In my experience, everyone who comes on a study abroad program with a host family component has high hopes for their host-family experience. They all want to make a lifelong connection. That desire to connect with one’s host family is a very positive thing; it makes it much more likely that those connections will take place, and it is a great motivator for becoming involved in the culture. That being said, the reality is that host family experiences vary, and many students find their relationship with their host family to be more lukewarm than sunny. Furthermore, they are always aware that the family relationship is temporary, and ultimately can’t overcome the awkwardness of feeling like a third wheel in someone else’s life.
A big part of this probably has to do with unrealistic expectations—many students, it seems, don’t realize that the kind of connection they are looking for takes a lot of time and work to accomplish They also often don’t account for the language and cultural barriers. I certainly didn’t. When I arrived in Kazan in 2012 I was fresh out of high school, and didn’t speak a word of Russian. I literally stepped off the bus and then strait into the car of my host family. Two boys and a single mother—Olga–and only the oldest boy spoke some English. The language barrier was never—and is still not—resolved, and presents a permanent problem to communication.
I had a fantastic year studying in Kazan, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a certain emotional distance between my host family and I. I always felt a little like an alien from a foreign planet that everyone accepts, but that never quite fits in. A good deal of that discomfort was probably self-made. I wanted my host family experience to fit my expectations rather than allow it to be whatever it was, for better or worse.
I ended the year on great terms with my host family, but we fell out of touch when I got home. Three years later I am back in Russia again and I have decided to return to Kazan for a weekend to visit my old host family. I am writing this from the family dacha on the Volga, where we are staying for the weekend. We have spent the weekend swimming, playing basketball and soccer, biking, and watching movies. As it turns out, with a few more years of life experience and much improved language skills, my perspective has changed entirely. In a way that I never expected, hanging out with Olga, her new husband and their boys really does feel like a return to a home of sorts. It’s something familiar, nostalgic and fun. It’s also hugely rewarding to see Olga’s family developing, with both her and her oldest son getting married. I feel very much a part of their lives.
I almost didn’t go back to Kazan. I told people I was worried about spending money, that I wouldn’t have enough time, or that Olga and the boys would be busy. In reality, I think I was just scared about seeing them again. I was scared, in a way, that they wouldn’t have any interest in seeing me. That maybe they had just tolerated me while I was there, or that maybe they were mad that I had fallen out of contact, or that it would be awkward. I had all of these insecurities about seeing them again, and the easier thing to do would have been to just put them in my past—something to be remembered, maybe a source of anecdotes, but nothing more.
I have always had trouble staying in contact with people, for me it was always easier to just move on and forget. I am aware of this, and I forced myself to make an effort to contact Olga and the boys when I arrived in Russia, to keep them actively in my life, not locked away as a memory. To put in the work that is required for that relationship, for that connection. It was a great decision. I have had a chance to genuinely feel like part of the family and cement lifelong relationships.
By: Christian Wick
Term: Summer 2016