Julie Fisher, a student at American University in the class of 2014, studied abroad with AMIDEAST in Rabat, Morocco during the Spring 2013 semester. As an intern for AMIDEAST Education Abroad during the Fall 2013 semester, Julie has put together a “How To” to live with a host family in order to calm any apprehension about moving in to a new family while studying abroad.
Across the board, when I ask people to identify their favorite part of studying abroad, the homestay experience almost always comes out on top. Sure, it can be daunting at first- who wouldn’t be at least a little bit nervous at the thought of living in a complete stranger’s home for several months? However, most people soon find that these “strangers” quickly turn into a second family.
I can offer a little perspective between housing options abroad, as I had the unique experience of studying abroad in two different countries over the course of the 2012-2013 academic year. The first semester, I was in Paris, France living in an apartment with an American roommate. The second semester, I was in Rabat, Morocco sharing a room with one of my American classmates in the home of a Moroccan family of five. Being able to compare the more isolated apartment situation to the integrated homestay setting, I can say that living in a local family’s home added an enjoyable and beneficial dimension to my study abroad experience.
Let’s say you are set on the idea of living with a host family. What happens next? Well, when you first meet and move in with your new host family, it can be a little awkward, to say the least. You will likely feel a little anxiety and some general curiosity. You will probably have little to no idea what daily life is like, what kind of food they will serve you (and when), how the kids will interact with you, how you will do basic tasks like take a shower, or even where you can find a quiet place to do your homework. On top of all that wondering, you will be trying to make a good first impression! So how do you even get started?
- Relax. Many families have hosted foreign students before you, so they know the drill. They know that you are not going to completely fit in at first, but they also have some ideas about how to make you feel at home as quickly as possible.
- Observe. If you don’t know how something is done, just watch the other members of your host family and do the same. If your host mom takes off her shoes before she walks on the carpet, you should probably follow suit. If they eat using hunks of bread instead of forks, grab that bread and dig in.
- Ask! Trust me, you will save yourself a lot of time and embarrassment if you simply ask how to do something when you are unsure. In the beginning of my Morocco semester, two of my classmates went for days without showering because they couldn’t figure out how to turn on the hot water. They were too embarrassed to ask for help at first, but one short conversation fixed that right up. It is much better to feel a little dumb for ten seconds than to have a lingering, worrisome issue. Your family will probably give you a brief rundown of basic household rules and schedules, but they may not cover everything. When in doubt, just ask. You’re not expected to know all the guidelines of living in a new household and a new culture right away.
- Learn. Learn from your mistakes and learn from each other. One afternoon, my roommate and I came home with a couple of our other classmates, and our host mom was in a flurry trying to prepare tea for everyone. We tried to explain that it wasn’t necessary, but Moroccan hospitality doesn’t take no for an answer. She told us that next time we were coming home with friends, that we should call her in advance so she isn’t caught off guard. Noted. Also, learn from the people around you. If you’re wondering something, bring it up with someone else on the program or even with staff members. Chances are, they’ve gone through the same thing and you can learn from their experiences.
Now that you know theoretically how to clear away some of the fog of cultural confusion swirling around you, the next question is, how do you communicate? There is no right or wrong answer here. The best form of communication is simply any form of communication that gets your message across. In the Middle East and North Africa, chances are, you’re not going to know the local Arabic dialect upon arrival (though living with a family will make you practically fluent in the basics), but maybe you know some Modern Standard Arabic. Give that a shot. If they still don’t understand, defer to another language. For example, my host family spoke French, and not having taken any Arabic before, that’s how I spoke to them at first. Eventually, our communication became a mixture of about half French and half Moroccan Arabic. Many families or at least their children may know some English too, although I would avoid English if you want to improve your language skills. Lastly, if all else fails, use your good old charades and/or Pictionary skills. Who knew these games would be so beneficial in life?
Establishing a way to speak is very important, but more important is how you act. How should you be a good guest in this new home? First of all, be sure to bring a gift to show that you are appreciative of your host family taking you in to their home. Think of it as adopting another child for months at a time; this is no small task. You can show your gratitude by giving your host parents a thoughtful gift that represents your hometown or an important aspect of your life. Being from Texas, I brought my family a collection of spices used in Tex-Mex cooking. I taught them what kinds of foods you should put the spices in, and my most mom loved experimenting with the new flavors. Other people brought their families souvenir-style books filled with photos of their city, local (non-perishable) food specialties, handicrafts, or even t-shirts printed with their college’s name. If your gift is wrapped, they might not open it right away, but don’t worry- unlike in the U.S., in the Middle East and North Africa, this is not culturally perceived as ungrateful or rude.
Perhaps most significant over the long term, being a good host student often involves using simple common courtesy. Enjoy (or at least pretend to enjoy) the food your family makes. Don’t be weirded out when they want to share your snack or your slippers or even your shampoo. Warn your host parents if you’re going to be home super late or if you’re going to miss dinner. Be outgoing and friendly when relatives come over. In general, just keep up a positive attitude even if things seem strange, and look at this cultural exchange as a great learning opportunity.
I asked some of my former program classmates about how they would sum up their own homestay experiences. One mentioned the common Islamic guideline, “you’re a guest for three days, then you’re family.” This is a good summary of how you will likely be treated during your time. Let your host family shower you with food and take care of most things for one or two days; it is important that they feel that you are well taken care of. After that, though, jump right in to the daily routine. Offer to set and clear the table, and help out around the house however you can (your host mom will very much appreciate this). In addition to being involved with everyday household activities, you will further feel included as your host family might be quick to remind you not to be shy. Don’t be afraid to be your unique and quirky self around them. Laugh with your host father at the overly dramatic soap operas as you sit on the couch after lunch, sing to both American and local pop music with your host siblings, and learn how to cook from your host mother (seriously, do it)! There is so much love that can be shared if you just open up. By the end of your time abroad, you likely won’t refer to this group of people as your host family, but rather, simply, as your family.