Aug. 15, 2006
By Mary Reed
I say tomāto, she says tomäto. I say bummer. She says, "What?"
I am the American host and Rocio Urrutia, a Fulbright scholar from Chile, is my guest for the weekend. We are participating in a homestay program offered to students enrolled in the Ohio Program of Intensive English. OPIE at Ohio University has been giving English language training to international students from all over the world since 1967, and has been offering mini homestays (a weekend in length) for more than 15 years.
In addition to just a few misunderstandings over pronunciation (no, we don't have a cot; we don't have a cat either), my guest is getting a crash course in American idioms – which, when you think about it, isn't a bummer. It's pretty cool.
"Linguistically for the students, it's a chance to use English in a natural environment with 'real Americans' – not just language teachers," Gerry Krzic, director of intensive and special programs at OPIE, tells me. He adds that in addition to language learning, there's cultural learning that goes both ways.
When I ask Rocio why she decided to participate in the homestay – after all, she's already living in a house with other students here in the United States – she says, "because I wanted to know more about American people. I thought it would be a good experience to know how they live."
Now she knows how at least one American family spends its Saturdays. Upon Rocio's arrival, my partner, Attila Horvath, and I urge her to make herself at home, emphasizing that here in America we really mean it when we say that. Then we whisk her off to the Athens Farmers Market, the hub of social activity in Athens on a Saturday. We follow it up with lunch at a friend's home (alas, no hot dogs or hamburgers) and to top it all off: the cherry on the top, the bomb, the ultimate American experience - a visit to the Athens County Fair. What could be more American than that?
We try to strike a balance in our home between business as usual and being good hosts. We refrain from chasing the deer out of the garden so Rocio can get a look at them; we invite her to help prepare brunch but try not to overwork her; we suggest a game of Scrabble for fun (okay, bad idea – not fair).
When I ask Rocio about what she most enjoyed, she tells me, "My favorite part of the weekend was the farmers market. It was a really beautiful experience. I really enjoyed seeing one of the main activities of people here (on) weekends and it was really fun meeting many and new people and (talking) about different things."
When I received a notice from Gerry on Outlook inviting me to become a homestay host, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, he says, "the families get to have an international experience without having to leave home." In addition, the program allows Ohio University faculty and staff to engage with students in new and interesting ways.
In my own travels throughout the world, many people have generously shared their homes with me, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to return the favor. When I ask Attila why he so readily agreed to host an international student for the weekend, his answer echoes my own reasoning. "My homestays abroad have been fun and have also given me a more realistic understanding of the cultures I was living in. It's exciting for me to provide this opportunity to someone else for once! Too bad the demolition derby wasn't scheduled for Saturday at the Athens County Fair."
By the time she leaves, I ask Rocio if we seem like a typical American family. "Maybe not" is her reply. I'm not sure how to take this, but don't press the issue. Hopefully her first experience staying with an American family has been a good one. We plan to host an international student again. Our only hope is that next time it will coincide with the demolition derby.
Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.