I’m a mom of three. We live pretty far-flung up in the Andes of Argentine Patagonia. My US-born kids go to the public schools in Spanish with the local kids, interact with indigenous Mapuche, get invited to dinner with the Sufis who have a mosque on the mountain, and know most of the other expats around town. But despite all the diversity we find here, when I started hearing generalizing comments about other cultures that they really knew nothing about –such as “Israelis are all so loud and obnoxious” or “Russians are always so uptight”– I knew they needed more firsthand experience with other cultures to break down stereotypes that they were beginning to believe.
While I would love to put them all on a plane and head to every country and culture I wanted them to learn about, it wasn’t realistic. So I used Couchsurfing and Travelstoke to bring the cultures to us.
I didn’t exactly present the plan like “Hey kids, we’re having so-and-so stay with us for a few days so you can drop your bullshitty prejudices about him and his culture”. I kept it casual. “So-and-so is traveling around Argentina and needs a place to crash for a couple of nights and wants to learn about local life. He wants your opinion on your favorite hikes to do here. He’s also supposedly an epic chef and wants to make you guys berry pancakes in the morning, sound good?”
I made our Couchsurfing host profile very clear: If you don’t like kids, please look elsewhere. If you’re not here to interact and basically want the couch and zero conversation, please look elsewhere. And then started accepting requests. I use Travelstoke to see who is traveling in the area and then I reach out, seeing if they are up for meeting for a coffee, heading to the artists market, or coming over for dinner.
In the first year we hosted a gay couple from Mexico. They fielded direct questions honestly and openly from my kids about their relationship, and then went on to play soccer with them and go get ice cream. In one experience, gay people went from being slightly weird in my son’s eyes to being human beings who just happen to love someone from the same gender — no biggie. And he has firsthand experience of seeing this, so the next time one of his friends makes a derogatory comment about gays, he will it least have something to reference. He will ask himself, “Was Manuel like that? No. Not at all”.
The first Israeli we hung out with for extended periods of time was not at all “loud or obnoxious” but instead quiet and completely respectful and went hiking with my kids down to the river. He talked about his military experience and why it was important for him to travel. He talked about his views on Palestine and how he feels they were shaped from his parents, his teachers, his friends, and what he is doing to question some things in life that he has been told were not questionable.
We hosted girls from France who didn’t like cheese or fashion and did not know how to make crepes, which screwed up every stereotype of the French that my kids previously held true. My kids learned that unfortunately not all Chinese are kung-fu masters, not all Mexicans are migrant workers, not all Brazilians dance, and that not all Australians surf. The one that really blew their mind was “Holy shit, not all Africans are black”.
Do I wish that my kids would automatically know these things? Of course. But do they? No. Walls and prejudices and stereotypes are really broken down through education, and opening out home to travelers was my way of educating them.
Many people criticized me for inviting strangers into my home. “Think of the safety of the kids!”.
But of the over 50 times we’ve had hosting, we’ve honestly not had a single bad experience. About ten of our guests have stayed in close, consistent contact as amazing new friends. My eldest daughter even has plans to stay with one of our visitors in Paris when she graduates. A few of the people we did not connect deeply with, but that too is part of the education – that in all cultures, there’s a little of everything. Humans are humans and some you will have a lot on common with, and others not so much. Some may have sparkly personalities, others more reserved, no matter what country they come from.
I think that there is much more to be worried about in allowing my children to grow up to be adults who believe and perpetuate cultural stereotypes than there is in opening our home to foreign strangers.