As I approach the one-year mark of my service, and with the third group of Kosovo volunteers (K3) arriving soon, I’ve been reflecting on some of the greatest challenges and joys of my Peace Corps service. The first thing that came to mind in both of these categories was life with a host family.
On June 10th I arrived in Kamenice, Kosovo, where I lived for the 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training. Immediately upon our arrival at the local school, we saw local families standing outside waiting to bring us to their homes.
We all stood in a crowded classroom and were picked out one by one by the families, to whom we had been assigned in advance.
I stood with my heart pounding, watching my fellow PCVs meet their families for the first time. Then a small woman in her late 50s walked up to me, smiled, and announced that she would be my host mother. (Or I assume that’s what she said, seeing as I knew maybe 15 words in Albanian.) Before I knew what was happening she grabbed my arm and led me out of the school to her car.
Next thing I know I am driving away in a car with a Kosovar woman who speaks zero English. I quickly run through the three things I know how to say in Albanian. And then the awkward silence settles in. Welcome to life with a host family.
Living with a family from another country is a unique experience. It could be argued that it is the part of service that will make or break your time in the Peace Corps.
The host family element was definitely my biggest fear. In case you didn’t know, Peace Corps Volunteers live with a host family during training to help them learn the language and integrate into the culture. In Kosovo we live with a host family during PST and then with a different family at our permanent site for the duration of our service. In some countries PCVs have the option of getting apartments after 6 months or a year, depending on their site.
Now that I have lived with two different host families over the past 11 months, I can say that my pre-departure fears were justified. It is strange and uncomfortable and easily the most challenging aspect of PC service. The good news is that each day becomes slightly less awkward and confusing. (I also lucked-out in Gjakova by being placed with the perfect host family, which makes things a lot easier.)
My first night with my PST host family involved a lot of smiling at each other in silence. Then I began pointing at things in the house and asking what they were. The next two hours were spent writing down vocab while my host mom pointed at things and named them in Albanian.
My host parents also Skyped with a number of their relatives and friends, excitedly talking about the random American girl living with them. Then they’d hold the phone in front of my face and tell me to speak in Albanian. I ran through the handful of things I knew how to say, and the relatives on the other side of the screen would laugh and say a bunch of things I couldn’t understand. I quickly realized that this would be a common occurrence for the next two years of my life.
One of biggest challenges can be the lack of privacy. I lived in an apartment alone for the two years prior to Peace Corps service. I loved having my own space to recharge after a long day at work.
This is borderline impossible while living with a host family, especially in a culture that is much more community-focused. I’ve come to realize that Americans are hyper-individualistic compared to most of the world. In Kosovo almost everything is done in the company of others. Introvert-time is not a thing.
I am very introverted, so for the first few months this was a shock to my system. Many volunteers would tell their family that they were tired and would “go to sleep” at 9:00 pm, just to sit in their rooms alone, reading, writing, or just savoring the privacy.
Another challenge of life with a host family can be the sudden lack of independence. This was definitely noticeable for me. I always considered myself fairly self-sufficient, but when you arrive in-country as a PCV you find that you are very dependent. And the people you rely on most are your host family members.
I should also confess that I can be a tad controlling. But when applying to the Peace Corps one of the first things they tell you is that adaptability in a PCV is essential. So I am learning to give up control.
Your lack of control is especially pronounced living with a host family. Your schedule and what you eat is now largely controlled by someone other than you. During PST in particular it was not uncommon to arrive home exhausted and for my family to say, “Jump in the car. We’re going somewhere!” The Peace Corps has been a major lesson in going with the flow. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the memorable adventures that come from a more flexible approach to life.
At first having people watch me, ask what I was doing, and ask where I was going every day reminded me of being in high school. This becomes especially apparent when your family gives you rules to follow or a curfew. At times I wanted to scream, “I am an adult! I can take care of myself!”
Although it can feel like your host family is being controlling or restrictive, they are really looking out for you. You are, after all, a foreigner living in an unfamiliar culture, and your family is there to help you integrate. Having a host family helps you learn the language, integrate into the community, and observe the culture on the ground-level. Although it has its challenges, I can’t imagine doing Peace Corps any other way.
It is also important to realize that you are becoming part of a real-life family. They have their own quirks and flaws, just like families in America. You will see them argue, you will see them cry, you may be with them when a baby is born or when a relative dies.
You will be vulnerable in front of them. My host family sees me when I just wake up and when I haven’t showered in days. They lived with me when I had never-ending diarrhea. They have seen me cry multiple times.
You will also have incredibly touching moments. When you are sick, they are the ones who make you tea and nurse you back to health. When you receive bad news on the phone, they are the ones who hold you while you cry.
I have slumber parties with my host sisters and they share about their secret crushes. We sing off-key and dance in the living room. I can say with complete honesty that I love my host family in Gjakova. I call my host parents “mom” and “dad” without giving it a second thought.
Having a host family has gone from being the hardest thing in my service to the absolute best part. The past few months have been a bit rough at times, and when I have considered ET-ing my host family has been my number one reason for deciding to stay. I have no doubt that my relationship with my host family will be a lifelong one.