Living abroad, while it has meant that we are separated by sheer distance and time zones from family and friends, it has offered us quality catch up opportunities whenever we visit one another. Living in a hub like Dubai — which acts like a hop off point for travellers all over the world, has made me more connected to friends that I would have otherwise not have had contact with. We thought we were signing up for a life that was less hectic and less social than the one we left behind in Singapore, but somehow our days are now filled with as much, if not more social engagements and hosting duties. I am not complaining, but I would be lying if I said I don’t feel overwhelmed on some days. In my time here, reconnecting with close friends and family has often meant hosting them at our home and organizing and planning joint travel itineraries. And it also has meant back to back intense catch up sessions that are squeezed into the 1–2 week period that I am back “home” in Singapore.
As a host, I end up feeling responsible for them having taken the time, money and effort to travel across the world to see us and want them to have the best possible time. And as a short term guest, I feel somewhat displaced as I insert myself intermittently into the lives of family and friends who make space for me in the midst of their busy routines and schedules. It is that perpetual feeling of disjointed-ness and managing my expectations about what these hyped up catch sessions would look like, in the midst of trying to figure out what my rhythm in life looks like in addition to drifting in and out of host&guest duties.
So the big question(s) that I’ve been constantly thinking about of late is: How can I be a good host without compromising my own personal time and priorities. What does being a good host mean? And what are my priorities?!
In the beginning, when the novelty of the move was still fresh, I was over zealous to host anyone and everyone passing through. I was also hungry for friendships, connections and perhaps a way to prove to myself that we were indeed settled into this new life. “You should come visit!” “Of course you should stay with us!” “Let’s have dinner at home instead, I’ll prepare something for everyone.” I find myself saying these words before pausing to really grasp the commitment I am making with these invites. I definitely do not regret them, as they gave me something to look forward to. They gave me time to sustain old relationships while building new ones. Relationships have and always will be the focal point of our lives (wherever in the world we may be) and hosting is our expression of that.
It is an extension of who we are as a couple. We like making new friends, expanding our networks to people who potentially add value to our lives with their stories and life experiences and being a node for connections. I know that is just us as people and it has shaped our choices in many ways. So when we feel overwhelmed and tired about not having enough couple and personal time, we also secretly know that we both willingly do this to ourselves and love it despite it’s challenges. Back in Singapore, when we decided to open our spare room to couchsurfers, I remember facing perplexed questions from friends. How do you trust strangers into your home? You do this for free? WHY? And our responses were always, because we had been extended that same hospitality in countries we visited and we wanted to give back. We finally had a place we called our own and we wanted it to be a home that included people from all walks of life; to house stories of travel, adventure and dreams from strangers who could become friends. Yes, we had decide on which requests we accept and how often we offer to do this and both of us are not always on the same page. He usually has more energy for the influx of people, while I would be the one who is more ready to say No. But, with more Yes-es and more positive experiences, I found myself changing to become more open hearted towards disrupted routine and taking risks.
We met a Russian mother and her 8 year old daughter who was home schooled. She was a documentary producer and lived in Indonesia for the past few months before making her way into Singapore and into our humble home in Pandan. We had meals together and I remember being blown away with how we could have conversations about Balinese dance with her 8 year old daughter who was showing me the hand gestures she had learnt. Many of the couples we hosted were from Europe who spoke of wanting to find themselves in Asia and hence took a risk and left their stable jobs for a gap year. I am cognisant that the welfare safety net in Europe and the strength of their currency are factors that support such decisions. The opportunity cost of us doing the same thing is just not the same. So yes we cannot compare our lives, and neither do we want their lives (as tempting as it might sound). But we welcome these conversations because we want to know that these alternate lifestyles are possible and we also want them to see the side of Singapore that doesn’t exist in travel diaries and trip advisor ratings.
So the ‘why we host’ part seems pretty clear to me. We want to vicariously live through stories of travellers, sustain and grow friendships and essentially exchange a moment in time that brings joy, warmth and love. It leaves a blueprint in our homes and hearts wherever we go. So onto the question of what makes a good host? There is a sanskrit verse “Atithi Devo Bhava”, that literally translates to “treat your guest as you would treat God”. This might explain the exhausting Indian hospitality that you might have experienced when stepping into a household where they obsessively feed you, attend to you and don’t let you leave their home despite it being way past everyone’s bedtime. I have grown up with this and to tell you the truth, I am not a fan of this version of hospitality. I have always thought — let them eat what they want, serve themselves and go home when they are tired! Never articulated it out loud of course, because God forbid…that’s rude!:) Nobody wants a partypooper right.
When you hold yourself to such standards of hosting, imagine the effort that goes into doing so. There is effort that goes into hosting — planning the meals, drawing up a guest list, inviting them and coordinating the messages that follow, buying the groceries, cooking, cleaning the home and then cleaning up after they leave. Not to mention the unseen energy that goes into socializing and ensuring that everyone has a good time. You need to be switched on, game face the entire time. Trust me, your guests can read you well enough to know when you are faking a smile. If you are not genuinely having a good time, guess who else will not be genuinely having a good time? Your guests. We humans (at least most of us) are trained to look out for subtle cues of connection and disconnection and the unspoken is often heard much louder than the spoken niceties. And so, I could have the best spread of food prepared and the cleanest home, but if I am too stressed and tired to be fully present, then that’s the energy that the guests are going feel and leave with.
To me now, being a good host simply means being emotionally and mentally connected and present. I need to be enjoying myself as much as I am invested in ensuring others have a good time. Hosting in itself is an act of selflessness, so to be able to CHOOSE to do it, I have to think selfishly and watch out for my own energy barometer. I no longer offer to cook if I don’t feel like it or invite people over if I don’t feel like cleaning the home. I now relent when guests insist on washing their own dishes. Or when they offer to clean up. I figured, it doesn’t mean that I am a bad host, in fact I am helping the guest feel involved and less bad about imposing. It reduces the power imbalance between the guest — host relationship and sets the tone for the kind of household atmosphere I wish to create.
Being a good host also means being able to identify what my priorities are. I find myself questioning if conversations with certain friendships will enhance my life goals. If I know that developing my artistic interests and promoting my newly set up platforms — ‘Nodes to Note’ and ‘Moving Mudras’ are my priorities, then I would plan my life around that. This is especially important given that these are not structured jobs with protected time for it. It doesn’t pay me (yet) and it can be hard to explain why you are busy to people who may not understand these self imposed commitments that do not come with a job description. You do not have to explain your priorities, but you do owe it to yourself to have clarity on what they are before blaming everyone else for taking your time away from you. No one has the power to do that unless you give them the power to dictate that for you. I am learning this and am not perfect at making the best decisions, but am getting better at setting clearer boundaries.
Atithi Devo Bhava.
Having said this much, I wonder what would God think if I asked him/her to take the trash out or to wash the dishes? Or if I told God that I need to reschedule our invite as something more important came up. Maybe the new- age God wouldn’t mind and would be pleased that I am getting my shit together. We will probably have a better time because I will be fully present and the best version of myself with him/her when we do meet.
So go ahead and be my guest will you?