As a 21-year-old, I moved to the UK to further my university education. To say that I had a culture shock was an understatement. On my first visit to a charity shop that sold secondhand items, the store assistant came up to me.
“Hey up, mi duck,” she said.
I looked around me.
“Where’s the duck?” I muttered to myself.
She laughed until she was red in the face.
“Oh, duck is a term of endearment, mi dear!” she explained.
That was the funny part of being a foreigner in a new land. But there were parts that weren’t that fun. Like walking into my room every night, closing the door, and realising that for the next three years, this was my reality — just me and my books.
There would be no family member with whom I could go out with. No random jokes from my mother. No dad peering into my room with a comment on its state of tidiness.
I confess. Sometimes, things got so lonely that I would cry alone in my room.
Weekends were the worst. When I was still in Singapore, if I had no plans, I could at least spend time with my parents. I could talk to them during dinner.
But abroad, there were few of these spontaneous opportunities to connect with people I knew… because I knew no one. I spent weekends at the library reading books. But if I was honest with myself, there wasn’t much I needed to study. I was only pretending as if I had something to do.
How I discovered hosting
Then, I chanced upon a hosting programme organised by a charity for international students. It connected us with a local host. The first time we met, I felt at home again.
For one, there was better food beyond the unappetising one-pot wonder that I usually made (“wonder” because I was always puzzled how I could stomach it). The hosts were genuinely interested in my life. They didn’t care about the value of the gift I brought. They didn’t care that it was a cheap £1 chocolate from a supermarket. They were more interested in who I was as a person.
Whenever I look back at my time in England, this is what I remember. Not the studies, but the relationships we shared over meals. The Christmases that I didn’t have to spend alone, picking at some horrible thing I cooked. The conversations with no hidden agendas, where all we wanted to do was to know each other better.
Inviting someone to your home today sounds scary.
The myth of hosting
You might think: there’s so much to prepare! I have to tidy my house, clean the toilets, come up with a menu… it’s just too much effort to be kind to someone!
And in today’s Covid world, it is understandable that with the recent spike in community cases, many of us have fears of inviting people into our homes. To make things more difficult, as of 27 Sep, each household can only receive up to two visitors a day due to further tightening of measures.
But whenever I remember how my parents hosted others, they would remind me that the most important thing isn’t about having the perfect-looking house.
It’s about being real. We have a dog. Sometimes, accidents happen. Like a sudden puddle of pee in the middle of the kitchen, while guests are visiting. What do my parents do? They don’t try to hide the mess. They say, “Oops, sorry for the mess.”, and simply clean it up. They teach me to be real.
Inviting someone to your home is very personal. After all, you’re inviting someone into a place where you are free to be your raw, unfiltered self.
Over the years, you may have learnt how to show kindness, donate to worthy causes, and to give to others who need help. Learning to receive is something different. We may not be too familiar with receiving. After all, when someone praises you, what do you do? Do you receive it with thanks, or downplay your achievements?
Receiving someone at your home is a lesson in accepting others as they are. Not as you are. Some guests might come with strange eating habits, or they may make a mess on the dining table.
But these guests have taught me about unconditional acceptance, in loving people not despite their flaws, but because of their flaws.
It’s also about accepting yourself as you are. You may not have the perfect showroom home furnishings everyone drools over, or Masterchef-level cooking your guests praise. I once served frozen pizza to my guests. All I needed to do was to put it in the oven for 12 minutes and I still managed to burn it.
It’s recognising that it’s okay not to be perfect. But despite your inadequacies, you made an effort to reach out and to connect.
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How to host?
When you feel more confident as Covid cases fall, start small. Invite a friend over to tea.
No need for a fancy meal. Put the kettle on, pop in a teabag, and you’re done.
In Covid times, when eating out is a challenge, spending quality time at friends’ homes (while keeping to the rules!) can build relationships in a deeper way.
If you are unable to host, reach out in other ways that you’re more comfortable with.
When I was young, my parents hosted a weekly church group. Watching them, I learned some lessons.
Firstly, commitment. Whether they had a good day at work or bad, they would still open up our home for people to visit.
Maybe, it’s about committing to inviting someone to your home, once a month.
There is no other gesture that replaces the warmth of saying “I welcome you to my home.”
Secondly, recognising that we can’t do everything.
They would always laugh at the meagre spread they put out. “Sorry ah, we only have water,” they would apologise. But then they would take the chance to invite others to get involved in the hosting experience, for example, asking everyone to bring a dish for a potluck!
It made others feel less shy about coming to our home, and helped them to feel part of a community.
Maybe, rather than insisting on setting up a meal yourself, invite your guest to contribute too. This way, there’s less pressure on you.
Lastly, it was about how we said goodbye. When our guests left, my dad would always stand at the entrance, waiting until they got into the lift before closing the door, smiling throughout.
I asked him once why he always did that.
“It’s not to be rude. Can you imagine how it feels if someone looks back, and they see your door closed immediately after they left? It says that you couldn’t wait for them to leave,” he replied.
Maybe, it’s about keeping your heart open, even after saying goodbye.
It’s about the small things
Hosting does seem like a big thing. Inviting someone into your home seems like a huge step. But that’s a step no one else can take but yourself. Open the door of your heart before opening the door of your homes.
Making people feel welcome doesn’t require expensive things or immersive activities. It’s a loving attitude that attracts.
The last day I was in the UK, my host stood at the door, looking at me. There was an awkward silence. I didn’t know how to respond. I was leaving one home to go back to the other.
“Oh come now, John. I never like goodbyes,” she said, giving me a hug.
As I pulled away, I saw tears in her eyes.
“I’ll see you again, John.”
I walked down the driveway, with memories of the times we’d spent together. It was bittersweet.
Yes, it was a parting. But memories remain in our hearts. There are no real goodbyes in hosting. Only temporary farewells, and promises and opportunities to meet again.
Because as you invite and receive others into your home, you grow the space in your heart to love people, and to love yourself. To see others as they are, and to be seen as you are.