“Make yourself at home.” This is a phrase we hear and utter often. What does the phrase mean? When a host says, “Make yourself at home,” does he or she literally mean for you to turn their home into yours? I have been a guest and a host many times in my life thus far, and I’ve learned a few things about what makes a good host and a good guest. One thing I’ve learned is that receiving from a gracious host motivates me to be a good guest. Furthermore, encountering a good host often inspires me to be a good host later. In many ways, this is what the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program tries to achieve: It seeks to teach people how to be good hosts by providing them with a chance to be a guest.
The Young Adult Volunteer program is a national program that operates out of Presbyterian World Mission. Young adults between the ages of 19-30 are given the opportunity to commit to a year of service at various sites in the United States and around the world. The program’s motto is: “A Year of Service for a Lifetime of Change.” One of the ways in which the program initiates this lifetime of change is by providing young adults with the opportunity to be a guest in an unfamiliar context.
Being a guest is something I am quite familiar with. Having grown up as a 1.5 generation Korean-American, my life has been a long journey to find my place on this guest-to-host spectrum. When my family moved to the US when I was 12, I found it difficult to “make myself at home.” Making myself at home in this context meant that I needed to redefine “home”; it meant I had to let go of the familiar and learn to love the new. Almost 30 years later, English has become my primary language, my family’s cuisine only occasionally consists of Korean food, and only a small percentage of my friends are of Korean descent. Yet, I find myself still struggling with the question: am I home? Many good and bad hosts have influenced my 30-year journey as a racial ethnic woman living in the US. Many “hosts” have helped me to believe that I am finally home. Others have managed to remind me, even 30 years later, that I am still just an unwanted guest.
I recently had the chance to visit a YAV site in Guatemala. In preparing for the trip, I focused on trying to represent the program well and make good impressions on the people I would encounter in Guatemala. I was not prepared for the valuable lesson I was about to learn. Guatemalans know how to receive a guest. When I shared meals and stayed overnight with the host families of three of our Young Adult Volunteers, what I experienced was beyond feeling welcomed. I felt embraced by these strangers. It is not what they offered but how they offered it. The financial difficulties of these families were painfully evident to me the moment I stepped into their house. And yet, they offered me their best of everything they owned (food, room, gifts) to make me feel welcome. I slept on uncomfortable beds (and was woken up at 3 AM each morning by a chorus of roosters), ate unfamiliar foods made over wood burning stoves, and could not understand half of what was being said around me; yet, I felt at “home.” This realization overwhelmed me beyond my expectation.
A good host makes a guest feel at home by embracing that guest. Acceptance or tolerance is not enough. A good host becomes invested in understanding the other person’s needs. A good host truly embraces the other person as their own and begins to feel their joy and pain alongside them.
Even more striking was how at “home” the volunteers seemed with their host families. One host mom, who has 4 children of her own, found a way to embrace the volunteer into her “herd.” She did not treat the volunteer as a year-long guest; she treated her as one of her children. She looked at the volunteer with the same loving looks she reserved for her own children. The volunteer told me that her host mom had even instructed her to clean her room in preparation for my arrival! In turn, the volunteer happily blended into the family unit. She rejoiced with their joys and burned with anger at injustices inflicted on her family members. Throughout my trip, I repeatedly witnessed similar dynamics with the other volunteers and their families.
These Young Adult Volunteers arrived in Guatemala in August of 2012 and returned to the US 12 months later. They learned a great deal: their Spanish has improved, they have developed the ability to live simply, and they have gained valuable insight about poverty and the impacts of globalization. However, the most valuable lesson they learned might be an understanding of their position on this guest-host spectrum. Their experiences as guests in Guatemala have given them insight into what kind of hosts they want to be back in the US, a country where the guest-host dynamic is often skewed by prejudice based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors. I believe that the love and acceptance these YAVs received from their host families will continue to shape and mold the way they build relationships in their own lives. I believe that these YAVs are now better hosts as a result of their YAV experience.
What does a good host look like? What is the key to making a guest feel truly at home? A good host makes a guest feel at home by embracing that guest. Acceptance or tolerance is not enough. A good host becomes invested in understanding the other person’s needs. A good host truly embraces the other person as their own and begins to feel their joy and pain alongside them. Being a good host requires hard work and dedication. And yet, when it’s all said and done, this host’s guest knows that they are truly “at home.”
This is what we hope for in every Young Adult Volunteer’s experience. A typical YAV will experience a multitude of challenges during their service year, challenges that will stretch them and challenge them to grow. My prayer is that every YAV will walk away from their experience with renewed commitment to be a good host to all people in every aspect of their lives. This is how the YAV program transforms the world: one life at a time.AUTHOR BIO: Lydia Kim is a 1.5 generation Korean-American. Her background is in clinical psychology and higher education. Lydia worked as a therapist for a few years in Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, specializing in adults with substance dependence and children and families with histories of child abuse. She has also worked as a residence life professional in various college settings such as Manhattan School of Music, New York University, and Westmont College. Lydia currently serves as Associate for Administration with the Young Adult Volunteer Program of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. She lives in Louisville with her husband, two daughters, and a dog. Lydia’s professional passion is driven by her personal commitment to create a better world for her young daughters – a world in which they will face less racism, sexism, and other types of injustice.
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