The emotions that accompany the idea of living with a family that’s not your own during your time abroad fall in the gray area between exhilarating and absolutely terrifying. You’ll find yourself experiencing the whole spectrum of these emotions; both before your time abroad and during it. But students in Santiago have navigated this challenge, and lived to tell the tale of finding their home base in a new country.
Few people have the opportunity to integrate themselves into another family. Your first few weeks in Santiago, you’ll notice the changes more than the similarities, and that’s natural. Not
surprisingly, the biggest difference will probably be the language. Ellie Taft says that conversing in a language that’s not her native tongue is difficult because “it’s not something [she’s] going to drastically improve upon in a day or even a week.” This difficulty will be apparent when you sit down for meals. In most families, everyone sits down together at the exact same time and stays at the table until everyone has finished their food. In high school, Sam Beck had an
athlete’s schedule and two working parents. This meant “there wasn’t always time to sit down together for every meal.” When she arrived in Santiago, she found that “there’s an
expectation that everyone will eat together.”
Traditionally, Chileans do not eat dinner (but don’t worry, your host family will cook you dinner). Instead, they have “once,” a light meal usually consisting of bread and tea. Meal time is conversation time so at first you may be stuck staring cluelessly at your family members and dropping a “si” or “no” when it seems appropriate. You may also find that topics of conversation are more personal than in the United States. Your family may ask if you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, if you’ve ever had a boyfriend/girlfriend, if you get along with your parents, etc. These questions are your host family’s way of trying to bond with you and get to know you better. Fran Ibarra says that finding the right balance of social life and family life is harder here because you can be independent, but you also can’t forget that you’re living with a family.
Differences are simply that: things that are new or unique from what you’re used to. The beauty of study abroad is that you can embrace those differences while expanding your
worldview and mindset. The language is a challenge, but it is a challenge to be overcome. Two weeks after my arrival my host father, Pato, commented on how much more I was understanding. Of course, there were still times I started blankly at him, having trouble discerning the words under his thick Chilean accent. But, my home is where I can practice my language skills without judgement. It’s a safe space to challenge myself, and as Ellie says, “it’s all about putting [yourself] out there, even though it’s hard, you realize that you know more than you think you do.”
Ellie Taft with her host mom, María Antonieta
Overwhelmingly students say that adjusting to the amount of family time is difficult. However, Sam says that she’s come to love how “families make time for each other.” Fran, who is currently living with her own extended Chilean family, says that she’s gotten used to “eating a big meal, drinking some mango sours, and talking about everything and anything” with her family.
Overwhelmingly, every student I interviewed wants to incorporate the tradition of family time into their lives back in the United States. The pressures to fill your schedule with
extracurriculars, social outings, and academic ordeals can be overwhelming. While these pressures still exist in Santiago, you are offered a brief lapse from the pressure during the time you spend with your family. Alex says that back in the U.S. food has less to do with connecting to people than it does filling an empty stomach. But here her host mom enforces a strict “no phones at the table rule,” forcing the family to decompress and spend time with each other. Fran adds that “family life here isn’t taken for granted, and it shows.”
As far as privacy, you can share as much or as little as you like with your family. It may be intimidating at first, but once you realize it’s their way of connecting with you, you may find
some of those personal barriers coming down. In the end, your host family is happy with whatever you decide to share with them.
The definition of family…
While living with a host family, you may not live in a “traditional nuclear family”. Ellie’s idea of family was much more concentrated around the idea of being “born into” a family. She went from living with a large family in the U.S. to living alone with a single woman. But after a few weeks she feels her host mom cares about her like an actual daughter. Ellie’s host mom wants her to succeed, thrive and grow during her time here.
Alex also lives with a single host mother. However, she says she’s amazed at how she stays close to her extended family. As someone with family spread out across multiple countries, Alex says living with her host mom has made her reflect on the importance of family and what it means to be part of a family. Living with a host family means being open to re-defining family and what “family” looks like.
The key to living with a host family is keeping an open mind. There will be many differences and many similarities, and it is all part of the immersion experience. Every host family truly wants you to have the best experience you possibly can. Look at every encounter, similarity, or difference as an opportunity to grow and expand.
While you naturally drift through the gray area of emotions between exhilarating and absolutely terrifying, remember that a plethora of students before you have gone from living with a family that’s not their own, to living with the family they’ve redefined as their own, and now you have the chance to do this too.
Cira Mancuso is an International Politics major at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign
Service and studied abroad with IFSA at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile in the fall. She is
an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.