From the time I first started filling out my application to go abroad, I knew I wanted to live with a host family. It was a decision I made early on, and once the decision was made, I didn’t really think about it again. That is, I didn’t think about it until I received my host family assignment and read the introduction letter from my host mom. That’s when I got really nervous.
It hit me that I was going to be moving in with someone I had never met before, who speaks a language in which I am barely proficient. It was just going to be me and my host mom living together – her children are already adults who live on their own. I started imagining awkward dinners together where we had absolutely nothing to talk about and there was no one there for her to talk to besides me. I chose to live with a family instead of the dorm because I thought it would be more beneficial for me and my language gain, but I didn’t really consider how hard it might be.
I remember sitting in the taxi with my host mom as we rode to her apartment together for the first time. I tried to make small talk, but I was so nervous and kept misspeaking. She told off the driver for not driving carefully enough. I was intimidated by her.
Now, five months after that first cab ride (this is my second semester in Saint Petersburg), it’s shocking how far she and I have come. Honestly, within the first week or so of me being here, she and I had started to fall into a rhythm. I have a better relationship with her than I could have ever hoped for. In large part, it’s because of her: she’s been hosting for a long time and is used to Americans. She’s willing to put in the work to talk to me, to make me dinner every night, to answer any questions I have. But I also put effort into our relationship: some nights I stay up talking with her, or we spend a weekend day together. I buy her flowers and ask her about her day. She’s become a major part of my support system abroad, and honestly no amount of flowers can sufficiently thank her for the role she’s played in my experience here.
This may seem like common sense, but it really is the little things that matter to your host families (at least that’s been my experience and seems to have been the experience of my friends). Spending time with them, bringing your host mom flowers or her favorite chocolate every once in a while, asking them questions…they notice and appreciate those things.
It’s also important to be upfront with them. If you don’t like a certain type of food, tell them. If you want to go to bed early and not drink three more cups of tea with them, tell them. And ask questions! If you want to give your host dad a present, ask your host mom for advice. If you don’t know how to congratulate someone on a certain holiday/occasion, ask your host family. They will be honest with you and give you advice (perhaps more than you wanted, even). You don’t need to drown them in empty compliments, but if you genuinely like something, tell them that too. If you want to spend more time with them, invite them to go places with you.
Everyone develops a different relationship with their host family; I was lucky that something between my host mom and I just clicked. Our relationship is nothing like I expected going into the program, and that’s a good thing: She’s been a big part of my experience abroad, and I couldn’t be more grateful to her.
By: Selena Steinbach
Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program, St. Petersburg, Russia
Term: Spring 2020