The Homestay

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Staying with relatives of relatives or family friends or distant acquaintances in foreign countries is just like living in a homestay during your semester or summer abroad. They are people who feel responsible for you. People who feel they should mother and teach you, beyond housing you.

You must be cautious not to offend and yet, for peace of mind, you must retain clarity about your needs and desires. It may feel selfish occasionally, but this is your opportunity to explore and understand. Your host family is not the only cultural representative available and probably represents only one specific aspect of the place you are visiting. Expanding your perspective requires balancing patience with plans to execute. It requires flexibility in general and firmness about specific things – like food.

(It is ok to say “no butter, please”). (It is not ok to say “only peanut butter, please”).

We must remember all the time how hard it is to understand one another: sometimes even when we speak the same language. We must consider what our host wants, hopes, expects. Sometimes those expectations are unreasonable (like the host mother in Argentina who became angry when I forgot to wipe out the sink after washing my hands because it left a water stain on the metal or the other Argentine host mother who insisted my mattress had no fleas even when I woke up with triplets of red welts on my face). Other expectations are reasonable. Most of the time expectations are reasonable. And most of the time we should be grateful, because we are lucky to glimpse another’s life so intimately and because we are lucky to be forgiven our many faux pas.

With family or friends, it is even closer, and maybe you will miss your grandmother or your uncle because your host recalls them to your mind’s eye. You may find your patience increased or decreased by this connection. More likely it will be increased because there is distance and your affection surfaces.

Also, it is different than the hotel or the tight schedule of sheer tourism. In a home, nothing can really be disguised only for you. The hospitality is immense and (fortunately) cannot include unlimited air conditioning or endless meal options (unless you are visiting the extremely wealthy). Instead, you are forced to live and experience and be present as the Buddha and the Dalai Lama who Tibetans adore. (I have only once visited someone in the upper-most echelon of a foreign country and it was also welcoming and kind – and I was grateful – though I could see I had wandered into an unusual realm of existence).

Maybe there is something about the 99% that comforts me. Maybe I remember that I am American (and a lucky American at that) and not really part of the 99% in a worldly sense. It is good to be reminded of privilege and to feel humility. It is good to be close with one another, to see our humanity – our human-ness – across divisions of culture, language, class or nation.

This is part of what I feel in sweltering Delheat: grateful, humbled, smaller in the significant sense, larger in the bodily sense, happy, grateful.

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