My mom has issues with being referred to as Latina. She was born in Central America and it was my mother’s mother who taught me Spanish but the diaspora is huge and my mom had considered herself Black. Thing is, culturally and ethnically, that means something different in the United States so now she just says “I am what I am.” When we both learned the term “Afro-Latinx” it quite literally changed our lives.
I start this post with that cute little tidbit because as the child of an Afro-Latinx immigrant, I learned to never go to someone else’s house without some kind of gift. Don’t show up empty-handed. Ever. And that lesson has helped me navigate the magic of Airbnb culture.
Because here’s the thing: I have to travel a lot and many of my friends are also poor and I don’t feel right putting them out for a week (sometimes two or more) and asking to stay with them.
Which means it’s time for math: The average hotel stay in Chicago is about $$100/night (I’m using average loosely. That’s the average I’ve been able to find. The average is actually much, much more). And that number doesn’t include the deposit which is anywhere from $50/night or $150 flat. So total, for a 5-day stay, that’s [(100×5) + (50 x5)]. $750!!!! Which I’m told is “cheap.”
On the flip side, there’s Airbnb. I can stay in my own room and have my own private bathroom for $50/night ($50 x 5 = $250 which is $500 less than $750 for anyone keeping track of numbers).
So long as I’m cool with having temporary “roommates” or more honestly being a temporary roommate, it’s a sweet deal. No deposit, no surprise fee at check-in.
But staying a stranger’s house is weird right? How could it not be? We literally read lengthy documents on people (hilariously called profiles) before we hire them, date them, or become friends with them. In the age of information, staying with a relative stranger seems sketch. And I get why people aren’t into it.
Back in November, I had a reading of my play at Jackalope. It was a brand new play and my Chicago “premiere.” Plus, as I’ve mentioned in my first post, one of my best friends lives in Chicago so all around goodness. AND to really put the icing on the cake, Jackalope had promised to pay me a writer’s fee and provide housing. It felt like a literal dream.
Then I was told by the company I would be staying at an Airbnb about two blocks from where the reading was happening. At first, I was pretty anxious about it. I’m a relatively good house guest. I keep to myself and I clean anything I use (I actually treat other people’s homes better than I treated my own #latinx).
But what if this person slept-walked? What if this person was kind of an intrusive ass? What if they come into my room without permission or treated me poorly? What if they’re racist or sexist or the typical mix of both? Then what?
After that first waves of “what ifs” passed, I actually got pretty excited. Truth is, I’m a massive extrovert and half my plays come from talking things over with people. I love meeting new people and getting to the gritty, dirty truths about them. I wanna know what lays beneath the surface, what makes a person tick, what they’re hiding, who they are. (I have had friends tell me “Rach, you can’t ask that” multiple times when meeting new people).
So I was ready for an adventure either way. And thanks to the lessons from my mom, I packed tea + thank you cards. Because, yes, someone was paying but it’s still always nice to bring something kind into someone’s home.
My grandmother used to tell me to be mindful of the energy I carried around. She didn’t put it that way but that’s how my hippie brain heard. And it’s true. I’m someone who has a lot of energy. When I come in hot, I am coming in HOT. When I’m excited, there’s this brightness around me. (We could get into the astrology of it if you want. My houses are full of energy. I am literal energy according to my birth chart.) And with all that energy, you have to be cautious that people don’t mistake your excitement for something to be anxious about.
So I bring tea and I write handwritten thank cards. Tea because it’s a pretty universal warm beverage and even people who say they don’t like tea will appreciate the gesture because someone at some point visiting them will want tea. And the thank you cards–I write two. I write one before I’m even there saying thank you for opening up your home to me. The second one I write while I’m there and leave behind on my pillow as a “this was really great, thanks.”
Kindness goes a long, long way.
Anyway, I got to the Airbnb. I unlocked the door, following the instructions, and walked in to see some pretty amazing art on the walls (off to a great start). And I mean, diverse portrayals of diverse people. On the table, there were brownies with a note welcoming me. It had been a long day of travel so I sat at the kitchen counter for a bit just to gather my thoughts.
And then she walked in.
(Because I want to be conscious of her privacy, I’ll call her Hana.)
Hana was a South Korean woman in her fifties who worked as an account specialist at big some company in the city (I never asked and she seemed to not want to say). She had two ovens in her kitchen. One for cooking and one for smoking. On her smoking oven, she’d smoke in the house with the vent fan on and honest-t0-God her house (and kitchen) didn’t smell like cigarettes at all. I’m not sure what kind of herbs or incense she was using but they worked.
She saw me, said she wasn’t expecting me to be there yet, and asked if I had tried the brownies. I said no. We split a brownie together and I gave her the tea along with the (first) thank you card.
And then we talked.
Like, really talked. We talked about being a migrant (for me the child of one). She talked about South Korea and whether or not she’d ever go back and what there was to even go back to. I talked about my family and the complicated relationships across borders. We smoked on her patio. During the day, before rehearsal, I worked on my play while she worked from home in the living room. We would sit, quietly working, and offer each other tea to break up the silence. She told me about other guests who stayed there. Some who were great and some who weren’t.
The thing she said to me that sticks with me the most is that Airbnb revived her faith in humanity. She had seen a lot of cruelty and was hesitant about opening up her home. But once she did, she said she learned so much more about human kindness and the human capacity to take care of one another.
That. That right there.
That’s why I love Airbnb and I would rather stay in a shared living space than in a hotel where you barely even see the person cleaning your room. Human connection. Isn’t that what we’re all thriving for? At the end of the day, shouldn’t we be connecting with each other instead of ignoring each other?
The next time you stay at an Airbnb, if the host is up for it, sit down and have breakfast with them. Treat them to breakfast if you can. Or maybe just have tea like Hana and I did. Talk to them. Connect. Learn something new. Experience a shared moment of understanding with them.
We’re all people with stories, waiting for someone to listen to them.
(Especially if you’re a writer. Talking to Hana inspired me to work on a new TV show and a new play. Writers, part of the stories we need to tell are still in the heads of strangers.)
Bonus Tip: Hana’s Airbnb was amazing. You have the whole top floor to yourself with your own room and your own bathroom. You really only have to see Hana if you want to (and you should want to). It’s also very close to Whole Foods (two blocks) and just a bunch of restaurants if you’d rather not cook. If you’re staying in Chicago, I totally recommend staying with her. Email me and I can share more.