Claire Bens is a junior at Ohio University, majoring in political and global studies, focusing on peace and war. Claire is currently studying in Vina del Mar, Chile at the Universidad Vina del Mar.
Let me preface this blog by saying that staying with a host family is an excellent decision, especially for anyone interested in learning another language during their study abroad. That being said, there is a certain degree of insanity in every family—including families abroad. Part of the beauty of staying with a host family is the realization that 1) “no, your family is not the only one that is completely off-their-rocker” and 2) “yes, your host family is completely bonkers, even for another culture.” Every family has their own quirks and oddities that make them a family. For instance, my real family would seem incredibly insulting to an outsider; however, I know that their insults are a sign of affection. Similarly, my host family has their own eccentricities.
Firstly, their eating habits. Somehow, in a country that sustains itself on bread and meat, I was placed in a family that consumes 90% of their calories in fresh produce. As a long-time vegetarian I have no qualms with fruits and vegetables, but this extends even further. My host family is what we might call “health freaks” in the States. Yet despite my host mother’s constant concern about not eating more than ¼ of a serving at every meal, she never exercises. This is something that I have spent months trying to wrap my head around. I come from the opposite camp. I consider myself a “foodie,” rather unfortunately in Chile, and would rather eat whatever I please and simply exercise more. My personal favorite of my host mother’s health antics is her “elf diet.” I have dubbed this diet so because of the movie Elf, starring Will Farrell, in which maple syrup is a food group. The elf diet consists of two weeks of drinking and eating nothing but water mixed with herbs and maple syrup. During this period I didn’t have the heart to tell my Chilean mama that she was actually drinking breakfast syrup, which is essentially 100% sugar.
Another part of being a member of a host family is learning how to communicate with them. My host family is very relaxed about me coming and going as I please. However, sometimes things get lost in translation, for instance when I wake up. I am not a morning person. It generally takes me at least 45 minutes and several cups of coffee to talk to anyone in English, let alone another language. Because I have class at eight every morning and my family is one made of incredibly late sleepers, I am usually left in peace to prepare breakfast and walk 20 minutes to school before any human interaction. However, on occasion, my host mother will wake up early and bounce into the kitchen. The fact that I still have not had coffee and my contacts aren’t in doesn’t help when she begins to rattle on in Spanish. My usual response is to simply blurt out some mixture of Spanish and English in attempt to explain my plans for that day. After a long blank stare from my host mom, I reassess what I just said and realize it may have included some non-existent words, then try desperately to say anything whatsoever in Spanish.
Finally, a great part of interacting with any people in another culture is watching their excitement about the weirdest of things. It tickles me senseless when I see them all worked up about our dwarf poodle in her new outfit or a conference they are going to about the mind-body connection. I adore how they love the simple things in life and it reminds me to do the same. Host families are wonderful, they can’t compare to your real family, but they make you feel at home. They have learned to be patient with the slow and frustrating process of learning another language and culture and they are always there to help explain the confusing. And yes, sometimes they serve as comic relief to know that other people are just as crazy in their private lives as you are.