I knocked off answers to Airbnb questions for new hosts. Yes for laundry machines. No to smoking. Yes, to breakfast—to make my place stand out. That was November 2017.
The first guests were Brits: a thirty-some couple at the end of their road trip from New York City to California. Their large rental van equipped them with a stove, dishware and a small refrigerator for camping.
Over the breakfasts I served and ate with them, we had fascinating conversations. Their previous Americans hosts chatted little with them and they were glad to hear my perspectives on life here. They delighted me with tales of their travels and lives in England. They were with me six nights.
I often asked the young man to repeat himself. His British girlfriend possessed a differing accent, so she ended up translating him when on repetition I still couldn’t understand him. Eventually I asked what part of England he came from. He told me he had a “farmeroy” accent. His girlfriend told me that meant an aggie twang. Later I learned his actual words were, “farm boy” accent.
I made the meal pretty, thinking of the BnBs I’d visited. Margarine in a little custard dish, fluted with roses. Milk in a little pitcher. Plates that went with their teacups or mugs. I’d invited them to make tea in their room with the microwave, mugs and bags I’d provided. Towards the end they told me they never heated up water in a microwave. A kettle was the thing.
It was fun at first, but I wearied. Previously I prepared most morning meals in five to ten minutes and ate them in a similar amount of time, alongside a husband intent on downing his oatmeal fast before cycling off to the train station.
My hospitality endeavors needed to lessen with the following guests if I was to keep hosting. I decided to still serve breakfast but get less involved. My guests were only paying $40 a night—an amazingly deal in the Bay Area—and other work called me: novel writing, household tasks, tutoring appointments, and volunteer work.
In December—a month already busied with the Christmas season, a Korean business man, whom I’ll call Jae-Sun, walked in our doors. He’d asked to check my home a reservation of month or more. He had a harried manner and quickly assessed our space. I assumed he’d continue on with that pace and interact little with us. A few days later moved in.
The first morning I wanted to determine if he was comfortable in his room or had any simple needs. I was happy to chat while he ate the eggs, fruit, and toast I’d prepared. But contrary to what I’d done for the Brits, we ate at our breakfast bar.
The next morning, I intended to keep my distance, ready to go back to my more solitary ways. I sat down at our dining table to enjoy the eggs I’d cooked for both of us while his place setting, like the day previous, was at the breakfast bar behind me, his back towards me. My lap top lay open so I could read.
Still he launched questions to me about my family. My answers were brief to give the idea I couldn’t talk much. For me it was rude to tell him directly that I was busy and couldn’t talk. Yet I was annoyed he didn’t process the signals I sent. My many friendships with Asians informed me that he understood, but ignored my signals.
Later that day I reflected on the breakfast time. Maybe he thought I would never mean for him to eat alone—both a Japanese and an Italian have told that is so in their countries. Maybe curiosity or loneliness drove his attempts to create conversation and connection. But in the days following I learned to say, “I’m sorry I’m busy and can’t talk.”
On the 2nd day with Jae here, he entered the living room where I was doing my exercises – not guest territory. He asked, “Can I call you Mom?”
I was flabbergasted. “No, thank you,” I managed to say. What I knew was this: “I’ve raised my two kids and am helping my daughter now with her grandchildren. I want to pursue my own goals.” I don’t want anyone else to take care of, was the thought I left unsaid.
I consulted with a Korean friend about his strange question of what to call me. She told me, “It means he likes you. At restaurants customers call a waitress mom. If you continue taking good care of him, he’ll host you in Korea and show you a wonderful time.” My friend also told me of what a normal, simple breakfast in Korea looks like: egg, sausage or other meat, a little fruit and vegetable, and rice. “You call that simple?” I said.
Though I aimed to avoid sitting down to eat breakfast with our guest, I found a compromise. I conversed with him while I washed dishes or chopped vegetables, learning bits of his life. He had no car, but an office nearby. His intent was to bring a Korean start-up to California. He attended a Google entrepreneur class, but was saddened at making no friends—talking only with a mentor.
For eleven mornings I prepared a breakfast of varied and nutritious foods typical of Korea. I bought and served Kim Chi (fermented, spicy cabbage). It was fun at first, but, as with the Brits, I grew weary. On mornings twelve and thirteen, I needed to depart before eight. I’d ignore my perfectionist tendencies. I wouldn’t make a big deal of his morning meal, or so I thought
As I pulled out cold items, I wondered, what will he think of a hardboiled egg still in its shell, sandwich meat, bread and leftover green salad? I lectured myself. Stop it. You don’t have to please him completely.” Another morning I left out for him a bowl of yogurt and some leftover angel-hair pasta to which I’d added Asian-style salad dressing. Simple enough and the variety of colors and textures and food groups gave me joy. Then from a tin I took one home-made persimmon cookie and added it, because it was Christmas.
We got used to each other. We exchanged kind good byes, but after he left me the key and closed the door behind him, we’ve had no words. Many other have slept in our bright guest room since then, but I’m at peace as I start my morning, feeling no need to restrain my urge to please nor guess at what a stranger needs to start a day.