“The families are here, so if you’re ready, you can come meet them.”
My Spanish class had been let out early and we were preparing to go home to our host families for the first time. It was only the second day in the Dominican Republic and already so much had happened. Now we were waddling, dragging our backpacks like ducklings following their mother to the larger of our two outdoor meeting areas to meet our host families. We would be spending the next three months living with, being taught and looked after by a Dominican family.
It’s a strange feeling when something can’t live up to your expectations because of the impossibility of knowing what to expect.
As we entered the hall, members from thirty-three families sat staring at us in awe. It felt like we were on display or up for auction, only the decisions had already been made and we were stuck, for better or for worse, with the luck of our draw; as were our new families. You couldn’t help but stare around the room and make preconceived assumptions about the bewildered faces looking back at you and wonder who you would be dragged home with. Another trainee went first. He walked up to one of our instructors who read out the name of his new family. An older woman stood up and greeted him in a friendly way, albeit a bit awkwardly. Fantastic I thought. I was up next. Scanning the room the instructor called out the name of my family. A woman in her thirties, who I would later find out was my host sister, stood up. She had an extremely welcoming and friendly looking face. We had gotten a very sloppy answer on how to greet people here. Different cultures vary so much on what is appropriate, from bowing in Asia to hugs and cheek kisses in Latin America, though I had all but ruled out bowing to my new Dominican host sis.
Waiting for her move, my host sister, Wendy immediately embraced me in a loving and welcoming hug. We hit it off straight away. She was enthralled that I spoke any Spanish and I felt she greatly over stated my abilities when complimenting me on it, but knowing her now, I expect nothing less. The family has hosted Peace Corps Volunteers for over twenty years. Wendy grew up with volunteers coming and going. I see know, talking to other volunteers who are staying with families hosting PCVs for the first time that that experience makes all the difference in both my comfort and theirs.
When we arrived at the house, I met Wendy’s two children Aldo (6 year old boy) and Aldy (4 year old girl). The first thing Aldy did, not knowing me at all, was to run up and give me a giant hug and squeak “hola John!” She still greets me the same every day when I return from training. In addition to the children and their mother, is Alex, Wendy’s brother. Alex is 30 and a personal trainer built like a professional boxer. It’s extremely difficult to feel like a man when he’s walking around the house in a wife beater. Despite his physical presence, he couldn’t be nicer or more welcoming. He frequently comes out on the patio and just sits around with me to shoot the shit. I invited a couple of friends over in the first week, which ended up turning into and improvised party as more and more volunteers happened by. Alex and Wendy bought beer, put out food and music, and taught about 15 of us to dance merengue and bachata, all without my asking or them even offering. Wendy always tells me that I’m a member of the family now and it definitely feels like it.
The final member of the house is Gladys. She is Wendy and Alex’s mother. She is no different than her children, warm, welcoming, and laughs at my poorly executed humor. Gladys’ sister and her two children who are in their teens (my host nephew and niece) come over every day to hang out and chat for a bit. Ricky, the boy and I get along really well. We both like sports and playing board/word games. He goes back and forth really well and can take as much as he gives.
Before we got our housing assignments, a lot of us were talking about what we wanted in a house. Small children and a dog were universal and popular choices, very high on my list as well. I also said that I would forgo running water, sitting toilets, and food most days, all for wifi. Internet was the only thing I really wanted to have. Somehow I managed to hit the host family jackpot with kids, a 2 month old puppy (Nina), running water, sitting and flushing toilets, and to round it off; wifi. My neighborhood is a gated community of upper middle class families, complete with a full basketball court that sees its share of action.
Acknowledging that it is still early on in my stay, I am ecstatic with my host family placement. If I can think of one complaint it’s that I don’t feel the next three months will be as difficult and life changing in the way that I expected. I’m somehow too comfortable with my situation. But, I imagine I will have plenty of discomfort when we get our rural placements.