On Understanding: A Reflection on the Azrou Homestay
I’m not sure what I expected my homestay to be like, but nothing could have prepared me for the first question out of my homestay sister’s mouth: “Have you heard of BTS?”. Shocked, I answered that I had (many of my closest friends are Korean and are obsessed with the incredibly famous K-Pop band) and before I knew it, I was in the kitchen scrubbing pots and pans as Basma played BTS and sang along in Korean. Looking to impress her with my knowledge, I told her that a friend had taught me the dance to Twice’s “Cheer Up,” which we then did together, laughing uncontrollably over dirty dishes the whole time. This was the first moment of understanding.
Over the next few days, I found that living in someone else’s house was incredibly difficult. Balancing not wanting to be an inconvenience with basic needs and an eagerness to learn was difficult enough. Doing that with little ability to communicate seemed nearly impossible. I was constantly opening my notes from our Darija lessons, slowly sounding out sentences before trying them out loud. My family spoke very little English (my host mom knew about as much English as I did Darija and Basma was in her first year of English in school). My family constantly asked me if everything was okay, and got used to slowly and patiently repeating sentences in Darija. My vocabulary seemed to consist of three words at first, as I found myself constantly pointing at things and saying mzian (good), zwin (beautiful), and benin (delicious). Slowly but surely, we both found ways to understand each other, Although it could take five minutes to have a short conversation about weather in LA and Azrou, we went through the grueling process, employing a mixture of English, French, Darija, and charades, many times in the same sentence.
Over time, we got better. I found both my patience and my confidence growing and was constantly grateful for the determination of those around me to communicate. I began to be comfortable following my host mom blindly out of the house with no concept of where we were going (with only a “yallah, Lauren!” as a clue), picking up and using countless new Darija words (with “baraka” being one of the most indispensable after Basma teaching me with a laugh as she saw me struggling to turn down a fifth helping of tagine), and of course, learning as much about Korean culture as I did Moroccan.
I began to also recognize how much I took being understood for granted. In my life at home, I almost never had to think about language barriers or any possibility of not being able to communicate. In Azrou, even something as simple as needing water or saying that it was a hot day took time and energy.
At the same time, however, this struggle made the moments of clarity infinitely more rewarding: cheering with Michelle’s extended host family after finally translating the word “rice,” giggling with Basma and her 13-year-old friends while playing truth or dare, my host mom picking up on the fact that I don’t cook at home when she watched me peel a tomato, discussing the importance of questioning assumptions about religion with Eliza’s host sister Houda, needing no words to communicate how terrible I am at dancing (complete with universal laughter from all who watched), the gratitude I felt towards Michelle’s host mom as she explained Islam in her life with me translating in broken French, and the constantly pointing and translating of words between Darija and English with everyone I met. With comprehension always uncertain, it makes moments of understanding all the more rewarding and meaningful. That more than anything is what I learned from my homestay in Azrou, and the moments that I cherish the most and will always remember are those of mutual understanding.