Staging the Host Family

In Authenticity, London, The Art of Travel Fall 2014 by Evan Powell5 Comments

“A mere experience may be mystified, but a touristic experience is always mystified and the life contained in the touristic experience, moreover, presents itself as a truthful revelation, as the vehicle that carries the onlooker behind false fronts into reality. The idea here is that a false back is more insidious and dangerous than a false front, or an inauthentic demystification of social life is not merely a lie but a superlie, the kind that drips with sincerity” (599).

I apologize in advance for appearing to contradict my post from last week. I just couldn’t help but think of my HOST family experience while reading MacCannell’s writing. This essay has really helped me articulate some of the strange feelings I experienced on my trip to Lyme Regis last weekend.

For those who did not read my post, NYU London arranges HOST family visits for students who would like to experience British life outside of London. Through an organized program called HOST UK, students are given an opportunity to stay with a British HOST family for a weekend and essentially experience the family’s local life. At the info session held at the beginning of the semester, the representative stressed how our stays will most likely see the likes of local pubs, British home-cooked meals, British television, and Sunday church visits. As evident, the program is designed to transcend the tourist experience in pursuit of authenticity–that which British life truly consists of.

While I am so grateful to my HOST couple in Lyme Regis, Sally-Jane and Richard, I couldn’t help but feel as if something was awry during my visit. From the get-go in interacting with Sally-Jane prior to my stay, I could tell Sally was very eager to welcome me into her family and home. This certainly made me feel more comfortable as she offered such generous hospitality. However, upon arriving, I realized the extent to which we were putting on an act. While we did ask each other questions in attempt to know each other better, to some degree, we acted as though we were already family. Not once did we mention the program itself that arranged such a systematic visit.

As the weekend went on, I felt more and more strange as I saw how Sally-Jane designed the weekend schedule in such detail. Everything was planned to a tee. Friday night, I was to go with Richard to pick up fish-and-chips from the local “chippy”. While we waited for the food, we were to go to the pub across the street and enjoy a pint of cider. The following day, I was encouraged to wake up early and go with Richard to pick up the locally grown eggs from the farm shop. Saturday night we would devour a home-cooked meal made of famous British steak-pie and Eaton pudding. Sunday, I would play pool with Richard and his friend who came to visit. And while Sally-Jane prepared one final feast, I would be one of the “lads” down at the pub with Richard and his mate.

While I do feel as if I somewhat experienced this “back door” notion, I couldn’t help but recognize how such authenticity was staged. While I was certainly a tourist in Lyme Regis experiencing its many fronts, Sally-Jane wanted to me to experience their British lives as part of their family, but in doing so, presented me with a false back. Though her plans “drip[ped] with sincerity,” I could not escape the feelings of inauthenticity and artificiality. While it was easy for me to get over the staged British meals and outings, it was difficult for me to avoid the strange feelings in attempting to embrace the idea of the HOST family.

As you might tell from the weekend schedule, much of the planning was geared towards me spending time with Richard while Sally-Jane embraced her role as wife. I think this is due to a few reasons. Sally-Jane and Richard met online 9 years ago, and because they were older (Sally-Jane having been married previously), they never had any children. Because of this, Sally-Jane likes to host students, seeing as it rounds out their family dynamic. While I believe Richard enjoys the experience, I think it is Sally-Jane who wants to give him the experience more than it is Richard who pursues it. It was this intentional pursuit on Sally-Jane’s part that left me feeling odd at times. I could recognize what was occurring, and so, I attempted to fulfill a role that felt inauthentic to me. I felt as if I had to play a part, and though it stemmed from the best of intentions, it created a false reality.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend with Sally-Jane and Richard, I think the actual problems occur once the false back disappears—once our relationship no longer exists in such a constructed reality. After I left, Sally sent me an email inviting me back at some point again in the semester, and even offered to lend me the house in the near future should I want to bring my family to Lyme Regis. Through her language and diction, I could sense Sally’s loneliness. While Richard still works a full time job in a nearby town, Sally has the home all to herself, and I can tell it gets to her. She longs to cook the meals that she told me she only gets to cook when she hosts students. She even admitted to me that she wishes she could cook such meals regularly, but that it doesn’t make any sense given that it’s just the two of them. Their daily lives are not as eventful as she made them out to be that weekend. In recognizing this, I can’t help but feel sympathy for Sally-Jane. I am somewhat glad I helped fill that void she feels, but it was only temporary, and perhaps it only perpetuated the cycle. With the HOST program completed, our relationship is now that which we choose to pursue. Now that I’ve taken a step back and am no longer obliged to participate in the HOST program, I will attempt to pursue a more authentic relationship—founded in honest communication, as opposed to staged discourse.

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  1. Hi Evan,

    I think you came to some profound conclusions and presented them in a very understandable way for a reader who didn’t know Sally-Jane or anything about the HOST program. I can definitely see a certain ‘offness’ in the set-up of the visit. Having such a tight schedule just isn’t a natural attribute of typical home life. Just having an outsider in a home already removes any possible REAL authenticity, so how are we to understand an event like that? I think your conclusions about Sally-Jane show great empathy and insight into the lives of others. And, hopefully, through communication with her after the program, you can truly see her as an English woman and identify some authenticity. This was possibly the most interesting post I have read so far, so thanks Evan!

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words, Tyler. I do agree that it is perhaps impossible to experience real authenticity with an outsider in the home… Maybe we should then refocus onto the authentic interaction as strangers instead of trying to present a normative experience?

  2. Hey Evan, I really liked how you framed your post around the host family. It’s something I never would’ve thought to be unauthentic. Everyone always says, if you want a true experience abroad – stay with a host family. But thinking about, a lot about the whole concept of host families is very contrived and staged. It’s a process, and genuine interactions shouldn’t be a process… right? It should just be. But at the same time, I feel like the host family can offer a lot of insight to the authenticity of life in whatever city they host in.

    You were very lucky to stay with a host family! I always wanted to, but didn’t get the chance to sign up (more like, I totally didn’t know it was a thing here)

    Anyway, interesting read!

  3. Hi Evan!

    You have some deep insights here. It makes me think about what the obligations of a host family are – should they be totally authentic by not changing their routine at all while you’re there, or should they alter things so that you get a better idea of the defining features of life all squashed together in one weekend? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m curious to see how my own HOST experience will differ from yours.

    1. Author

      Definitely keep us updated on how your HOST experience goes! I do think you raise a valid point; Had Sally-Jane not altered her weekend routine for me, I would have perhaps missed out on many fascinating moments…

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