Host Families and Citizen Diplomacy

Authored by:
Katherine B.

Katherine B.

On my first morning in Germany, I stood in front of my closet wondering if my host family ate breakfast in pajamas or dressed. After agonizing for a few minutes, I quickly got dressed and went downstairs, where everyone was eating in their pajamas. It sounds silly (and looking back, I’m able to laugh at myself), but many daily habits come into question when adjusting to a host family. 

The comforting news is that every host family, whether they’re a retired couple with multiple exchanges under their belt or a brand-new host family of four, goes through an adjustment period too. Adding another person to a household dynamic can be challenging. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways – uncertainty like the dressing debacle I described above, or even tension caused by different communication styles. 

Though I don’t have a cure for the initial awkward stages, I do know I was able to ease the process with my second host family. When I moved in, Christmas was right around the corner. My host mom and I spent lots of time in the kitchen together, getting to know each other by exchanging recipes. I taught her the recipe for my Dad’s apple pie. She showed me how to make German Christmas specialties such as Vanillekipferln. Our time baking together served several important purposes: we had lots of bonding time, which laid the foundation for a solid relationship, and we participated in what was a casual manifestation of cultural exchange. 

For Christmas, I gifted my family an empty recipe book, in which I translated this quote from Jonathan Safran Foer: “Food is culture, habit … and identity.” I explained that, by filling the book with our recipes, I hoped to continue learning about their culture, habits, and identities, as well as to share my own. 

Thankfully, we’ve achieved this goal. Sometimes, cultural exchange looks like leading political discussions or building relationships with your Bundestag representative; other times, it looks like eating French toast with your host family. I’ve come to see both forms as equally important. 

For this year’s CBYXers: you’ve got this. And, what I wish someone had told me about that first day in Germany: your host family likely won’t remember whether you came to breakfast in your pajamas or not. You’ll fall into the rhythm with time.

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