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How Strangers Become Family: Cross-Cultural Connection

Guest Blogger: Alissa Dappas

When it comes to learning a new language, there is only so much a student can get out of lectures and exams.  To truly become proficient, conversation practice is essential.  As a Spanish minor, I knew that my study abroad experience had to include as much language immersion as possible if I ever wanted to become a confident Spanish speaker.  To achieve maximum language immersion, I decided to attend the study abroad program in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica because of its approved Illinois Spanish-credit classes and most importantly, because all students in the program had to live with a host family.  Although I was extremely nervous about the concept of moving in with strangers for four months, I now consider my relationship with my host family to be the most rewarding aspect of my semester in Costa Rica.

Throughout my time spent abroad, my host family was my strongest and always-available support system.  No matter what the situation or question, they were the people I turned to for help or guidance.  I was lucky to live with a very caring host mom, Patricia, host dad, Ronald, and two younger host sisters, Diana and Priscila.  Each member of my family took time to get to know me personally and as the semester went on, I began to realize that I really did consider them to be part of my own family.  There was never one specific moment that made me come to this realization; I think it was simply a bunch of small things that built on top of each other.  For instance, my host mom and I were normally the only ones around for breakfast, so every morning, I would begin my day by having a conversation with her while helping prepare the food, eating or cleaning the dishes. hostfam1 When my host sisters came back from school, we would play cards together or I would teach them how to do cartwheels in the backyard.  We often bonded by talking about things we had in common (a mutual Harry Potter obsession was a hot topic) and laughing at my funny pronunciations of some words.  After dinner, my host dad was my go-to person when I wanted to learn more about the Costa Rican government or general Latin American politics.  He always seemed to know a bit about both sides of any story and usually knew more about the events or debates going on in the United States than I knew myself.  So within this one family unit, I came to know each person as an individual and because of this, I learned more than I ever previously imagined I would.  Besides being able to practice my Spanish with a group of people I was comfortable with, I was also able to create lifelong bonds and gain family members that belong to a culture different from my own.

host fam            Looking back, all four months with my Costa Rican family summed up to one huge lesson on the importance of time spent together as a family.  Culturally, this is where I saw the greatest difference between the United States and Costa Rica.  Although many people would argue that the idea of a strong family unit is still very important to most Americans, it would be hard to deny that the family dynamic in the United States is not influenced by parents’ work schedules, sports practices, tutoring, videogames, fast food dinners, etc.  In Costa Rica, time spent together comes before most other obligations.  And from what I’ve heard and read, it seems like this importance on family time is a central part of Latin American culture as a whole, and not just in Costa Rica.  No matter my host parents’ schedules, they always made time each day to make a meal together and sit down as a family for dinner.  Most days, the dinner was usually followed by a game played together or a conversation that carried over from the main meal to dessert or coffee.  host sisterIt was during these dinners and late-night conversations that we would discuss our days, hear about any problems my sisters were having at school or learn news about the extended family (who happened to live in all of the surrounding houses).  During these moments, I learned more about life and the values of Costa Ricans and my family was able to learn about my life in the United States.

Slowly but surely, my new family impacted me in such a way that I now actively try to apply their family-centered, peaceful mentalities to my own life back in the United States.  Not only did my Spanish conversation ability improve, but living with a host family also reopened my eyes to the more important things in life and that above all, the relationships that we have with our friends and family should come before everything else.

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