Home hosting, hospitality, kitchen diplomacy. Which is it? What is it?
By Lyn Hargreave (May 2017)
Have you ever wondered how you can learn about other cultures? What is important to them? How do they view people from the United States? What do they want from life? The questions can go on and on. But, the biggest one remains: "How do you find the answers to these questions?"
Sure you can read a book, you can go to local presentations and festivals, you can travel abroad and see all the tourist sights, but what really lies behind those lace curtains of that home you just walked by in Amsterdam? What is their life like? The world is so much more than fast flowing Alpine streams, or one of the fabulous museums like the Louvre, the Heritage, the Prado. It's m ore than a tour that tells you if it's Tuesday it must be Belgium. The world is about people. People who will enrich your life by sharing with you a bit of their time so you each can understand the other better.
Many years ago, my husband Dave and I were asked by Colleagues International if we would consider hosting a young woman from Latvia who would be coming to Kalamazoo to work with social services organizations here to understand how the people in the United States did work similar to what she was doing in Riga.
This young woman was Iveta Kelpe. We shared several weeks together. Each morning on my way to work I would drop her off at an organization and one of us would pick her up on the way home. We learned that Iveta was just like us... except she was much younger. She enjoyed music, museums and big cities. She also enjoyed hiking and outdoor activities. So one weekend a Borgess co-worker, Iveta and I went to Chicago and enjoyed the food, a river cruise, shopping. We had such fun together. Today Iveta is back in Riga, working in some way with the European Union and possible the Latvian government. I know her work takes her to Brussels frequently.
Through the years we have hosted another woman from Latvia, several wonderful young folks, men and women, from Germany (some of whom we have visited), from Russia, from Sri Lanka, from Indonesia, from Costa Rica, from Tunisia and other places. Some for a day or an evening, some for two months, and the friendships have been ongoing - many thanks to Facebook which makes it easy. I truly believe that Rosalyn Carter was correct when she stated, "You don't really get to know a person until you have shared a meal with your feet under their table." Or the reverse when they have shared with their feet under your table. Just bring out the food and let the conversation roll.
Prior to our involvement hosting with Colleagues, we hosted a Brazilian Exchange Student for a year. That experience contained many challenges (as when he found out that his Brazilian girlfriend had started dating someone else, and he insisted he was going home - until his father told him in no uncertain terms, "No you are not!") We continue to be his "mom" and "dad" and are very close to each other, just like many of you who have continued these relationships through many years.
Personally, it was Colleagues International that really put us on the road to wanting to know more and more about these people from far-off lands. It also led us to go outward to discover what it was like in their homes. What was behind those lace curtains? What was their food like? Was life easy or a struggle? Because of these questions and wanting to know more we joined up with an organization which took us to multiple Mayan villages in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. There we had wonderful and extremely different "home stay" experiences. We hung our hammocks in the stick huts with dirt floors of our multiple hosts for a week every year for eleven years. The cultural differences were amazing and very rewarding and life-changing. Our sons went along and learned that there are things that are more important in life than "stuff." The families were generous and gracious, though they had little. They wanted the same as we, something better for their kids than they themselves had.
Now, approximately 30 years after our first home hosting experience with Colleagues International, we continue to share our home with folks from around the world through both Colleagues International and other organizations. One of these other organizations is Friendship Force International. It provides us the opportunity to host visitors from many places around the world and with 16,000 members in 65 plus countries there are numerous homes to visit. In our lives, kitchen table diplomacy through home hosting continues both here and abroad. We learn and we share our lives with each other and try our best to fulfill the Friendship Force mission statement of "promoting understanding across the barriers that separate people." Maybe someday we can find a world of peace among friends.