When I was told that I would be staying with a host family for a year I was unsure of what to expect. I’ve lived on my own for the past six years and I didn’t particularly like the idea of abiding by somebody else’s rules. I didn’t want my year abroad to be like walking on eggshells. But I knew this was an important part of experiencing a new culture.
Generally, I’m quiet and reserved, not because I don’t like talking, but because I have little desire to talk. I’m quite comfortable eating silently at the dinner table. However, I realized that my silence could easily be mistaken for indifference. But that’s not always necessarily true.
In order to have a successful stay in Kazakhstan I knew that communication was going to be key. If I didn’t like eating bread and butter with every meal, I’d tell my host mom. When I had enough to eat, I’d let her know that, too. I didn’t realize self advocacy was such an extraordinary life skill. My classmates would say things like “I’m tired of eating plov,” “I’m so stuffed, I feel sick” and “ugh” to describe mealtime with their host families. Or they would say their host families “forced” them to go to the mountains or to a Kazakh wedding. But how? All you have to say is “No.”
I remember one particular time, my host mom watched me eat with a look of defeat on her face. This was 6 weeks into the program. Considering that I don’t talk much, I knew this didn’t pertain to just whether or not I liked her plov. I realized at that moment that an acute sense of awareness was important, if I was to make the most of my time here. Simply answering her questions like I do oral exams wasn’t sufficient. So I initiated a conversation. I told her that I was worried that I wouldn’t meet her expectations because I wasn’t the talkative type. That’s when she confessed that she was worried that I didn’t like living here. We laughed and we bonded over our preconceived ideas of each other. This was our first real bonding moment.
My host mom has since learned how to read me accurately. She knows when I’m not in the mood for smalltalk because I answer “da,” “nyet,” and “…ne znayu.” She would then proceed to flip on her favorite show, the Kazakh version of American Idol. I would continue eating undisturbed. There was a time when I was scared of going home after class because I kept triggering the security alarm. This wasn’t the ordinary 10-digit standard American pin-pad. There’s at least 15 digits. My host mom told me if I triggered the alarm one more time I’d have to pay a fine. So, instead of dealing with the security alarm, I’d try out a new restaurant everyday. My host mom noticed that I would always try to get home after her. She confronted me about this, but I denied it. She trained me how to turn off the alarm anyways. I’m glad she did. Staying out late was tiring.
We haven’t had any clashes at all. The closest moment to a clash was when I suggested for the first time that I’d cook for her a traditional Puerto Rican dish—yellow rice with chicken. We returned home from the bazaar from which we bought the rice, chicken and spices. I set up my cooking station and proceeded to dice onions, as my host mom looked upon with suspicion. When I turned to blend the spices, she immediately took control of my station. She tossed the onions into the pot along with the rice in the boiling water. She hastily told me that my help is no longer needed and rushed me out of the kitchen. I left confused. Later, I realized that in some cultures food is sacred. It’s better to leave the kitchen to the chef of the house, unless invited (which I eventually was).
Despite some minor challenges, overall, I feel that I’ve navigated my way through my host family successfully. All l had to do is be myself, remain in a posture of learning and learn not to repeat my mistakes.
By: Telmo Falope
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Term: Academic Year 2018-19