Novel by Mameve Medwed
Published 2000

"Host Family" can mean two things. Either the local recipients of non-local youngsters, usually from overseas; or types of species frequently preyed on by parasites. This book, then, is about the history of a long-standing host family and its present breakdown. Parasites in many forms play an important part of it.

It's a good idea which could have been executed wonderfully. Unfortunately, this book isn't. I find both characters and plot severely lacking in depth and credibility. Take the parade of exchange students, for instance. All the ones from Africa and Asia are annoying demanding, and cook too spicy food. The students from Europe, on the other hand, are all beautiful and actively seductive. To give a more concrete example of the author's lack of understanding for non-Americans: At a prize-giving ceremony (for long service as a host family, of course), two Englishmen shout "here, here" (no, not "hear, hear") during the appraisal speech, like "bored MPs during those sessions of Parliament you sometimes see screened on C-SPAN". For the record, I don't think any Briton not Parliament would ever shout that - except as an expression of utter sarcasm.

Then there are the people in the process of breaking up, the host family. It's all told from the perspective of Daisy Lewis, and so we get the perspective of a slighted wife, quite heavily. Her husband seems not only utterly ridiculous, but also unbelievable. As part of his midlife crisis, he starts learning French, which from then on he spouts at every occasion. Henry, who now calls himself Henri, also insists on wearing a jaunty beret. He picks up their French exchange student at the airport, and within minutes, so it seems, she has fallen for him. We are never explained why - maybe it's his heavily accented French?

The funny thing is that author of this book teaches fiction writing. I guess it proves the old adage: Those who can't do, teach.

Students in study abroad programs often live with a host family during their stay in a foreign country, both because experiencing the family life in another culture gives more depth to the experience, and because having a fauxfamily” for support can help students get over the initial culture shock (I also expect that having students stay with a family is often cheaper than having them stay at in an apartment or at a hotel).

Obviously, the student’s relationship with their host family partly determines what kind of stay they will have, especially if they are studying abroad for a semester or a year.

I think that the concept of having a host family is a great one. Of course, being suddenly “adopted” into a new family (or in the family’s place, having some zitty teenager dropped in your midst) comes with a set of difficulties, and there would probably be difficulties even if you were from the same cultures and you had previously known each member the family for a large part of your life. When you find yourself suddenly living with somebody, eating with them about twice a day, sharing the bathroom with them, negotiating chores with them, finding out what strongly held beliefs they have, and observing their daily ‘rituals,’ no matter how flexible and nonjudgmental you are, along with the wonderful parts of living with a new person there is also bound to be conflict for a number of reasons; *especially* if you find yourself living with a whole family.

I only have the visiting student’s point of view, and saw all the challenges of assimilating myself in with a new family as such:

First of all you have to silently negotiate exactly how much space you will take up for the next year. Are you aloud to use the computer? The telephone? Sit anywhere you want at the table? More importantly, do they say you can do these things but do they really resent you for it? Will doing chores be appreciated, or seen as the usurping of the position of the principal chore doer of the house? (I got in trouble for this). This part can be stressful.

Then you have to take into account any personality conflicts you have, and decide whether you need to repress parts of yourself or your beliefs around your family to keep the peace or make them more comfortable (for example if they think you’re a freak will you dress differently? If they are homophobic will you pretend you’re not gay? If they are racist will you keep quiet?). Conversations about conflicting beliefs are almost never taboo and are a very desirable part of the cultural exchange. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that you will be living with these people for a year, and while discussion (even heated discussion or debate) is a good thing, emotional, angry arguments are bad and can make your life very unpleasant for a very long time(and you want to take great pains never to be rude and consider if how you are arguing could be considered rude, because you are really in debt to these people for taking you in for usually very little money).

Another factor of living with people from any culture for an extended period of time is that you are bound to find a habit or tick or personality trait of theirs that drives you up the walls, and they will also quite likely find fault with you. The polite student tries as hard as they can just to get over it because it is them imposing on the family’s life, not vice versa. If the family voices their irritation over the behavior of the student (for example their table manners or their grammar) this can cause more conflict if the student is then in turn offended.

And of course, when living with people whose culture is different than yours there is an enormous possibility of cultural misunderstanding, which can either be turned into an (often funny) positive learning experience, or a huffy disagreement if you aren’t on your toes (the whole year long).

I absolutely adored being an exchange student. I never learned so much or changed so much in one year, I never had so much fun, I met my fiancée and other great friends, I ate delicious food and experienced a new educational system and a new language. However, I still, still, still have nightmares about my host family.

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