What I Learned Living with a Host Family

I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot throughout my life, whether that be through family vacations during childhood, as a student, and as a professional. Each context with which I traveled to a new place brought on an entirely different experience. It wasn’t until I began traveling to other countries with a purpose beyond touristic ventures that I began to see past the par-for-the-course historical attractions, restaurants, and other aspects. Between June and July of 2019, I took a chance and flew by myself across the Atlantic to Italy, and worked as a tutor and counselor teaching English to children and teens in three different Summer camps for six weeks. Although I could wax poetic about the beauty of Italy, I want to spend time focusing on one particular aspect of the experience for anyone reading this who might be considering similar travel plans: living with a host family. What was it like? What should I do to prepare? How do I connect with someone across a language barrier? I’ve got your back. Fortunately, I was able to have three totally unique host family experiences over the course of the six weeks. Here are a couple of things I learned.

 

The Most Important Attributes to Have: Patience and Compassion

You’re about to live with a family that may have little to no concept of your home life and even culture. Perhaps the only thing they know about American culture is from movies and television-- I literally had someone ask me if American high schools were like how they are in Riverdale. On that same token, they might ask you questions you are totally unprepared for; for example, “what do you think about 9/11?” “Why did you let your country fall to pieces?” You may also be asked a lot of personal questions that would seem completely inappropriate if another English-speaker asked you, such as how many lovers you’ve had (...yes I am speaking from experience). The key is to be patient and open about yourself because they’re probably just curious about you and have the best intentions. 

You may run into some problems living with a host family, and that is totally normal. Something I had been told going into the program in Italy is that 99% of all problems with a family stem from miscommunication. As long as both parties stay transparent with each other about anything ranging from basic house etiquette to entire cultural differences, things will be okay. It also doesn’t hurt to save the language on your phone in Google Translate. Each host household I lived with showed so much respect and compassion towards me and truly treated me as one of the family. And that’s exactly what they are during your time there-- maybe don’t treat them exactly how you might treat your sibling or parent, but don’t be afraid to show the same love to them that you would to anyone in your family. They are opening up their lives to you, and that’s an invaluable gift. 

Photo courtesy of the author

Language Barriers: Not as Terrifying as You Think!

I was able to experience living with a broad range of English fluency. My first family spoke nearly perfect English, which ended up being an amazing help transitioning into Italian culture for the several weeks that I worked. My second family, although just as loving towards me, spoke far less English-- which admittedly felt quite isolating at first. I learned this Summer just how much of my personality depended on language context, and learned different ways of overcoming that. Puns? Jokes? Idioms? Completely useless in these situations. That being said, it was pretty funny when the son in my host family tried to explain an Italian pun to me, without me knowing much more Italian than “grazie” and “che schifo”. 

I’d also learned what it was like to be the only English speaker in a room. Don’t be afraid of these moments! Use them to become fluent in body language, and do your best to work around any awkward silences. Oftentimes, people of all ages you meet will want to practice whatever English they know, and if you tell them you’re from New York, for some reason they will want to shake your hand and congratulate you-- sometimes. But even when you are the only one in a room who can speak fluent English, there’s nothing sweeter than the moment someone uses the skills they have to really try and get to know you. During my final week in Italy, I had decided to go to a neighborhood party with my boss, and I was the only non-Italian at the party. After awkwardly standing by the food and drinks for a while, a group of teenage girls came over to me and invited me to their table. We ended up dancing the whole night away together and it ended up being one of the best nights of my life!

The last thing I want to say regarding language barriers is that you learn so quickly the lack of importance of words in a conversation. Two fluent English-speakers can have a conversation for however long they want without really saying anything of substance, but once you are placed in a situation where you have to be extremely selective about your wording, you learn what kind of sentences really hold value. I’d had incredibly meaningful conversations with people who spoke barely any English, and learned so much about what Italians value as well as what I value. 

Screenshot courtesy of the author

Say “Yes!” to New Experiences

During my time in Italy, I forced myself to try any new thing that came my way. This included trying a range of new foods that I never would have bothered to try at home, or even would have come into contact in the first place. And although there were some points in time that I was quite correct about my taste preferences, I ended up falling in love with a lot of the new foods! I also sought new skills like Italian cooking, language skills, and plenty of new games. I talked to complete strangers who led lives that I never could have imagined back in the States. I also took the time to explore the areas by myself and came across things that no tourist would have ever found on an online forum or Instagram account. Living with a host family allows you to really feel like a native of the area; in my experience, I would never have known that just by traveling to the tourist centers of Italy. 

The truth is, sometimes you’re not going to necessarily agree with everything your host family does or says. And that’s okay! It’s all part of the experience of cultural exchange, and it wouldn’t be nearly as valuable without coming across these differences. Having tolerance can take you very far in these situations. 

If you have the opportunity to live with a host family at any point in your life, I encourage you to take it. It enables you to not only immerse yourself into a new culture but also to immerse yourself into a brand new family dynamic; you’ll start to realize what you hold important in your own life and gain a greater appreciation for the ones you love back home. Once that bittersweet time comes where you must part ways, you know that you’ll always have a home away from home.