Think of the last time there was a big gathering in your extended family. Not a holiday, but something like your cousin Justine’s graduation party. Or, better, that time you, your parents, and a bunch of your aunts and uncles and cousins packed into their respective cars and drove caravan style to the Catskills. It doesn’t matter if it was an overnight or just a day trip and a barbecue, but think of all the tiny dramas playing out in your family. Remember this was the trip where Uncle George saw a bear and shouted at everybody to get in the car without explaining it, so at first everyone thought he was just grumpy and livid at something or other, until everyone got the message except for the family dog, who thought everyone was shouting at her and stood in the middle of the campsite shaking and crying until your dad ran out and grabbed her.
What else would have gone on that day? Picture your cousin Chris making some questionable choices regarding the amount of lighter fluid necessary to start the grill, or your cousins Kim and Heather sneaking cigarettes behind the car. Your aunt Mary Jane probably would have worn high heels to the woods and would have endured unending derision from the family. Was this the barbecue when your cousin Meghan first brought her then-boyfriend now-husband to meet the family? What must he have thought of all of you?
Are you picturing it?
Now, imagine that one of your aunts’ and uncles’ families is hosting a foreign exchange student. Imagine it’s only been a couple of weeks since they arrived in America and they don’t seem to understand more than ten percent of what’s going on.
When your cousin Chris asks, “how do you want your burger?” Foreigner answers with a tentative, “yes?”
Your uncle George might try to include Foreigner by explaining who everybody is, but through the smiling blank stares, it later occurs to you ‘nieces’ and ‘nephews’ and ‘in-laws’ and ‘second-cousins’ might be a bit beyond their grasp.
Foreigner can’t say much, and so has a tendency to get trapped in conversations the rest of you know how to avoid. Imagine yourself circling the party before food is ready and glimpsing Foreigner trying hard to listen to your eleven-year-old cousin Bryan as he explains the story behind each and every one of his Pokémon cards. Or perhaps Foreigner, desperate for some sort of purpose, gets enlisted to help make the salad. You see them struggling mightily to cut a bell pepper, but don’t think you could explain to them in words they would understand that Aunt Barbara wouldn’t know a knife sharpener if it hit her in the face. Still, Foreigner keeps dicing the peppers instead of slicing them. They clearly don’t know how to make a salad.
Maybe later in the afternoon after everyone has had a few drinks, you notice Aunt Mary Jane close-talking to Foreigner, saying something about a “makeover.” Foreigner nods enthusiastically and you wonder if they have a clue what they’re agreeing to.
To understand what it’s like to live with a host family, it’s helpful to de-familiarize yourself with your own. If you didn’t understand every word nor have a great ear for anglophone conversational nuance, how easy do you think it would be to tell the difference between when you and your brother are arguing and when you are lovingly ribbing each other?—admit that in both cases you two are often smiling and deadpanning. How much of conversation at dinner would be about concrete things that are happening now, versus rambling renditions of past times you had together? How much do you collectively wait for each person to finish a thought before responding with a related comment, and how often do you all interrupt each other with non-sequiturs? Without the prompt of someone asking questions and otherwise shoehorning themselves into the conversation, how vigilant (or effective) would you be at including a stranger with limited communication ability?
As a language student studying abroad, there is a great deal of daily cultural and linguistic ignorance you just have to embrace. Navigating this constant uncertainty becomes in itself your second job. While your overall program goal may be language acquisition, with regard to your host family, your job is to be an adorable idiot. While I’m sure you’re charming and intelligent in English, without that, your expectations of how you endear yourself to new people have to change.
My name sounds like a common word in the local language and I look up like an idiot thinking people are addressing me almost daily. At least once or twice I have nearly been hit by my host family’s car by misunderstanding if we were unloading the truck first or backing into the garage. I confuse the words “bad” & “milk;” “tired” & “hungry;” and “like” & “want” to occasional comedic effect. I am frequently unsure of etiquette and go to sleep wondering, for example, whether I was supposed to at least offer to pay at lunch knowing my host would refuse. I would go crazy if I couldn’t see these missteps in the context of my new role in the family.
I’ve made friends with the children in the extended family because they just want a new friend to play with (and ultimately it’s hard to feel bad if a ten-year-old thinks you’re dumb). I have honed my comic miming Vaudevillian precision, with generous helpings of conspiratorial winks and eyebrow raises. My role in the family includes messing up as part of my charm.
This is not to say that you won’t eventually be able to speak like an adult. Like the beloved family pet slowly learning to talk, your trajectory into the hearts of your host family is perhaps an unfamiliar one to all involved, but embracing new modes of relating to people across languages and cultures is part of why you are staying with a host family in the first place.
So put yourself in middle the family barbecue. Whether or not you understand, give a confident assent to every yes/no question you receive and see what happens. Remember most family stuff isn’t really about you, but you’re lucky now to join in. Remember how quirky your family would be from the outside and see your their peculiarities in your host family. Become the dog that learned to talk.
Oh, and insist on doing the dishes occasionally. You’ll look like a hero and it’s the right thing to do.
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2018