A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the bus with my host mom, going on our usual Sunday trip to Atuntaqui to buy groceries. I was letting her know that I would be gone for the week, visiting some of my friends in the south of Ecuador.

As we descended from the bus, I looked down to see that a hand had reached for mine. I paused. My host mom inched closer to me as we navigated our way through the crowded street. What was she doing? I didn’t think me leaving for a week would change anything, so when her grip tightened around my hand, it was strange…as if she was trying to tell me, don’t leave.

I was a little shocked and confused. I hadn’t really felt that I made a significant impact with my host mom. Yet part of me felt like I was already leaving them. Naturally I thought back to our time together.

I thought back to the nights when my host mom and I would stay at the dinner table after everyone finished eating, conversing and telling each other stories about our high school adventures. I thought back to the afternoon walks when my host mom shared how she met my host father in a discoteca, how he used to be a DJ, and how they eventually dated and married after college. I thought back to that one soccer game when I shared my aspirations to continue global service and she shared her ambitions for her two kids. As we continued walking up the busy street, memories of our time together continued to flood in. Maybe I have been making the effort to spend time. Maybe my host mom will miss me.  

I have to be honest though, I never really thought much of family time before coming here. Back in the states, family time wasn’t so picture-perfect. We didn’t spend weekends together like other families did, we rarely ate meals together, and we never really talked about our school days. Growing up I was instilled with diligence and a strong work ethic to accomplish something my parents never had the opportunity to do.

And perhaps part of the reason I’ve been struggling to connect with my host family these past few weeks is because of that. Because I grew up on different cultural values. Because ‘family time’ for me was often eating dinner with the TV on.

As I begin to acknowledge these circumstances, I’m realizing that there’s not one mold for how family immersion should be done. Yes, being on a gap year should mean we are constantly testing the boundaries of open-mindedness and pushing ourselves from the norm. But we all come from different backgrounds and family structures and this added pressure of ‘you need to connect with your host family’ and ‘you need to spend time with them’ is detrimental to the relationship I ultimately choose to develop and nurture. That’s what makes our experiences unique.

Regardless of how much intention I’ve put behind spending time with my host family, I still have trouble connecting and starting conversation sometimes. And that’s OK, remembering that this year is full of challenges and setbacks that will constantly be stretching me out of my comfort zone.

With only 58 days left, I remember to be grateful for the people and experiences I’ve been able to come across and to continue pushing myself out of my comfort zone to take advantage of opportunities before it’s too late.