At the time of this writing, I have been out of Peace Corps for two months! TWO MONTHS, WOW! (Service actually DOES end! Although at times I felt like I’d be living in Kosovo forever … )
I thought I was done with this blog for good. However, since finishing my service I’ve been asked several times for advice on setting boundaries within the host family. I thought I’d compile my thoughts/suggestions into this list.
Living with a host family is difficult. I imagine this is true to some degree for all Peace Corps volunteers living in all host countries. My advice stems from my experience living with an Albanian family and working in Kosovo. However, I think a lot of what I have to say is universally applicable.
Before joining the Peace Corps, I worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in Chicago. I’m used to settling boundaries as part of my professional life, but even I find it difficult sometimes. I especially find it difficult when I have to establish the same boundaries over and over. Such is life with a host family.
Here are my tips for living with a host family:
1. Decide what household chores you are willing to do and only do those things. Aside from cleaning my bedroom and doing my own laundry, I dried the dishes and sometimes fed the dog. That’s it. (Sorry, but I’m not cleaning the toilet after a man with poor aim uses it!)
Kosovar/Albanian culture is patriarchal. Women are expected to serve men. I would STRONGLY suggest to female volunteers, especially the younger women, to establish that you are not in Kosovo to act as a nuse (the Albanian/Shqip word for “bride.”) Thank God I was never asked to serve tea, because that would have really bothered me. If your host family asks you to serve, I would suggest looking confused and then explaining that you are an American guest. Albanian culture dictates respect for guests so if your family tries to make you do something you don’t want to do, lean on the guest thing.
My host mom wanted me to can speca (pepper) my first year and I kept saying no. She would ask “pse?” (why) and I’d just kind of shrug as a reply. (People can argument against an explanation. They can’t argue against a shrug!) The second year she didn’t ask me to help, haha.
2. My real parents visited Kosovo during my second Christmas. I think it helped ease my host mother’s anxiety about me leaving (and helped ease her grip on me) because she saw that I belong to these other, very nice people.
To volunteers, I’d suggest doing a video chat (or chats) between your host and real family. Establish that you have a very nice family back home and that you are a guest in Kosovo. This is something I wish I had done earlier in my service.
3. I didn’t have this problem, but other volunteers have told me they struggled with host siblings trying to act as their “boss.” In this situation, I’d suggest using humor as a deflection. Turn their comments into a joke. “You’re the boss of me? I’m older than you! That makes me the boss, HAHA!” Give that youngster’s hair a lil’ ruffle! (If your host sibling is older than you are, again, lean on the guest culture.)
4. This may be different in other host countries, but in Kosovo, volunteers pay their living stipends directly to their host families. This is incredibly stressful. My host mother complained that it wasn’t enough money my first few months, even though I was giving the standard amount Peace Corps set. I stuck to my guns, though, and didn’t pay more than I had to.
I also quickly figured out to lie about how much I traveled. I didn’t want to give the impression that I had money. I was also mindful of the fact that travel can be difficult for Kosovars due to the expense and having to obtain visas for just about everywhere.
I traveled pretty frequently during my service but only told my host family about three of my trips (one of those I took with my real parents). The rest of the time, they thought I was in Pristina. They thought I had this mysterious female friend in Pristina who let me crash at her apartment all the time. Hahaha, I was either traveling or renting an Airbnb with other volunteers. 😉
5. My host family was always respectful of my personal belongings and my physical safety. However, I know of instances where other volunteers had host families that stole from them. I also know of instances where volunteers were being sexually harassed in their own homes. I heard mixed reviews on how quickly and effectively Peace Corps staff responded to these situations and again, I can’t speak to this from my own experience. However, I will say that no volunteer should ever be expected to stay at a site where their safety is threatened. If one of these things happens to you, report it immediately!
6. Kosovo gets very cold in the winter. My host family had central heat (and I’ve said this previously — central heat is a rare luxury in Kosovo). My family only turned the heat on for a few hours in the evening, though. So what did I do? I went to Pristina and spent 10 Euro on a space heater. It fit nicely into my backpack and I was able to sneak it into my bedroom. 🙂
I’d hear my friends complain about the cold and I’d just kind of roll my eyes to myself. Use common sense. If you’re cold, buy a heater. Your host family signed a housing contract that states they will provide you with a heated bedroom.
If your host family says the amount they pay for electricity has increased, ask them for a copy of the bill to show your program manager.
7. Best advice ever, for all life situations: Just do you, bo. Establish your boundaries, establish your routine, don’t ask permission and just be yourself. A criticism I have of Peace Corps (and I have several, haha) is that they really push the volunteer to integrate into the host culture without enough emphasis on the cultural exchange. Yes, the volunteer is a guest and should do their best to respect the host culture. However, too much of this pressure is placed solely on the volunteer. My feeling was always, “Hey, you guys wanted an American living in your village and teaching at your school, SO GET READY TO DEAL WITH AN AMERICAN.” (Yes, I do things differently. I am from a completely different culture and country!) Volunteers shouldn’t be expected to compromise on everything.
Last, don’t feel guilty if you don’t love living with a host family. Here’s a secret: most of us don’t (or didn’t)!