Being a Host Sister
High school exchange student from Spain with her American host sister hugging at the lake

Before, during, and after

Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning. Waving goodbye, with an absent-minded smile. The oh-so-familiar ABBA song rang through the event hall at Macatawa Legends. We were throwing the dreaded goodbye party for my exchange student, Marta.

Along with the song, a slideshow played of little moments we captured in pictures and videos. It started with Marta walking into the West Ottawa High School South Building for her first day of school. The video ended with Marta surrounded by an assortment of the friends she made in America.

When I think about how kind America was to Marta, I smile. That was Marta’s experience as an exchange student at WOHS, but that’s not really the goal of this article.

Being a host sister was both the best thing that has ever happened to me and the most heartbreaking.

Starting at the beginning: the selection. I always tell people that I put together a high-stakes game show when I picked Marta. My mom printed 12 exchange student applications. These applications had the obvious information such as if they were okay with living in a household that smokes and if they go to church on Sunday. But under that basic information, the possible exchange students got to write a little bit about themselves. This not only showcased their prowess speaking a second language, but it also showcased facets of their personalities.

A lot of the exchange students said that they love athletics and little more. I like sports, and I was open to having an exchange student who played them, but I felt like something was missing.

I did one round of elimination, and I ended up with two remaining candidates. I liked one girl from Estonia. I also liked this other girl. She played guitar, enjoyed musical theater, and liked to go on adventures. Suddenly, I knew what was missing in the other applications. This girl was best friend material.

I didn’t even need to make my choice. It was so clear to me. We told the coordinator that night who we picked. She was just a name to us at that point. “Marta.” Her name rang like a promise. A promise of adventure and sisterhood.

After weeks of scouring Instagram for pictures of my Marta from Spain (there are so many Martas from Spain on Instagram), we finally received an email from our coordinator with a picture of Marta. She was more than just a name now, she was a real person. 

Then, we got a message from Marta by email. It was concise. Marta introduced herself, said she was excited to come to America, and that was that for now. That was all we really needed. I found her on Instagram and stalked her account for an embarrassingly long time.

We spent hours on that first Zoom. Marta kept saying how she needed to eat dinner. We would say our goodbyes, and then one of us would come up with something else we needed to say.

Marta and I set up our first Zoom video chat shortly after we started messaging. I was scared but excited. I was scared that she would be hard to communicate with. I knew that we had things alike, but I was worried that we wouldn’t click.

My family gathered around my mom’s laptop in anticipation. Finally, the laptop connected, and I met Marta. It was incredible to me that she was real. She wasn’t just pictures anymore. Marta is a real person. A real person that I was talking to. A real person that is staying in my home for a year. We spent hours on that Zoom. Marta kept saying how she needed to eat dinner. We would say our goodbyes, and then one of us would come up with something else we needed to say.

When I saw Marta for the first time, I lagged for a solid three seconds. I watched her walk and wondered if that was really her. After my brain caught up to the situation, I ran to Marta and gave her a hug. I am not a hugging person, especially not back then, but I can still feel that hug.

Marta and my family went on vacation for the week before sophomore year started. We went on a road trip to North Carolina, which was in my opinion the best way to induct Marta into the family. We started in a house in the Smoky Mountains for the first half of the week and then traveled to Bald Head Island.

Immediately when we got home from vacation, we had to go to school. Lucky for us, Marta and I had the same first-hour English. We also had second-hour physics. This was so much fun for me.

Marta and I sat next to each other in both classes, and she made coming to school a little easier. Marta is truly somebody who makes me want to show up to things. This has been true from the start.

School went by quicker than I could have predicted. I feel like I blinked and it was spring. And soon, the spring morphed into the summer. The time was near. The week before Marta had to leave, her family came to America. Meeting Marta’s other family was a surreal experience. It was weird to process the fact that she has two lives. She has her American life and her Spanish one. I only have a life in America.

Her family was kind. To meet Marta’s family and to see them all interact was very exciting. I wish I could say that it made me feel anything other than excited, but I was full of such a strange cocktail of feelings I genuinely can’t begin to describe.

Saying goodbye to Marta happened quickly. Her family rented a car, so they took her to the airport. This means that I had to say goodbye at 9 a.m. I still regret how I said goodbye to her, but I am not a morning person.

To meet Marta’s family and to see them all interact was very exciting. I wish I could say that it made me feel anything other than excited, but I was full of such a strange cocktail of feelings I genuinely can’t begin to describe.

When Marta was gone, I felt myself slowly getting worse at responding to her messages. Nobody ever talks about how, at times, being a long-distance friend is tough. Maybe, it is just me, but I just couldn’t maintain a long- distance friendship.

This filled me with so much guilt. Marta’s friends would talk about something she was doing. They would ask me about it, and I wouldn’t be able to tell them anything. I felt like a bad person for not having the energy to text her every single day. I texted her at least once a week, and in hindsight, that was the best thing for both of us. It let us grow on our own, and in turn made her coming back this past summer sweeter.

Marta came back to America in August. I had a funny feeling in my stomach while I was waiting for her to get through customs. I had this anxiety surrounding the fact that nothing would be the same. I had grown so much in the year she missed, and I know she did too.

I waited for around three hours. Nobody warned me of how boring and confusing O’Hare Airport can be. It was worth it. We turned strangers’ heads when we saw each other again. I felt like a dog whose owner came home from a long vacation.

All my fears were thwarted. Marta and I picked up right where we left off. If anything, this month was better. While Marta was gone, I got much closer to her friends. This made it so much easier to hang out with Marta.

Marta and I went on adventures surrounding musical fountains, fireworks, yearbooks, my boyfriend, best friends, ice cream, New Girl, and Taylor Swift. We stayed up until four in the morning.

There is no one else I would want to stay up until four in the morning doing nothing with. Marta is the Nick to my Schmidt (for those who haven’t watched New Girl, Nick and Schmidt are basically the blueprint of best friends). Hosting Marta has changed my life for the better, and the heartbreak of adiós is always worth it for the promise of hola.

—Karalynn Davis (MI), host sister of Marta (Spain 2021/22)