At the end of last semester, I got an email from the international students coordinator here at the University of San Francisco, Quito. She asked if I would be interested in living with a “medium-low income host family” during my in Quito. Now, after about three months in Ecuador, I am still reflecting on her question and more generally what it means to be a guest in someone else's country and home.
To me, homestays are a funny concept. This semester I am paying my host mom to not only share her space with me, but also to treat me like a family member. Fortunately, we get along great. We talk about our days over dinner and watch a telenovela together most weeks. Yet I can't help but think about the many other students who have stayed in her house over the course of about 10 years. Could each one of those relationships have been meaningful?
I wonder, what she is gaining from my presence besides economic contributions to her household? I imagine that it may be partly exhausting for her to entertain a house guest even when she is tired, deal with cultural misunderstandings over and over, or to show love when she may not feel it. My host mom confirmed that it has not always been easy. She told me stories of students with whom she could barely communicate and others that made her worry for their safety. It must be stressful to be simultaneously held liable for the protection of another person’s child and also not have the authority to control their actions. My host mom told me about many good memories as well. For example, she spoke about guests with whom she still keeps in touch, including one student who she visited in Florida last year.
I question, though, how real cross-cultural exchange can be achieved in host families. I wonder how it feels to have your community, home, and culture—very personal aspects of your life—become places of education. This type of experiential learning centers around me as the student instead of creating a mutual exchange. The homestay does not grant the benefits of an exchange. Ecuadorian host families are not given an opportunity to send their children to live in American houses or study at American universities. Does this mean that students should only stay with families who can afford a trip abroad? Do conversations about religion, helping a family member with their English, or a trip to the local park constitute meaningful exchange? I am not sure. I do know that this dynamic gets even more complicated when the student and host family hold different cultures, backgrounds, and social identities.
Ultimately, I ended up declining the option to live with a family of a lower socioeconomic class. I decided that, as an upperclass person from the United States, my presence in the home of Ecuadorians with lower incomes would not be reciprocal. I thought about how these families might feel talking with exchange students about international travel, life at university, or things that they may not have the privilege to experience. I thought about the families who host students for economic reasons, giving my evaluation of them the ability to take away their livelihood. I could have learned about politics, work opportunities, or racism from living with such a family. However, I felt uncomfortable using someone's life for my own educational development. I do not need to touch something directly to feel it. Nor do I need to listen to someone directly to hear them. I still have been learning about class inequality in Ecuador through research conversations and classes. I just don’t think that it is necessary to live through everything in order to understand that it exists.