7 Tips For Living With Your Host Family
Guest article by Andrea Moran, a Reach To Teach teacher that taught in Chile’s English Opens Doors program in 2012.
Living with a host family is your chance to understand your new home inside-out, in ways that that few travelers ever will. It’s also a huge lesson in communication and understanding.
When I arrived in Chile, the language barrier was sky-high, and I treaded the raging water of Spanish verbs. Although speaking was a hurdle at first, I was glad to have understanding of the culture before arriving. (Reading Isabelle Allende’s My Invented Country was a great start.) Knowing history and information about the culture helped me understand Chileans’ motivations and family dynamics from the start. Your in-country orientation will cover some of these points, but I also added my own observations and tips about living with a host family. Note that my observations are geared towards those of you who may be interested in teaching abroad in Chile, but the same goes for any teach abroad program that offers free room and board with a local host family, including Reach To Teach’s teach abroad program in Georgia, Eastern Europe.
Whether you end up living with an elderly couple, a single mom, or an entire extended family, here are 7 tips for making a smooth transition with your new host family:
1.) Establish “Your Pattern” early-on
What’s this pattern you ask? It’s your preferences and habits. Maybe you don’t like seafood, but continue to accept your family’s curanto soup at lunch and rave about how delicious it is. Flash forward three months later, when you begin to politely refuse. This is more likely to bring confusion or hurt feelings than if you just let them know about your tastes from the beginning. (This is especially important if you’re the first person your host family has ever hosted.)
In the beginning, we have a tendency to be especially polite with our new family in order not to appear culturally insensitive. The truth is, Chileans are pretty straightforward and friendly people. If you let them know about what you like and dislike early on, it’s better for anyone. They will understand, and open communication will benefit everyone.
However, it’s important to remember to have an open mind, try everything once, and say thank you! The takeaway point here is just to be mindful about creating your patterns.
2.) Family first
Latin America is very community-oriented society. In other countries, like the U.S., we tend to place extreme value on independence, as we move away to college or relocate across the country for work, only coming home to visit during the holidays. In Chile, not so much. People tend to live at home during and after college, often settling down in their hometown. This creates a strong community network. As a foreigner, this can take some adjusting too if you’re used to being on your own all the time.
In Chile, families often hang out together in the living room during their free time. On Sundays, families will get together, making big lunches or asados (BBQs) as they spend time relaxing together. It’s up to you to participate, as you will most likely have plans to travel on the weekends. Your host family doesn’t expect you to be around all the time, but remember to be involved when you can.
Finally, try not to close the door to your room too much. Your family understands your need to for privacy and lesson planning, but there is a difference between unwinding and becoming a room hermit. When you have to plan lessons, maybe try taking your laptop to the living room to be with the family. Or spend some time chatting with them before going to your room for the evening.
3.) Don’t bring up Pinochet
You know the mantra, “never talk about religion or politics?” In Chile, there are certain topics to be aware of. From 1973-1990, Chile was under the fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet. Thousands of people were killed or went missing. Pinochet is now dead, but the memories are still fresh in the minds of many Chileans, and public opinion remains divided. Be careful about your comments on this subject. A visit to the Museum of History and Human Rights in Santiago is an excellent way to learn more about this time.
4.) Remember greetings
Kissing once on the cheek is the standard greeting between friends and family. In some families, it’s also important to do this when saying goodnight, and again in the morning when you first see someone. It’s a nice little ritual. In the U.S., we might just say “G’night!” with a wave, but in Chile, it’s a bit more ceremonious. These greetings are also expected when arriving and leaving social gatherings.
5.) House slippers
This is a big unspoken rule. Chileans don’t seem to like bare feet in the house.. I remember wearing wool socks my first night in the house, which immediately caught my host mom’s attention. She looked surprised and immediately went and found slippers for me. (I told her I wasn’t cold, but I sensed this was an issue that went beyond my comfort level.) After speaking with other volunteers in the south of Chile, they had similar stories. The lesson: bring your pair of comfy house slippers.
There is a more protective element around children and young adults in Chile, which may be be difficult for a foreigner to adjust to. Many Chileans stay at home until after they finish university (or until they marry), and parents are used to being involved in their children’s lives. If you are going to be missing lunch one day, coming home late, or spending a 3-day weekend in Argentina, let your host family know. After all, they are responsible for you, and it’s considerate to let them know where you are. Calling in will put their mind at ease.
7.) Show your appreciation
Little things, like saying thank you whenever you can, will go far in setting a good atmosphere. These actions will also deepen your bond with your family, and make communication and life more enjoyable. One way to set the tone from the beginning is to bring them small gift from your home country. (I brought my family a fridge magnet of the Golden Gate Bridge.) This is not expected, but it shows your appreciation.
The cultural exchange with a host family is something special, and building the bond with your new host is important. Chileans are very friendly people, and you are bound to have a welcoming and warm experience in your new home.