In high school only weeks after turning 16, I flew south to Mexico City by myself where I participated for a month in a cultural exchange program in the colonial city of Queretaro. Although I was greatly homesick in the beginning and most likely experiencing some cultural shock too (I was after all in Mexico, not London or even another Western European country), it was my incredible host family that truly kept me together. While I certainly spoke with my parents a lot, they were thousands of miles away. It was my Mexican family-my dad (Mos), my mom (Maria Elena), my brother (Carlos) and my sister (Gabi) and even the family's live in housekeeper (Maria) who were my everything. They made me feel better when I missed my home and family, asked me if there was anything special they could get me from the store, helped me practice my Spanish when I needed to, and were just earnest in wanting to get to know me. It was in my Mexican host family's house where I watched my first telenovelas (Spanish soap operas), it was with them that I experienced my first ever authentic Mexican fare (this was at a roadside cafe on the streets of Queretaro), and it was through them that I discovered the hearts of gold that make up the Mexican people, a trait that sadly many people don't bother to see today.
My next host family experience, this time in Costa Rica, didn't start off on quite the same foot as it had in Mexico. Even though I was three years older, I experienced culture shock and homesickness again during the first couple of weeks in Costa Rica. As opposed to taking language and cultural enrichment classes as I had in Mexico as a high school student, this time I was in college where the classes I was taking counted for college credit, not to mention were conducted all in Spanish. It was sink or swim style where many teary nights I felt like I was sinking...terribly. My first host family didn't help my stress levels. I was living in abysmal conditions, wasn't being fed enough, and was witnessing the abuse by my host mom on my host brother. I ended up switching host families. Even though it was the most uncomfortable situation I was ever put into when having to tell my host mom my decision, it was the best one I have ever made. I ended up moving in with an elderly couple who were the Costa Rican equivalent of my grandparents. My host mom (Flora) was an excellent cook and always wanted to ply me with food. My host dad (Carlos) had suffered a stroke at one time and never fully recovered. His speech was slurred, he walked with a slow gait and had to eat a bland diet of foods specially prepared by Flora. But even though they were being paid to house and feed me, I still felt they genuinely cared for me; I wasn't just a boarder to them. I also made efforts to be not just a boarder either-I spoke with them, practiced my Spanish, and got to know them just as much as they got to know me.
My very kind and sweet Costa Rican dad, Carlos
My final host family experience in Spain was definitely more of a boarder style arrangement. I'm sure this was compounded by the fact that I had a roommate and so they had double the duty of housing and feeding. My host parents Diego and Estrella were attentive and nice people (albeit with some racist tendencies but that seems to be the case with elderly people no matter where in the world). They wanted to know about our lives in the states and were curious about our thoughts and opinions on world matters, but we weren't spoiled as I had been in Costa Rica.
The men in my Spanish host family-Diego, Miguel and Diego's grandson Juan
In addition to the emails I sent to my parents when I studied abroad, the journals I kept, and the photographs I took, my memories of my three (and four-some of me doesn't want to remember my first host Costa Rican family) host families are the ones that I kept nearest to my heart. In all three cases, they were individuals who opened their homes to a complete stranger. I don't know many people who could do this, yet host families do this multiple times a year.
My opinion remains that host families are the best way to truly become a PART of a country and its culture.