Tales from a Homestay Parent

A few weeks ago, I saw a post by Mark Shay of Academic Assembly about the American Homestay Network’s search for more area host managers.   It started me thinking about my own experience interfacing with an “agency” in our effort to host a high school student – and my own experience as a “host mom.”

Thirty or so years ago, my parents gave me a brother, Sergio, from Brasil.  He’s not my biological brother, but my host brother who is my brother for life.  It is one of the biggest gifts my parents gave me in life – someone who I am at “home” with, wherever we are in the world.

Today, I am hosting my Brasilian nephew, Gabriel.  He is not only the son of my brother, but a brother to my 2 year old son and another son for my husband and me.  He is sixteen, an epic MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fan, outgoing, and kind kid.  He’s a typical teen – into his computer, always on his phone, and perhaps he could clean his room a bit more often (then again, so could I!). He plays with our son – reads to him,  helps him brush his teeth, and has been known to put on his bathing suit and join him in the bathtub to soap up his hair and shape it into funny mohawks of the 1984 variety.

But besides the additional set of hands to help play with our son, this year hosting Gabi as our exchange student/nephew has been rewarding beyond measure.  He has given me insights into how high school has changed since I was a student.  He teaches me about things in my culture that I haven’t explored (yup, ask me about MMA fighting – I can sound remotely informed now!).  He also tells me his perspective on the US (e.g. “it was the first time I’ve ever seen babies and toddlers on leashes.”).  While he does well in school, he is a bit mystified by what feels like micromanagement by teachers and administrative policies. For example, if we pull him for school for a cultural trip, he has to make up the day in detention (broken into 2 – 4 hours, sometimes on weekends!) and do homework vs simply getting his homework from each teacher and making it up, as a responsible student would do anyway.  He doesn’t get homework in Brasil the way he does in the US and he finds that frustrating, too.

Gabi did love living his fantasy of playing American football this fall.  I watched him bloom from a young man who had never played a minute of US football to an athlete on the field (granted it was in the 4th quarter – but who cares – he was ON THE FIELD!).  He was part of a team.  An American team. A team that had lockers – something else he didn’t have in his Brasilian school – where sports are not included in the academic experience.  It is funny to think about the things that stand out for us across cultures – for Gabi, it was having a real locker. It reminds me to hit pause and think about those precious little moments I have had abroad that had me curious, taking photos, reflecting on why people do things differently around the world.

The Brasilian flag served as a large tablecloth at a party we hosted for Gabi in February. (I don’t share photos of Gabi out of respect for his privacy.  He is 16, after all!.)

Perhaps what I love most about having Gabi as our exchange student is that I never know who will be in my living room or kitchen.  Sometimes it is his friend who is homeschooled. Sometimes it is a kid from the wrestling team. Sometimes it is even my own friends’ kids.  He brings a generous LIFE and energy into my home.  I will miss that when he returns to Brasil.

I think the biggest learning for me this past year is that observing Gabi’s cultural adjustments have required me to be more observant, more thoughtful, more patient, more compassionate. Despite being in the field of international education for more than 20 years, I have learned so much about my work through this experience. Folks in international education talk about the work, theoretically, day in and day out – but unless your hosting a student or serving as a resident advisor/director in a housing facility, you won’t see the challenges and exceptional joys first hand. You won’t reflect daily on how to support someone in their cultural adjustment in the same way because once you close your door at home, you’re not responsible for seeing it.

When it lives in the bedroom next to you, you own it.  And it owns you. 

I am more understanding, more realistic and measured in my encouragement, more resourceful in my desire to fix, more respectful in my space, more aware of the teenage scene and its range of emotions and patterns, and more aware of my US “American-ness”.  I am more fully observant, reflective, kind. I believe I’m a better coach and advisor to others, a better member of my community because of what Gabi has brought to my home.

Without Gabi, I would have plodded along writing about the theories of how we interact with those who reside in the US from another culture. With Gabi, I realize I don’t know as much as I thought I did.  I see  – day by day – that the ups and downs of culture shock are ongoing. That stage of “norming” can take 6 months or it can take a handful of weeks …or it may not happen at all despite the greatest efforts. I realize that some days our family feels like we are back at square one in adapting to a new culture (his and ours!), and yet most days I forget that he wasn’t raised in my house from birth.

Perhaps most of all, I feel grateful to be invited into a teenager’s life for a whole year to see him grow and expand in ways that I could not imagine!  To know that he came all the way to North Carolina, that he speaks all day in another language, that he gets himself to school and makes his own breakfast (after never cooking before at home)…to know he does “A” work in school and can put himself out there to make friends.

He reminds me how, whether seasoned or not, that every time we cross cultures we wear our adventure caps and wade into courage.

I had never thought of hosting a student from abroad prior to Gabi. His father and I, at the tender age of 17, promised each other that we’d host each other’s children, which is why this experience came to be. Prior to that, I thought that it would be like “working” 24 hours a day or that I’d not have the “time.”  Now that I have the experience as a host parent, I can see how much FUN it actually is! I think about how much more joyful it would be for Gabi if I were early in my career, single, and able to take him on road trips without the limitations of family life. I wish I had participated as a host when I was in my twenties or thirties – when I had a lot more flexibility and less responsibility in my life.

I want to encourage others, especially those who are single or without other kids, to consider being a host.  Age and family make up are not important in this case – willingness to welcome someone, observe, be playful, kind, supportive, and to be open to a new experience are critical.  (Hmmmm…sounds like some skills that we apply abroad, doesn’t it?)

I referenced earlier that this post was prompted by an invitation to serve as area manager for the American Homestay Network that I saw on a listserv.  Having heard really positive feedback about them from two colleagues, I inquired about the role. The area manager is a full time position – and with growth and time, one would have people working under them to help recruit families or individuals to host students. It is certainly a career option for those who are keen to break into the field and be entrepreneurial, too. The host families through AHN are well supported and the average stay for a student is 17 weeks – just enough time for an energetic and hip international education administrator or junior faculty member to experience the joys of cultural adaptation first hand.

Have you ever thought about hosting a student from abroad?  Have you assumed because you don’t have a teen in the house, you aren’t a good candidate?  Does being in the field of international education actually hold you back from doing so because you assume it is like bringing work home?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I’m an advocate of dipping your toe in the hosting pond!  It has been an EPIC experience for me and I hope to encourage others to partake!