Gjergj Skenderbeu (in English we’d probably type George Skanderbeg) is an Albanian hero known for leading a resistance against the Ottoman Empire and delaying its expansion into Western Europe. Pretty much anywhere there’s a large Albanian population in Macedonia you’ll find a statue of Skenderbeu. This is the one in my town.
Before the world was set to end on May 21st I ran into a couple guys from Delaware in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, who were there to spread the word re: doomsday. When I went back to my town I noticed that they had even gotten out to where I live, with this sign in Macedonian announcing the end of the world. I’d been meaning to take a photo of this billboard for months, and thankfully it’s still up over two months after May 21 (The Skopje Squirrel basketball/football tournament, day the world didn’t end). Now that they’ve come up with a new date, I wonder if they’ll be updating the sign?
For my Peace Corps training I spent 11 weeks living with an Albanian host family, with a bedroom in their home. For the two years of my actual service, I live with a Macedonian Muslim host family, in their compound. Living with a family is sometimes awesome, sometimes frustrating, and looking back on the past two years there are some things I think I did well with the family, others that…I would’ve changed. Based on that, advice on living with a host family. (This is about the only thing, Peace Corps-wise, that I am qualified to give advice on, though I’m mostly writing this for my own benefit – to remember a little more clearly what I’ve been up to, at home, the past two years.)
Whatever you do, use your host family to learn the language. As much as you want to think that everyone you work with and run into is interested in helping you learn their language, many people are just as committed to laughing at you when you screw up. Your host family may well be your best chance to learn the language with people who are coming to care about you and feel invested in your success as a volunteer.
Set some basic boundaries – don’t leave your stacks of American bills laying around, put a password on your laptop – but let go of most of your ideas of privacy so you can be closer with your family.
If you’re with a family for the duration of your service, you need to think more about what degree of privacy you need. Whatever country you’re in, people probably don’t have the same ideas of privacy, personal space and personal possessions that we have in America, and you need to be clear in what your expectations of privacy are. If it makes you uncomfortable that your host siblings are climbing up the wall to look in your window, cover the window and/or explain to your family why it makes you uncomfortable when they do that. If you don’t want your siblings touching your computer, be clear that they need to ask you before they start playing videos on youtube and accidentally closing your unsaved Great American Novel.
Set clear boundaries regarding your personal possessions, unless you want all your shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, face wash, laundry detergent, fabric softener and American candy to vanish the first weekend you’re away. There may be some things you don’t mind your family using, but you need to be clear about what’s what – if they are driving you up the wall by using your overpriced American shampoo (or whatever), start putting it away in a drawer and tell your family that they’re free to use whatever’s out in the open…but not, say, your toothbrush. Other things you’ll have to get used to, like your family using your shower when you’re away, or sending guests over to your house to pee because you have the nicest bathroom; but these will be manageable so long as your make-up, shampoo and beer collection are safe.
As with personal space, people outside of America often don’t have the ideas of “alone time” that we have in the States. They may worry when you vanish into your room or house for long stretches of time, thinking that you are sad (rather than having the Best Day Ever, reading Harry Potter).
Best advice here? Get used to having less alone time. To become a “member” of your family you need to spend hours a day with them, which often means doing things you don’t have a lot of interest in doing – watching soap operas, eating, sitting in a room full of crying children, whatever. If you can find a way to combine your alone time activities (say, reading or knitting or playing video games) with family time (read or knit or let your family play your video games) you have won, and should be commended. But find a way to do this early on – start bringing your language homework or a novel into the family’s space early on, so they don’t think it’s bizarre or hurtful when you start doing so after six months with them.
INGRATIATING YOURSELF TO YOUR FAMILY
Look, here’s the fact: as much as you want to be a real, honest-to-God member of your host family, you are never going to be. You are always going to be the American, and with almost every family your relationship will have some baggage for the simple fact that Peace Corps is paying for your house or room & board, and that you probably have fewer responsibilites and more money than anyone in your family over the age of sixteen.
Doesn’t mean you can’t become a valued addition to their family, though, and there are a couple easy ways to do this. One: make food for them. Desserts (cookies, brownies) are the easy ones; American desserts seem more universally beloved than “American” entrees. (Try making a burrito or curry for your family and their forced smiles will help you see what I mean.) Two: get in with the kids. Once your host family’s kids like you, the family likes you; and playing with your new siblings every day is probably the best way of showing your family that you’re a decent person despite your weird haircut and clothes. (That sounds so calculating and cold – but the kids are probably going to be the members of your family you naturally gravitate to, anyway, since your language skills are more on a par. This is why my best friend in Macedonia is six years old.)
I don’t think anyone in Peace Corps ever discussed this with me, probably because volunteers in Macedonia don’t usually live with families during their service. Whether you’re living in one room of your family’s house or in their compound, though, the lack of privacy, the use of your personal stuff, the hours of soap operas you have to watch with your mom every day, will probably start to take a toll on your mental health. As someone who doesn’t often get a day to just chill without someone knocking on my door or trying to climb through my living room window, I bear the unfortunate news that these things can erode you until you have days when you don’t feel capable of getting out of bed. (I use the term “bed” loosely.)
Whether you’re living with a family for training or for two years, make a list, early on, of what you need to do to be yourself. If you went running when you lived in America, do that in your new town. If you can’t run outside (I can’t) find an alternative: walks, exercise videos, a million crunches a day, whatever. But put as much value on the activities YOU value as you do on the activities your family values. It’ll often seem easiest to “assimilate” by doing whatever your family does all day long, but remind yourself, if you need to, that you’re still American regardless of where you live, and that you are not going to suddenly change from being a person who needs a run to relieve stress to a person who needs a coffee and an episode of Macedonian Idol to relax. Instead of spending five hours a day with your family you might spend two or three, but you’ll still be spending those two hours a day with your family after two years with them, instead of writing blog posts suggesting that you yourself have “burned out” on host families. (I am totally not talking about myself here.)
This actually would probably have been better posted here, but I put something up on my other blog about what’s it like to visit grocery stores and bookstores after two years in the Peace Corps. To give you a hint, it’s made me cry a lot, but I also don’t really want to go back to Macedonian grocery stores. There is something absolutely ridiculous but also comforting about seeing a full aisle of cookies, four new types of M&Ms, so many salad dressings that I start weeping over the impossibility of choosing just one.