Having my say, or, TAKE THAT, kanjus* family!

The following is my evaluation of my host-family, which I will be sending to the director of the program shortly. I have about one week left in this house. And then… liberation. Abbreviations will be used to protect the kanjus.

To Whom It May Concern:

I do not think I have ever written an evaluation as negative (and lengthy) as this will doubtless end up being, but imagining its composition has been my greatest solace through many frustrations over the past several weeks (month?). It will be about my home-stay experience. Just to make reading it more enjoyable for you, I will inform you now that I don’t blame the program itself for these frustrations. So relax, bear with me, and let us begin:

After visiting all of the families and creating a system of placing ourselves, I found myself at the B. house. The family was higher up on my list for a couple of shallow reasons: I liked the bathroom, and the room was non-AC and thus a little cheaper than the air-conditioned alternatives. There was one other room besides my own and it was filled by another student named Rebecca. Mine was on the roof, had a cooler, and was 6500R; hers was in the house, had an air conditioner, and cost 8000R.

Almost as soon as we got to the house, and as I was moving my luggage into my room, the host-mother mentioned that the cooler rarely works “in this season” and suggested I sleep in Rebecca’s room. I tried to sleep in the roof room with the cooler on and did find it too hot, so I wasn’t really sure what to do and Rebecca and I took to sharing a room.

After a couple of weeks, we began to want our own space and Rebecca mentioned that she might move out if they couldn’t provide an alternative. She informed the family of this decision and the mother asked if we’d both stay if she put air conditioning in the roof room. We agreed and she spent a day or two thinking about this, and instead decided to repair the cooler (which apparently was just broken, having nothing to do with the season). It was pretty clear she just wanted us to split one room and pay for two, possibly to keep electricity costs lower.

After I’d moved into the roof room, it apparently became invisible to the family. At night, the gate down into the house (where our shared bathroom was) got locked soon after dinner, and it became a problem as I often hadn’t gotten ready for bed before it was locked and there was not really a way to get a hold of the family (I called my roommate to let me back in the first few times). The room (and my presence) was also mysteriously invisible during several meals, when they just made no effort to get my attention and insisted they thought I had “gone out” when I came down later.

Eventually they decided to raise a wall (and the roof) up so that my room would be a part of the house. “For you,” they said (???). In the middle of doing this, they decided to expand on the project and put another room for paying guests beside mine, moving most of the roof up an entire level. This was not long after I’d moved into the room on the roof (maybe two weeks) but immediately following this decision the roof was crowded every day with laborers, who started working around 9AM and often didn’t finish until around 6PM. Some days there were also women and children–practically a displaced village–on the roof. The concrete in front of my door was torn up, a pipe burst and flooded the area for a few days, and debris (plaster, also sometimes rain water) came through the cracks of one of my windows to cover one side of my bed and the floor. Recently, mold has started to grow on the walls as well.

One weekend when Rebecca was out of town, I slept in her air-conditioned room downstairs. In the morning, the mother approached me at breakfast and asked, “Don’t you get chilly?” “Why?” I said. “Using the air conditioner all day and all night,” she said, “Don’t you get chilly?” I told her I’d only been using it at night–which was true, and also true of Rebecca–and she said that the bill for air conditioning alone had been 2,000R this month and that she might have to start charging more. [A few comments on this: 1) Is their even a charge separate for air conditioning from the regular electricity? On this I am skeptical. 2) They also use air conditioning, to a comparable degree. Rebecca’s room is 1,500R extra, presumably for the cost of AC. Why should the family expect us to cover the whole house’s AC costs? 3) This was not even my room, generally.] I argued that there was no reason to pay more when 1,500R for AC was already being paid, and she didn’t choose to press the topic.

Needless to say, our relationship with our host-mother was not based on warmth or interest, merely on money. We were an ambulatory pile of money. When we had conversations, which was rare, they were usually invasive questions on her part to try to find out just how much money she could squeeze out of the paying guest situation in the future (if not now). She asked how much other people paid for their host-stays and what was included. When Rebecca mentioned that one family has meters installed to measure electricity as an added cost, she seemed very happy with the information. She asked about how people chose houses and whether hers was popular. It was very uncomfortable. When the host-mother made any attempt to learn anything about me, it was generally connected to money. How much money do I make in the U.S.? How much money do my parents make? Why would I say that $40 (in regards to manicure/pedicure, which, shockingly, I don’t spend scads of money on in the U.S.) is expensive?

I was charged 700R a month for using the internet. As one Indian friend in Mumbai commented, “Jesus! Their bill alone can’t even be that high.” She still seemed irritated when I used the internet, and they unplugged the router routinely even after I’d just plugged it in. She made comments about my electricity use to Rebecca, despite the fact that I rarely came home before 5 or 6PM and rarely used the cooler during the day.

Neither Rebecca nor I felt comfortable within the house. We each spent almost all of our time in our rooms, as these were our relegated places. Frequently the flush in our bathroom would not be working (a problem we gently mentioned several times and which only recently really got fixed), and one night, in the middle of the night, I needed to throw up and didn’t want to do so in a toilet that didn’t flush. I was also downstairs, getting water at the time. So I used their bathroom. The mother seemed scandalized at this after she woke up (upon finding me in her bathroom, throwing up and crying) and asked with some irritation if I wanted to see a doctor.

Our privacy was not respected. On one occasion Rebecca and I told the family we were going out to the market and would be home after 15 minutes. When we did get home, I came onto the roof to find the host-mother in my room, moving my things around, looking agitated. “You should clean your room,” she said. I do tend to accumulate clothing and papers in piles, but I do not think it’s appropriate to invade someone’s personal space because of this issue. She could have asked me politely outside of my room, and I would have tidied it up without a problem.

When the family went out to dinner, which they did pretty frequently (maybe once or twice a week), we were never asked if we wanted to come but were instead fed at home by the maid. We were never asked to do anything with the family. Some nights they ate in their bedroom, with the television, and we were fed in separately. To be honest, we didn’t mind this after some time, simply because their company was so awkward and uncomfortable.

We talked with other students in the program about the B.’s and realized that past experiences have also been bad. When one mentioned their name in passing to their host-mother, she said that in the past, the “B. girls” would always come over to their place to get away because the environment was more home-like, and “it wasn’t about money”. She also said that though they were acquaintances, she stopped talking to her because when she saw her in the market one day and asked about her “American daughters”, Mrs. B. corrected, “Don’t call them that–they’re paying guests”. (If it’s any further indication of our discomfort, we also didn’t know what to call the family members–“Auntieji” etc seemed too personal. We ended up avoiding calling them anything directly.)

I will say that the home was for the most part very comfortable (although we felt too uncomfortable to enjoy that) and the food was very good (the best aspect of staying here). The B.’s are clearly an affluent family, and bought lots of new things (new cell phones, a new refrigerator) in addition to their adding on to the house. We felt like perhaps we were funding it.

I understand that housing is in every way a logistical nightmare, and you can’t exactly control every detail or only find families that treat AIIS students as one would their own child. I sympathize. I also know that the people in AIIS have been interested in feedback and promoting a positive image of India.

This was my first trip to India, and I had a difficult first month in adjusting. If I hadn’t had Rebecca–who had spent a few years in India before–to explain what was and wasn’t acceptable, and to take charge in telling the family when we had a problem, I probably would have felt much worse throughout the summer. I now love the country and have met so many kind and hospitable Indians while outside that I realize inhospitable behavior is not a norm in India and the B. family is a bit of an exception. But I do worry that someone unfamiliar with India and without a roommate who does understand the culture and general kindness of India would feel some resentment for it after staying with this family. I would have been happy to excuse many of the smaller things had it not been for the family’s attitude.

I also want to point out that many other people also had experiences with distant families (although most of these were still pleasant). I would recommend updating the program’s information packet to explain that the host-family situation may be more like a paying-guest situation, as a lot of people felt unprepared for their family’s lack of interest in them. I don’t think this distance is a bad thing (independence is good!) but I think it’s very different from the American idea of a home-stay family and without explanation, it catches people off-guard (and makes them question themselves).

After so much negative, I also want to say that the program staff itself–the teachers, and Kumar ji!–behaved exactly the opposite from my host-family, showing great interest in both our academic and emotional status. Many of them told us to think of them like family and tell them if we had any problems, and offered a great deal of support (which one shouldn’t even expect from teachers). They were very amenable to our requests and interested in us, and were always available for help.

My big complaint is with the home-stay family. I just think that people who so clearly don’t enjoy having guests in their house should be the sort of people who constantly have guests.

Thank you for reading! My apologies for the (excessive) length.

Sincerely,

(Me.)

*miserly

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~ by pinkcityaurat on August 20, 2008.

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