A shitty experience everyone can relate to is being at a friends house and watching them be disciplined by their parents. It’s just awkward. However, it’s informative. Even though it’s not a pleasant experience, by seeing that side of a family, you learn a lot about who your friend is and how their family works. For example, I’ve seen friends get yelled at for leaving dishes in the sink, and I’ve seen different friends get yelled at for not coming home the night before. It just shows you a new side of someone. While living in France with a family for three weeks in April, I definitely had moments like these. Even though it was uncomfortable, I learned a lot about my host family and how they function.
My French exchange student, Camille, whom I hosted in my home for about three weeks in the fall is 17 like me. I was happy to find that we instantly got along really well, so I was confident that when I would visit her in April, my experience would be really fun. The problem was how I pictured France would be. I imagined everything old and antique like, and living in a rustic cottage, while also expecting everyone to be very elegant and modern. Now I realize that these expectations kind of contradict each other, but I had a very distinct idea of France being like another world. But, after arriving, I found that I was more surprised by how similar things were in a lot of ways. My host family lived in a suburban neighborhood, in a four bedroom house that was made probably ten years ago, a lot like any American suburb. Of course there were things that I was surprised by, like the ability to buy bread wherever you go and how often my host family watched the French version of the Voice (this was an unpleasant surprise). But I found that what I was most surprised by were the differences between my family and my host family.
I live with my mom and my 20 year old brother in a very small three bedroom, one bathroom house. We all love each other and spend time together, but we’re all pretty independent. Most of the time, we live in peaceful coexistence and save yelling at each other for very special occasions. My host family of four seemed to have the conventional American “perfect life”: two children ages 17 and 12 years old, and two cars ages 5 and 2 years old. Then there were some not so great differences, like, they definitely seemed to argue a lot more than I was used to. In many ways, it makes sense. When I was 12 and my brother was 15, we got pissed at each other way more than we do now. The thing that was so striking to me was that I used to have a similar kind of life as my host family when I was in elementary school and my parents were still together. My brother and I would fight over petty things, we had a two story house in a beautiful suburb of Portland, we would all eat dinner together when my dad got home from work, etc.
Since then, things have obviously changed for me. My family is definitely different, but I think it’s better now. So, entering a home that operated the way my life did about 7 years ago was strange. It was like going back to that time in my life, when my family was still happy in so many ways, yet unhappy in other ways. Now, even though Camille’s family would argue sometimes, I must give them credit for being much more functional than the way my family was a few years ago. Still, seeing Camille and her little brother fight over which radio station to play on the way to Easter brunch reminded me of both good and bad memories of when I had a family like theirs. Experiences as simple and awkward as that made me think a lot about different family dynamics. It made me think about how terribly unhappy I would have grown to be if my parents had stayed together and I had a picture perfect family life, and how my family, though different, is more happy than ever now. I also thought about Camille’s family, and how even if they reminded me of a past time in my life, their family really is genuinely happy and in love with one another even if they bicker occasionally. It’s strange how families work like that.
My host family was extremely kind and accommodating, and I am so grateful for the experience that they gave me. In all honesty, there were a lot of really amazing differences between the US and France, and I will value the experience forever. I think I was just particularly struck by the differences between our families because it was something that I had never considered affecting me. However, I’m happy it did.
Rachel Shaw is a 17 year old girl from Portland, OR. She likes making her face look like the moon emoji. You can find her on twitter.