After deciding to study abroad in Shanghai, China for a semester I was sent a questionnaire from CIEE regarding housing. It asked me to preference several options, including homestay or dorm style rooms. My first preference was a homestay, and I received an email a week before I left for Shanghai that included the names, genders, and ages of the four members of my host family. I remember a striking sense of panic after realizing I was going to Shanghai not knowing how to speak Chinese and living with a Chinese family that did not speak any English.
A week later, I arrived at my host family’s apartment in Shanghai. Upon meeting my host parents, I felt incredibly unqualified to live with them. I did not know how to tell them what my name was or even how to say hello. Only using hand motions to communicate, my host parents asked me to sit down, my host mother smiled, and brought me a plate of watermelon. “Xi-gua,” she said as she pointed at the fruit. I looked up, said “Xi-gua” and laughed at my terrible pronunciation. My host parents laughed and gave me two caring smiles, as if to say, “We are all on the same page. Welcome.”
Sure, it was difficult communicating for those first few weeks. But nothing has encouraged me to learn a language more. I wanted to be able to have conversations with my host family. As soon as classes started, I was able to learn vocabulary quicker than I ever imagined because I was speaking Chinese in the classroom and at home. My host parents were always so excited and proud of my (admittedly slow) progress. I was soon able to talk to them about my day, what my weekend plans were, and what I was learning in language and culture. We became extremely close and they helped me through everything, whether it was going on a walk, my host mother making my favorite meals, or simply asking me about home. I introduced them to my friends, my family, and my teachers. I was even asked to attend and participate in my host sister’s wedding, where I truly felt like I was part of the family. When it came time to leave, it was an emotional goodbye. My host mother was holding back tears while she placed my favorite snacks from a local bakery in my backpack for the drive to the airport. Even in the last moments we were together, they still took care of me like I was their own daughter.
In the end, language was not a barrier. It was a tool that helped a bond grow stronger each day that I will always be thankful for.