Professional & cultural exchange program for social workers and youth workers

Council of International Fellowship-United States of America

Louise Anderson

What to Expect When Living with a Host Family: Take a Leap and Land Softly
You will experience a range of emotions when you choose to participate in a CIF exchange program and live with a host family. You will experience excitement and exhilaration, but also fear and frustration, so do not forget to pack your sense of humor.

During the 2013 CIF conference in Turkey, I heard numerous individuals say their CIF exchange experience had fundamentally changed their life. Your experiences will include stimulating sunsets and sunshine, satisfying solitude and sensations, but also significant sharing of daily family activities.

I remember screaming when I encountered a mouse in my bedroom during an exchange program to Tanzania. All the family members ran to my room, and after agreeing to catch the mouse, they joked that the mouse was part of their extended family. We laughed together so much we almost cried.

My adventures with CIF exchanges have provided me with the opportunity to attend a Hindu marriage engagement party, a Muslim wedding, and a Tanzanian kitchen bridal shower. These memories have enhanced my life and I cherish them.
In some parts of the world, living in a host family can be a cultural shock, but I would like to challenge you to become a local yourself and adapt to their way of living. Learn local customs including what can be offensive. The CIF organization has established standards for these exchanges so you will have a local support network, which can help if there are difficulties. These individuals will likely become lifelong friends. Adapting to the new culture also includes adapting your dress to local customs, so learn about dress codes before departure. 
Transportation can also be a completely different experience. Dala dala are minibuses in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and we rode these to our agency placements. The dala dala serve as the public bus system, but they do not publish a departure or arrival schedule.  The buses simply moved when they were full and the Tanzanian definition of full was different than the American bus system. The minibuses were small vans, which would generally hold 10 people comfortably in America, but in Tanzania they departed when there were 20-24 people seated, often in the middle aisle or standing near the open exit door. These rides where some of my most cherished experiences of Tanzania for everyday was a new adventure and I met many interesting people. I also began to love the Tanzanian definition of time and I began to acknowledge the stress created by our concept of time as urgent in the United States.
Food takes on a special importance on these exchanges. Food is a source of pleasure and it becomes frustrating when your favorite foods are not available. One can gain comfort by bringing he favorite tea or coffee along; however, it is helpful to have an open attitude and try new foods. Learn to embrace and cherish the cultural differences and you will be learning to be more self-reliance and independent. Your sense of a national identity may change and you may begin to reflect on your home country in different ways. Your experience will change you and often these changes are profound and are accompanied by an increase in self-confidence.
As resourceful social workers, you may want to draw on some of your cognitive behavioral restructuring principles when things get difficult. Dr. David Burns, an adjunct professor emeritus of Stanford University School of Medicine, and the author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy has popularized some of the following cognitive distortions that you may need to avoid during your exchange adventure:
1.      Avoid all or nothing thinking.
2.      Avoid over generalizing.
3.      Avoid a mental filter which dwells on the negative. Remember some of yesterday’s
         challenges can be today’s best comedy.
4.      Be alert to discounting the positives.
5.      Avoid jumping to conclusions.
6.      Don’t blow things way out of proportion by magnification or minimization.
Practice kindness everyday and take the journey down the road of joy. One of my favorite thoughts during difficult times is to acknowledge that this too will pass (author unknown), so take the leap and land softly.