As mentioned in my previous post, I have had experience being a foreign exchange student with host family problems. I was originally placed within a family where the situation was less than ideal. Without going into too much detail, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what transpired.
First arriving at the apartment, we lugged all my bags up multiple flights of stairs (looking back now after numerous travels abroad I cannot believe I possibly thought I needed as much as I brought with me for that year).
It’s scary to be in a new country and realize the situation isn’t the best.
Exhausted from the jet lag catching up with me, I remember sleeping a lot the first 24hrs. My host mom woke me up at one point to check that I was okay and offer me food.
Wanting to connect with my parents so they knew I was safe, I discovered the apartment had no internet. With only a cell phone for quick calls the US, I was happy to find the neighbors had the rare wifi with no passcode. This allowed me to get in touch with my family when I was beginning to question things.
I found out that my host mom had been without a job for some time, yet the exchange program had assured us it was okay.
At one point during my first few days, we were wandering around town. I was following my host mom and her friend, put in charge of watching my younger host sister who was maybe 3 at the time. Surprisingly enough to me, rather than seeing new sights in the city, I seemed to be tagging along behind them given the task of watching the young girl. They were chatting so fast amongst themselves that I could barely catch a word with my very basic knowledge of French as I tried, and failed, to manage a child dangling off of me in the busy streets.
I wouldn’t have minded this situation if I was an au pair, there to be babysitting, but as I had paid for an experience to learn the language and culture it was a bit of a disappointment.
One night, I woke up from the fog of still adjusting to the new time zone 6hrs ahead of my own, groggy and hungry, willing myself to go into the other room. It was late and, as I ambled down the hall, I awkwardly discovered her on the couch with a strange guy I hadn’t met before. I quickly found something to eat and retreated to my room.
Perhaps the worst thing was the cigarette smoke wafting through the entire tiny apartment as she and her friends smoked in the kitchen/living room adjacent to the bedroom I shared with the girl. I had shut myself in my room to be away from it, with the window open as far as it could go (which wasn’t very much), but it didn’t do much good. Eventually, my little host sister was brought in to be under my watch. I was trying to keep an eye on her while typing with my parents about what was going on. When I looked over, the girl had started tearing up papers and other miscellaneous things of hers, making a huge mess.
I tried to talk to her but, as I barely spoke the language which she was just starting to learn as well, I couldn’t properly communicate and took her out to her mom to try to explain what had happened. I was at a loss.
There were other times when another younger girl stayed the night in the room with me, I’m not sure what relation was there. I think the biggest issue was that my host mom didn’t communicate with me or tell me what was going on until it was already happening. Things stacked up and my sense of unease about living this way for a whole year added to the stress of adjusting to a new culture.
During my time as a foreign exchange student with host family problems, I was greatly questioning my desire to be an exchange student and wondered how things would work out once I started school.
Luckily, my parents were better able to handle the situation, despite the program insisting with them that I needed to stay and that the issues were a difference in culture. My dad ended up telling the program he would be flying over to pick me up if things weren’t handled and I wasn’t given the experience promised in the brochures and throughout the application process.
An orientation for all the exchange students in Belgium with my program that year was set to go on over the weekend so I was taken to stay with a rep from the program until then. She and her husband were greatly accommodating and I immediately felt like family. They had three adorable little kids, the eldest girl named Clary (10), a girl named Jadzia (8), and the youngest, a boy named Quentin (6). They all knew both English and French, as they’d hosted many exchange students prior to me, so I learned a lot. We enjoyed family meals together and I played with them throughout the day (monopoly, card games, and with little pet figurines), talking and learning about their culture.
Their parents made everyone a delicious meal, some sort of biscuit/pastry shaped like a fish. We cut a hole out of the inside of the pasty, poured a mushroom and chicken sauce over it, and replaced the top of pastry before consuming. It was delicious! I finally felt like I was experiencing a new culture and practicing my French to boot. I had so much fun with the kids, at night I tucked them into bed and read them each a story!
Sometimes less than ideal situations can be a stepping stone to something greater.
I don’t mean for this to scare anyone off from being an exchange student as I truly ended up with the best experience ever. This is just one of those examples that show sometimes you have to stick up for yourself so you don’t get caught up in something you know in your gut isn’t right.
Living with several different families, as I had to while the new family who took me in got my room ready, was a transitional experience that taught me how to adapt in uncomfortable situations. This turned an experience that could have been negative into skills that would help propel forward my future.
In my next entry, you’ll read about my orientation with the other students and how I met my host sister for the first time. Stay tuned!