*Kerr Hall is the residence hall I worked in last year at the University of North Texas. Also known as the best residence hall on campus.
Time has passed since I moved in with my host family, and with it, some of the awkwardness, but it’s still as strange experience. As a college student from the U.S., I’m used to almost complete independence. In my dorm at UNT, if I wanted to stay up all night with a couple of Monsters and a biology book, I could (and did). If I wanted to curl up in my room and live on Ramen noodles and a good book for an entire weekend, I could (and did). If I wanted to watch a movie in a friend’s room and then fall asleep there, I could (and did). If I wanted to make an ice cream run at 3 am, and then spend the entire next day alternating eating ice cream and sleeping, I could (and did). If I wanted to sleep in until 1 pm and eat breakfast at 2 (’round-the-clock cereal in the cafeteria=best part of dorm life existence*), I could (and did). College kids keep weird hours.
*As a former RA, I can say there are, in fact, other fantastic aspects of residence hall existence, it’s just kinda hard to beat cereal.
You don’t realize how weird your habits are until there are witnesses. Right now, it is 12:41 pm and I am sitting on my bed in the same pajamas I’ve had on since 11 am yesterday, having only emerged for food, and hoping my mamá tica doesn’t think I have a problem since I also skipped lunch yesterday. I was sleeping. I have no excuse for this.
I expect my host mom will knock on my door at any moment. “Renee, ¿quiere comer?” I will go sit at the table while my host mom prepares my plate and sets it in front of me and warns me not to burn my mouth. She’ll lay a napkin next to the plate with a knife and fork, and maybe make me a fruit drink. She’ll sit with me while I eat, and even if I succeed at taking my own plate to the sink, she’ll get upset if I try to wash it.
Coming from a culture where washing your own plate is a minimum expectation and offering to help with preparation is appreciated, I’ll feel a bit uncomfortable, like I always do. Doing what is polite here and allowing her to serve me still feels rude to me.
I remember another exchange student last semester saying one of the reasons she was looking forward to going home was so she could do her own laundry. I understand–I’ve done my own laundry since I could see over the washing machine. Here, I put my dirty clothes in a basket, and come home a few days later to find it folded on my bed. I make my bed every day and come back to find it made more neatly, with the pillow under the blanket.
Part of this is because it’s what my host family is paid to do, but I feel like my mamá tica would do it whether it was in the job description or not. She does the same thing for my host siblings. Two of my siblings are in their thirties, and my other brother is my age, and they all still live at home.
In the U.S., this would be almost shameful, with “deadbeat” written all over it. We’re taught that to be functional human beings, we learn how to take care of ourselves and be independent so that we can get out of the house once we turn 18. You might be able to get away with living at home for financial reasons until you graduate from college, but after that, you’re on your own. And it’s not like our parents have to pry our fingers off the door and kick us to the street; we’re already gone.
Here, my older brother and sister work and are professionals; he’s an orthodontist and she’s a graphic designer. My other brother is in college. They’ll all probably live here until they get married. And it’s not weird. It’s what you do.
My older brother says he stays for the food.
If you get a job or want to go to a college farther away, you either commute every day or live with another relative. It’s mostly foreigners that live in the dorms and apartments. If someone told his mother he wanted to move out, she wouldn’t be relieved; she would be upset.
So, based on all this, it’s obvious that the only real living option for studying abroad in Costa Rica is with a host family. Otherwise, you’re just not a part of the culture. And as strange as it can be sometimes, I love it.
(Also to be continued…)