Over five years ago, I went to Spain for two weeks in a program hosted by my high school. I stayed with my pen pal and her family and learned about the Spanish culture, without speaking a lick of Spanish. Likewise, she stayed with me and my family for two weeks. So, when my little sister asked over five years later if she could host a foreign exchange student, my family had no reservations. That is, until I realized he was a boy.
I say "I" only because I'm pretty sure I was the only one anxiously awaiting the arrival of a teenage, hormonal boy to flood through the sanctuary of our womb-like home (three women, one dad). I tried to remember how high school boys acted: blatantly checking out girls' asses, talking sh*t to one other and the occasional listing of who was the hottest chick in the class. Basically, I was envisioning a male version of the butt-obsessed Tina from "Bob's Burgers" waltzing into my home. My only hope was the boys from Spain were different than the boys I was surrounded by in high school.
When he arrived, I saw he was a tall, lanky kid with long brown hair. He reminded me of a crossbreed between Harry Potter with his thick-framed glasses and Kristap Porzingis from the New York Knicks with his incredible height. But, we'll call him HP*.
HP stayed with us for a week and a half. But during that time, I couldn't help but notice how intrusive the whole foreign exchange process was. I could no longer walk across the hallway from my bathroom to my bedroom with just a towel. I could no longer prepare a meal for just myself without feeling the guilt of not having fed everyone else in the house. Things were about to change.
Here are five things I learned about the foreign exchange experience as an innocent bystander in my own home:
1. He had no concept of time or water.
There were points during his stay where I honestly thought he was drowning in the shower because he was taking so long. Being an early riser, I wake up at 5:30 in the morning to conduct my daily bathroom routine. After two days of almost missing my train for work, I realized HP was not going to factor in that other people had to get ready in the morning as well.
I can honestly say I have a greater appreciation toward my boyfriend who waits patiently for me to finish my makeup in the bathroom. But, I don't think this appreciation is going to make me stop anytime soon. Sorry, bae.
2. The flow of the house changed.
If it weren't for the golden rule you had to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for your foreigner, I'm pretty sure HP would've been found belly up in his bedroom due to starvation. My house definitely has a "every man for himself" attitude when it comes to cooking and preparing food. Suddenly, we had to not only consider meals for ourselves, but meals for HP as well. It was quite the culture shock for my sister, who had never cooked a day in her life except for the occasional omelet on her good days.
But, this is to be expected. My family should be a little more forthcoming and organized when it comes to preparing meals in the home. If you're planning to host some guests for a long period of time, consider arranging a calendar of who prepares what meals. My father did a great job of waking up early to prepare HP breakfast before he moved on with the activities for the day, while my sister prepared his lunch.
3. He was always either out or locked away.
Granted, I'm not home often between going to work, having a social life and going to the gym. But during the week and a half of HP's stay, I can probably say I was in his presence for maybe a total of 30 minutes. The three places he occupied the most was probably his room, my sister's car and — let's not forget — the bathroom.
It is important to remember that although exchange students are friendly, they can also be homesick or feel awkward, even if they have been staying in a welcoming house for more than two days. By inviting them to family habits like congregating in front of the TV to watch "Modern Family" or taking your puppy for a walk, you're limiting the amount of times they feel the need to lock themselves in the bedroom.
4. His English was impeccable.
He really did speak English perfectly. I learned this wasn't that uncommon during my experience with my Spanish pen pal who spoke fluent English. However, one of the favorite things they like to learn are curses.
I'm not against this; I just think it's funny how enthused people are to learn the curse words as opposed to more useful terms in the English language. Meanwhile, when I was Spain, I was wasting my time learning cute phrases like “Que mono,” which in direct translation is, "How monkey." But in Spain, it's an expression that means, “How cute.”
5. He was up at all hours of the night.
The one thing I knew I could rely on is that if I needed to use the bathroom when I came back home from a heavy night of drinking and dancing, that it would be available to me. But what I soon realized is the bathroom was not available. It was frequently occupied by HP during the early morning and the late nights.
However, this time, it wasn't the shower that was running; it was his mouth. I don't know why he felt the need to talk on the phone in the bathroom as opposed to his bedroom, but my already bursting bladder was not too happy by this intrusion.
From my experiences both hosting my own pen pal and a stranger, I've realized that setting up some house rules isn't rude, but important in creating a flow in your home. These rules could be directed toward the family, the visitor or both. It's important to come to an agreement that showers should only last up to 15 minutes, for example. These house rules are crucial to help maintain the balance in your home.
However, nothing trumps the experience of learning more about another culture as when they try to learn more about yours. But, I have learned my lessons when it comes to keeping guests engaged, aware of the house rules and alive (as far as feeding them is concerned).
*Name has been changed.