My Tajik host family
In the process of investigating study abroad options, I kept running into a common theme: “you are required to live with a host family for the duration of this program.” This aspect of the study abroad experience was one of the most intimidating for me. Thousands of questions came to my mind: Will they like me? What will they be like? What if I don’t like them? What if I accidentally do something to offend them?
Now, having returned from an amazing two months living with a host family in Tajikistan, I can wholeheartedly say that this piece of my time abroad was one of the most valuable and memorable of my entire program.
Here are a few tips which, in my experience, will help you make the most out of your time with your host family:
Don’t be afraid to make a cultural faux pas, that’s how you learn!
A Tajik wedding feast
As an American living in a Muslim-majority country, I was bound to make some cultural mistakes at some point in my study abroad experience. To give an example, during my first week in Tajikistan, I bought a small bottle of RC Cola (the most popular soft drink in Tajikistan) for myself and brought it home. Little did I know, bringing food home just for yourself – not enough to share with everyone – is a huge faux pas in Tajik culture. My family was a bit offended but, having had several American students stay with them before, they simply explained that I shouldn’t do this in the future. They were very understanding and if I hadn’t made this mistake I would not have learned this interesting cultural difference.
Communication is key
Friday (Jumah) prayers in Dushanbe
If you’re like me, you might be worried about curfews and different house rules before living with a host family. The best way to ease these fears is to talk to your family about your concerns. For example, if I wanted to stay out past my curfew on a Friday night to spend time with friends, my family was very understanding and simply gave me a key to the house so I could get in after everyone else went to sleep. Courtesy and respect go a long way in these situations.
Riding a donkey in the Tajik mountains
Your time with your host family can be one of the most valuable aspects of your study abroad experience – take advantage of it! If you ask your family questions like – Where are you from originally? What did you do today? How do you feel about current events? What is this food called, and how is it made? – these discussions can turn into valuable conversations about daily life in the country you are living in that not everyone who travels there can participate in.
Be open-minded and willing to engage
Preparing sheep for dinner
When you spend any significant time in a foreign country, you are bound to meet people who are different from you and who do things that you may find offensive or strange. For example, in Central Asia, killing and eating a sheep when a guest comes to visit is considered polite – if the guest does not partake in the feast, this is extremely rude. For this reason, it’s important to approach situations like this with an open mind. You may have very good reasons for being a vegetarian, for example, but people who survive mainly on animal products may not understand your concerns. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone and develop strategies to deal with cultural differences. For instance, if you are offered tea but don’t consume caffeine for religious or health reasons, you can request water or fruit juice – the act of generosity is the important aspect of this custom, not the tea itself.
Share your culture with them
My host sister and me at her birthday party
Often, your host family will be just as curious about life in America as you are about life in their country. It can be a good idea to tell them about American customs, like Thanksgiving and Halloween, and even to bring typically American souvenirs, like barbecue sauce or a shirt with the logo of your favorite sports team, as gifts for your family. This will give you an opportunity to learn more about life in their country as well as share your stories of life in America, which is the sort of cross-cultural exchange that studying abroad is really all about.
So, if anyone reading this still has any doubts about living with a host family, my best piece of advice would be this: just do it! People are people, no matter where they live. Everyone around the world eats, drinks, laughs, and cries – just in different ways. Living with a family in a foreign country while you study there is the best way to make the most out of your education, because you get a broader view of the rhythm of everyday life in that country that you simply cannot find by living in an apartment by yourself or with other foreigners. Relax, and enjoy the ride.