The in-between moments happen between inhaling and exhaling. Between serving tea and waiting for it to cool. Between an unexpected revelation and a thoughtful response. They are heavy, pregnant moments, held private and sacred.
I spent hours lying in post-meal relaxation with my Argentine host mother, head on a pillow and fan turning above. We’d talk about my host brothers and sister, my host mother’s cooking school business, and what it was like to be a teen in the 1980s in South America. Years later, my Indian host mother, whom I’ve only ever called Aunty Ji, would lounge around with me on hot Rajasthani afternoons, telling me about the extended family, Indian or US politics and culture, and more about the extended family. These conversations did not occur while preparing dinner, while sending me and my host siblings to school, or during weekend dinners with the extended family. They occurred in the in-between moments.
Back home in the US, I lived in a blur of activity, never noticing my own mother’s in-between moments (often found in between my relentless comings and goings). But while abroad, my role and perspective shifted. I spent two years living with host families – one year in Argentina and one year in India. Host families are in charge of keeping you fed and healthy physically, but even more so emotionally, during a time abroad. In both instances, my relationship with my host mother was the main vehicle of cross-cultural interaction and stability. Conversations with my host mothers taught me legions more than I could have learned from a book about the local culture, and gave important perspective on how to grow into womanhood. I’ve come to learn that for those on a long-term sojourn, the relationship with a host mother can make or break the experience.
Both of my host mothers are fierce women. Both are entrepreneurs, both are youthful, and both have a sense of humor which gets in the way of them ever taking themselves — or anyone else — too seriously. When their kids acted out, they’d be quick answer: “Que hijo de puta!” Inés would say to me about her son. “She is very stupid!” Aunty Ji would say to me about her daughter. And when their kids were in crisis, they’d be even quicker to answer with careful and loving advice.
My Argentine host mother told the principal it would be ridiculous for me to attend school the week I reached Argentina, and instead took me on a trip from our small country town to the capital city, Buenos Aires. We spent the weekend sharing my first beer, parodying tango, and strolling the late-night streets of the city’s cultural district.
My Indian host mother told me that there was no way I was wearing a faded kurta that looked like a tablecloth outside of the house, and where’s my matching bangles? She would inform me daily that due to my weakness (unlike her other host daughter… the healthy one) I needed to eat twice as much of the sabzi she prepared. And here’s another chapatti. And here’s some ghee for that chapatti.
Inés pushed me to get out there and do something with my time and energy in spite of fear or rules; Aunty Ji taught me that in spite of the adventures out there, I must always come home. Inés taught me that there is strength in bold autonomy; Aunty Ji taught me that there is strength in trusting reliance. Inés taught me how to keep friends for 30 years; Aunty Ji taught me how to break the ice in 30 seconds.
Living abroad as a young woman often brings a contradictory set of challenges. Suddenly, you are both the most independent and the most dependent you have ever been. In my case, leaving my family at age 17, moving to a new country, and learning a new language demonstrated a depth of independence and maturity beyond that of most of my peers. But, the same circumstances put me in a place of immediate dependence on everyone surrounding. Unable to understand basic conversation, logistics, or who’s related to who — whether due to language differences, cultural differences, or just plain old differences — I had the sense of being a constant third wheel.
But I found balance in this precarious position. Lingering between independence and dependence, home country and host country, and first and second languages, I observed and enjoyed a new sense of volatility. And it was my host mothers, precious to me still, who gave me security and opportunity to do so, in-between their children, outside and inside work, and personal time.
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