Why Hosting Matters to Me: A Los Angeles Citizen Diplomat’s Perspective
Carlos Collard, a volunteer with the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles (IVCLA), shares his experience making global connections at the local level
“Oh, you speak Arabic?!”
That was the interpreted response, along with wide eyes and even wider smiles, I received from two Saudi Arabian leaders when I picked them up from their hotel for dinner on my birthday three years ago. Unfortunately, I did not speak Arabic, but I had learned and practiced greeting them and introducing myself in their native language in anticipation of this evening. It was my first time hosting as a citizen diplomat of the International Visitor Council of Los Angeles (IVCLA), a community-based member of the Global Ties U.S. network, and I didn’t know what to expect.
My lack of Arabic was exposed within seconds when I embarrassingly couldn’t respond, but that’s why they had an interpreter accompanying them during their time in the United States. We all laughed and walked together to a Nepali restaurant close to their hotel so they could try cuisine they had never had before. We talked for at least a couple of hours before the evening ended with the presentation of a Saudi gift to me and an invitation to go camping, cook good food, and meet nomads in the Saudi desert with one participant’s family. This hosting experience was an everlasting birthday present, setting the tone for how I saw my role as a U.S. citizen diplomat. It was the beginning of my understanding of why hosting matters.
As a volunteer and Chair of IVCLA’s Young Professionals Steering Committee, I have hosted and engaged with exchange participants from the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) and Open World Leadership Center from over 50 countries and from almost every continent (I’m still waiting for that Antarctica visitor). I've volunteered with many organizations throughout my life, but this has been one of the best and most rewarding experiences.
It has changed my life through travel opportunities hosted by visitors I’ve met in Los Angeles, exposure to languages, improved understanding of how we are interconnected, and most importantly, lifelong friendships across the globe. Hosting matters because I learn about countries, cultures, and issues directly from the people who are a part of them. It is the best global education. Hosting has inspired me to get apps, bookmark websites, and follow television broadcasts that connect me to international news because I now know people around the world who are affected by events both good and bad. This helps me stay connected to visitors because I can ask them for their opinion or insight into something that I’ve read or watched, which ultimately continues my global education long after hosting them.
“Hosting matters because I learn about countries, cultures, and issues directly from the people who are a part of them.”
For me, hosting is about providing comfort and authenticity. I imagine myself as the visitor. For some, it’s not only their first time visiting America, but also their first time leaving their home country. Some speak little to no English. When I met a tourism industry group from Turkmenistan at an IVCLA board meeting, I stood up to welcome them and introduced myself in their native Turkmen language. Halfway through my memorized phrases, they all began to applaud loudly with sparkling smiles on their faces. When I presented them with UCLA (my alma mater) key chains before they departed, one of them said, “thank you for speaking our language.”
While attending a professional meeting at UCLA with a group of Indonesian entrepreneurs, I learned it was one participant’s birthday and quickly looked up how to say ‘happy birthday’ in Indonesian to her. This opened up more conversation among the group after the meeting, and they invited me to join them for a meal. Sometimes diplomacy happens unexpectedly. They wanted Indonesian food; I suggested a place that I frequented, and their van followed me there. They invited me to visit Indonesia, and a few months later I was there with a full week itinerary arranged by them. I went to church (Indonesia’s population is about 90% Muslim, but I stayed with one Christian family), met family members and ate home cooked meals, traversed Jakarta in crowded mini buses, attended the group’s formal presentation about their trip to America to a large theater audience, visited workplaces, and on a dare, not wanting to be a bad guest, drank cobra’s blood! I am so grateful and in awe of this experience. Clearly, hosting matters to the Indonesians.
“Sometimes diplomacy happens unexpectedly.”
As I traveled more due to IVLP and Open World relationships I formed in Los Angeles, I learned that hosting is a very important cultural practice of many countries. In Kyrgyzstan, I spontaneously met a group of farmers working in a field next to an abandoned gas station of which I was taking photos. Through excellent interpretation by one Open World participant, I talked to them about the ocean (Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country), Hollywood celebrities (they began with questions about Arnold Schwarzenegger), my work, and I praised their important work in feeding their nation. They let me shovel grains of rice as they do, and one of the farmers even invited me to his home to meet his family and eat a feast. During a day visit to Austria, an IVLP participant I hosted for dinner in L.A. went out of her way to catch me at the last minute before I got on the train to go the airport to head home. She felt so bad for not being able to meet me earlier that she jumped on the train with me so we could talk and presented me with a box of Mozart chocolates. Hosting matters because it is a way to welcome people into your life.
These memorable experiences motivate me to be a better host every time. The truth is that hosting can be done in a wide variety of ways: I’ve taken visitors to food trucks, picnics in a park, home cooked meals, and very casual restaurants. It’s not about having an expensive dinner, going to a fancy restaurant, or even having traditional American food. Again, it goes back to authenticity and welcoming people into your life. I often take visitors to dine at small, family-owned ethnic restaurants, one of my main joys in life. I do this so they experience Los Angeles through my heart and soul. I want them to taste and learn about food they don’t have in their country, engage in L.A.’s rich diversity, and meet people from other countries who either have immigrated to America or are descendants of those who have, which is really all of us. We are the most diverse country in the world and that is something to embrace, celebrate, and show to visitors. Hosting matters because it allows me to continue to learn about my country.
“It’s not about having an expensive dinner, going to a fancy restaurant, or even having traditional American food.”
I’ve learned that sometimes the hosting experience is what visitors remember most fondly about their exchange program, and that it can create the ultimate lasting impression of America. I may lose touch with some visitors over time and photos may be forgotten, but the way someone makes you feel lasts forever. Hosting lasts a lifetime.
To learn more about how you can get involved as a citizen diplomat in your community, visit www.globaltiesus.org/get-involved/volunteer. Add your voice to the conversation! Share #WhyHostingMatters to you on social media.