One thing I think a lot of study abroad students overlook in our study abroad experiences is, if we are fortunate enough, the host family experience. It's not that this aspect of our time abroad is insignificant, nor is it necessarily a forgettable part of it. I think a lot of the time it's we study abroad students are swept up in the events going on around us, like classes, clubs and sports, travelling, etc., that we talk a lot about the interesting events that have been going on around us, but we deign to mention our day-to-day lives, or even our homestay experiences. I know not every study abroad student has the opportunity to stay with a host family, but I thought, because I never did find a lot of things written about homestay experiences, I would write about my own. Warning: this post may be a bit jumpy, as I'm not always the greatest at putting my thoughts together.
As you all know by now, I live with my host mom, Lena, my host dad, Chao, and my little sister, Joy. Nainai did live with us the first month I was here, but she moved out when her husband was finally able to retire and buy an apartment in Shanghai, so now the two live together. Nainai, thankfully, is still a huge part of our lives, despite living with her husband. Nainai usually comes over in the afternoon to clean the house, start preparing dinner, and if she has nothing else to do, to watch some television. Nainai picks Joy up from school everyday and will usually finish making dinner. Then she'll go home when my host parent's get home from work.
My host father is an accountant, very smart, and pretty funny. Both my host parent's are pretty young, his 37th birthday was a few weeks ago, so his wife bought him a tiramisu cake and we all shared. That was as special as it got. Lena is the same age, and for me, it's a bit strange having really young parents, because my American parent's, in age, are closer to Nainai's age of 64 then to my host parent's, so I've had to adjust to these younger parent's, which isn't a bad thing at all. Lena and I talk a lot and I could almost think of her as an older sister in some ways, even though she's my host mom. They all take care of me, though, so it is strange to have younger parent's, but I also get to see their parenting style for Joy, who's only five years old.
Since I arrived in China, my host family has been like a team unit, and I felt like I fit right in real quickly. Early on we started figuring out schedules, I learned what they expected from me, and I learned what they would do for me and what I would do myself. In terms of chores, keeping my room clean and orderly, doing my own laundry, and getting my homework done is pretty much all that is expected of me. Everything else my host family does. I've tried offering help on multiple occasions to do more chores around the house, but they have told me plenty of times they will take care of it, and there was no arguing, it was their chore, I should study.
Meal times are probably very stereotypical. During the week Nainai makes dinner. My host parents will make the rest of the meals. But usually it is my host father who gets up in the morning to make us all breakfast, and I know he gets up earlier for me, because I leave for school early, so it's a very sweet gesture on his part. He usually will make rice porridge, aka congee, and sometimes I get the special squash and congee breakfast. Usually we have other things to eat with it, such as sticky buns, fried bread (you tiao)--my favourite!, hard-boiled egg, or moon cakes. My host mom makes a lot of the other meals though on the weekend. However, when we eat, I'm the one always served the most amount of rice, and I have to tell them all the time I would like less rice, because lately I've been eating less and less. But when I ask for less they basically remove a few grains of rice and go, "Okay?" and I have to go, "No, a bit more," probably three to five times. This happens pretty much every night, too, they're convinced one night I'm going to eat that original serving of rice again.
Sometimes my host family has surprised me with bringing me American food, and last month they even took me out to eat at a restaurant at the mall, and they let me try a bunch of new Shanghai special dishes. My first month I guess they could tell I was homesick because they stopped at a pizza place after going out and brought pizza and pepsi home for dinner and it actually made me laugh. The pizza is actually really good here, even though they put some strange things on the pizza, but, who cares if it's good right? Sometimes, they'll even surprise me with desserts, which is always incredibly sweet. My host father bought Haagan-Dass gelato home and we had that one afternoon. Another time they brought home pastries and we ate that.
One of my favourite things to do with my host family is to go out together. They've invited me out pretty often with them. They've taken me to a nearby market, to a sporting goods store, and plenty of times to Tesco, the supermarket in the mall. Spending time with them makes it easier to feel like a family, and I love getting to interact with them and actually feel like I'm getting a real cultural experience. Of course I get strange looks for being with a Chinese family and for even speaking Mandarin at all, but it's something I've come to overlook because I only care about the experience of being with my host family and getting to practice my Mandarin.
Tesco outings have always been pretty fun. My little sister is very active, so getting to run around a little is always good for her. My host mom has asked me to help her pick out meat and vegetables, and since I liked doing grocery shopping back home, I always enjoy the moments where I can help in some ways. Sometimes I do go shopping for food on my own, because of my sweet tooth or when my host family has been away, as well. Most of the time though, we go out to Tesco, and usually my host parent's will buy my little sister and I something, like a treat. Yesterday it was juice.
Our day-to-day life though isn't much, but will usually go along these said lines;
During the week, I will go to school, go to tutoring. I'll come home for a few hours depending if I don't have class or volunteering, spend some time with Nainai before she picks Joy up from school. We usually have dinner, and then I'll go to my second tutoring. My parent's will arrive home around seven every day, sometimes I am home before them, sometimes after. Usually we will be up for a few hours, then they'll start getting Joy ready for bed. She's usually out around 9 pm. Usually I will go to bed around 10 or 11 pm. They usually go to bed between 11 and 11:30 pm, though they have stayed up later.
On Saturdays they usually go out. To do what, I'm still not entirely sure. Sometimes Joy will spend the weekend with Nainai and Yeye, others she is home. Sundays, Joy has English school for a few hours, so I will usually stay home and work. We usually go to Tesco Sunday nights too, but as of this week, we went on Saturday.
Within my host family, Nainai and Joy do not speak fluent English, nor can they comprehend anything I would try to communicate with them, so a lot of my afternoon is spent communicating with Nainai and two of us doing our best to translate and for her to find vocabulary I understand and for me to explain as much as I can through as much as my limited vocabulary allows and to use as many gestures as I can. Joy and I will play games sometimes, and sometimes I learn some vocabulary words, but Joy also like watching television, and I will be busy with schoolwork, so the amount of time we get to spend together isn't always long. My host parent's are actually quite fluent in English, and I do my best to speak Mandarin to them, but if I need something and don't have the vocabulary, it's also very nice to be able to communicate what I need and for them to understand. Usually I go to Lena though, seeing as she is the "head" of the household. If I ever consult my host father, he always goes to his wife.
My host parent's remind me of high school sweethearts. Lena is really beautiful, and her husband is incredibly smart. The two of them are a team. They both work full time, and they both carry out equal responsibilities in the house when Nainai isn't there. Together they will clean the house. Lena will cook and Chao will clean the dishes by himself. Lena will sweep the house, and Chao will mop it. Both of them take equal part in Joy's life. They both sit with her and help her with her English homework, and of course I help too. They both take part in giving Joy a bath, and in playing with her, though Lena is probably the more active one. Honestly it's really amazing to see. Both parent's say "I love you," to their daughter, something I was actually surprised at. It's rarely, if ever, said in public, but they say it to each other quite a bit in the comfort of their home.
One day in particular, Chao decided to mop my floor after I'd finished dusting and sweeping and I laughed because I hadn't expected it, and Lena saw and she smiled and said to me, "He is a very good husband, he is very helpful. I love him very much."
I would never have expected her to be so open about it to me, seeing as I had only been their for a month, but her husband just smiled over at her, and it was very sweet to see that love they have for each other, that they were so open about it too in the comfort of their home. It doesn't mean I don't hear bickering or their near shouting sometimes, which is something I'm not entirely used to, but it gives me insight to the fact this is a real relationship, and despite the disagreements and bickering, they still love each other and always put their daughter first.
Living with this host family has made me see a lot of the things I value in my own family, but also gives me insights into the flaws of my own American family and other families as well. I see some Chinese values within the way they live, but I also see the Western values that have influenced them as well. Living with this particular host family has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, one of the places I've learned the most through, and one of the places I'm so thankful to call home.