking that brave step out the comfort zone and the ease of your own four walls, one of the big hopes is that your host family will welcome you with open arms. We, as exchange students, often don’t know a lot about the people we are spending a year with in a completely new environment. No matter how vivid the imagination, the belief of having “the year of our lives” is constantly present.
But it doesn’t always work out as expected. The first couple months I spent in the United States was one big wonder-fest about what to do. The motto I was going by was to be accepting of any cultural differences that might arise, but soon I couldn’t help but question the difference between a cultural variance or an actual imposition.
It was not only me who felt that way. In fact, the majority of my friends (who were also foreign exchange students) were also left in unconscionable families, where none any of us felt at home or accepted. We were merely there and felt deserted in a place where we knew nothing and nobody.
The stories were told bit by bit, but looking back there were some unbelievable situations. Two of my friends were living together in a host family where they had to collect the owner’s cat poo from all over the house, because she didn’t believe in using litter boxes. They were not allowed to drop a single hair on the floor and, if they did, they had to crawl until they found it. They were mostly treated as cleaning staff. Another friend witnessed her host parents being aggressive towards their younger children daily, and got scolded frequently for studying.
Our coordinator was not helpful. She told us right off the bat that she wanted as little trouble as possible and that if we feel uncomfortable, we need to change ourselves more to adapt. After all, she said, we were living by the generosity of another family.
But that generosity could not be felt most of the time. I was living alone with a single woman and her dog, and for all the months I was living with her she interacted more with her pet than with her exchange student, aka. me. Maybe she was, in general, more of a pet person. But, once, it came to the point where my friend greeted her, and heard as a response: “Do you want a glass of water?” When my friend declined, she got, “I was talking to the dog,” as a response.
The house my host and I lived in was a pile of trash I wasn’t allowed to touch, befogged by an odor of the plugged toilet downstairs which didn’t get unclogged ‘til the day of my departure. We didn’t have any Internet, TV or radio. She would ignore me the whole day, but get angry when I called my family at school on my birthday. I wasn’t supposed to contact home. I wasn’t allowed to join any school activities. There was rarely food in the house and I wasn’t allowed to buy my own.
On Christmas Eve, I got a detailed explanation why I will go to hell, with bible references. And hearing that from the person who never found a kind word for her exchange student, it was just too much. But the organization I was travelling with wasn’t really helpful.
I got asked later, “Didn’t you hate the States after that experience?” I love the States. The start of the exchange was some of the loneliest and most desperate months in my life, but throughout this year abroad I was so lucky to meet some many wonderful people.
The other exchange students who had their own hardships to tackle were some of the strongest and encouraging people I know – and I am still happy to have them as my closest friends, even years afterwards. I had wonderful friends at school, who would listen to my stories and cheer me up. And most of all, I found a second family.
After the time of hostility, I got welcomed in the most caring family I could have wished for. They didn’t know anything about me and spontaneously hosted me, but opened their home for me like every exchange student dreams of in the beginning.
I will never be able to thank them enough for enriching my life in so many ways; I love my host siblings who taught me so much with their magnificent, unique characters, and my host parents, who are the kindest and most patient people I know, and I miss them every day.
That’s why in the end, it’s not the bad memories that stay. Instead, these are painted over by the laughter and sincerity you feel during your exchange. Probably not everything will go right in the beginning. But don’t be discouraged by that! Keep your heart open and look out for the kindness around you.