Many students who study abroad are required to live in a homestay for the duration of their experience, which can be an invaluable, albeit initially stressful, experience. Within a few weeks of adjustment to a new environment, your family’s individual quirks will become comfortable, a familiar island in a proverbial sea of change and challenges. Much like with your American family communication can be a huge issue, though the language and cultural barriers that students encounter abroad mean that they are often unable or unwilling to express their opinions. Silent resilience is not the way to go, albeit the one students often chose. Here are a five of the thoughts we realize we probably should have shared.
1. Repite, Por Favor? (Tomorrow, if Possible)
When we step off the plane, we are excited to meet you…but we are also overwhelmed, nervous, and very, very tired. It makes complete, logical sense to begin our stay with you with an influx of important information— introductions to your family, explanations on how your appliances work, an outline of the neighborhood—all within our first hour of meeting, and while we appreciate the immediacy of these essential facts, this is undoubtedly one of our moments of worst comprehension. New to the country and afraid of speaking up, repeated nods in response to the unending variations on “¿tú entiendes?” are in all likelihood a complete falsehood.
Though we have retained very little, we are reluctant to ask the next day and will carry on in a state of perpetual confusion without a later repetition of facts. We want to look like we know what we are doing, but I promise—we don’t.
2. We Want to Help, but We Don’t Know How
American students are stereotyped as lazy by both foreigners and other Americans, but this is often the opposite of true. On average, we spend at least nine months out of the year in varying states of autonomy keeping our spaces clean, stomachs full, and schedules organized. Moving from that reality to one with host parents afflicted by an acute case of síndrome de huésped and eager to make their student feel at ease by prevent them from helping with the simplest of tasks can be a startling change. With meals and housing taken care of, we are eager to help in any way we can, but often do not know the best way to do so and fear intruding or crossing an unknown cultural boundary. Among our Spanish hosts, requests to help fall on purposefully deaf ears. When we ask to help we mean it, just let us know what to do!
3. Customary Cultural Confusion
My mother has very few rules that are absolute; however, the wearing of shoes in the house is prohibited under any and all circumstances. Coincidentally, my host mother also has very few steadfast regulations for my stay in her apartment; however, the wearing of shoes in the house is “mandatory” under any and all circumstances. In a characteristically motherly manner she corrals me to my room in a barrage of worried Spanish statements about my health.
While rarely bizarre, some of the differences between Spanish and American culture are stark and require multiple iterations for your new American students to understand. We are not trying to be rude if at first we do not implement your suggestions; they are simply very different and require time to remember to practice. We are interested to know what your customs are, so let us know what you prefer we do—do not change for us.
4. We Generally Know What We Want to Say, but Generally Don’t Know How
Waiting for your student to tell a story or finish a sentence can often be like waiting for an elderly relative; it takes time and doesn’t always make sense, but we’re trying. Sometimes we need help, but often we just need your patience. In a typical classroom, students spend hours listening to instructors and reading texts, but mere minutes practicing speaking the language and seconds speaking it at a conversational-pace. If we say something wrong, do not pass over it—let us know! We are here to learn the language, which includes constructive criticism and frequent corrections.
5. What’s the Plan, Stan?
Thrust into the uncertainty of an unfamiliar family and lost amidst an influx of personal introductions and information, we have no idea what is expected of us and little certainty beyond a class schedule and a vague understanding of when to return for meals. The ambiguity of those first few days can present a foreboding challenge for many due to their potential for confusion and unpredictability. Though meal times are the only part that directly pertains to students, a simple outline of a general familial schedule can alleviate much unnecessary stress. In the fog of jetlag it can be hard to focus on anything beyond the next opportunity to collapse into the peace and quiet of the nearest soft surface (bed recommended, though not necessary), but this is an important question and easy topic of conversation.
Above all and most importantly, we wish we could communicate to you how grateful we are to you for opening your homes to us and including us in your lives. Words cannot express the invaluable role you play in forming our study abroad experience and shaping how we perceive our country of choice. Your continual kindness and guidance is always appreciated!