Anna is our seventh exchange student. Yes, you read that correctly. Our seventh, but she is our first from Japan. It takes an adventurous person to leave everything behind for an entire school year to travel to the other side of the Earth to live with complete strangers in an entirely foreign culture. It also takes an adventurous spirit to parent them. While there have been a few bumps in the road as we have hosted over the years, the rewards of the experience far outweigh the challenges.
Our first exchange student was Zuzana from Slovakia. A slip of a girl, she was only 15 years old when she arrived just before school started in August. We were so excited for her to stay with us that we had her room ready weeks in advance and made a large sign with her name so she could spot us as she got off the airplane half a world away from her family, friends, and country.
Looking back, poor Zuzana was our guinea pig. We made many mistakes as host parents. For example, we talked too fast as we drove home from the airport and she couldn’t keep up with her jetlagged brain. We stopped at a fast food restaurant to eat that first day and asked her what she wanted. She was completely overwhelmed by the menu so she asked us to order for her. Once we got home, she was totally exhausted and slept for hours.
With each student, we have learned many lessons such as speaking slower when they first arrive, not louder. We have learned to bring them straight home from the airport and let them settle in before peppering them with questions and taking them out to tackle a menu as foreign to them as Greek is to us. We have had to learn to be very specific about expectations and house rules. We have learned more patience, tolerance, and love.
Our family has also learned about Buddhism, Islam, and atheism. We have learned about a wide variety of cultures and languages from Turkish and German to Japanese and Thai. We have learned about politics, international relations, and what the world really thinks of Americans. Our family has been given a completely new and unique perspective on the world and it has taught us that no matter where someone is from, the human condition remains the same. All people have the same wants, needs, and desires.
While we have learned about our commonalities, we have also learned that each culture has something different and spectacular to offer. Fun-loving and hard-working Yigit introduced us to the Turkish culture and language. His family flew ours to Turkey to share the beauty and history of their nation. A life-changing trip, I will never forget the places we saw, the incredibly kind and welcoming people we met, and the most delicious food I have ever tasted. This also gave us a conservative political perspective of the vibrant nation known as “Little America” in the Mediterranean.
Cem, also from Turkey, gave us the liberal perspective of his nation. Idealistic and intelligent, he came from a family much different than Yigit’s, but just as interesting and wonderful. He lived with his father as his parents were divorced so he wasn’t used to having a mom. We clashed a bit from time to time as a result, but when he left, he knew he had an American family as real and loving as his natural one in Istanbul. As he was preparing to return home he told me, “I feel so strange. I have one life in Turkey, but I have a life here, too. I feel like I am having to choose between them, but I want them both.”
Our German student, Maike, lived with friends before coming to stay with us. A gregarious and outgoing girl, she taught us about Germany and how very real and painful the scars still are from World War II for her countrymen. We learned about her hometown of Kiel and the water found there.
The next student was our sweet Thai daughter, Now. Her Thai name was too difficult for most Americans to pronounce so she used the nickname to make it easier. She was painfully shy and quiet. Having started out with a family in California, she came to us at the start of the New Year when things didn’t work out there. She was amazing once she started to open up to us and I loved nothing more than to see her smile and laugh out loud when we would go shopping or sightseeing.
Some of the most rewarding things about hosting exchange students has been that our children have been exposed to many different nationalities, religions, and languages. They have come to understand that people are the same everywhere. Our geography and understanding of world politics has vastly improved because we can put a real human face to things that happen across oceans, miles of land, and political borders.
We have been lucky enough to share American culture with our students and change their perspective on things as well. They have learned that all Americans are not obese, despite what they have been taught by stereotypes, and that we are industrious, scholarly people. Every one of our students has told us that American people are very welcoming and willing to help which is not always the case in their home countries. This has also taught me something special about my own nation and the very giving people with whom I share it.
There have been difficulties at times in hosting. We did have one bad experience, which isn’t terrible considering how many students we have hosted. Looking back at it, it was a learning experience from which we grew as parents and people. Helping a child adjust to an entirely different language and culture can be hard. There have been many hours helping with homework because academic English is so different from conversational English. Finally, the toughest part, is always saying goodbye. The tears flood my eyes each time I have to send one home on the airplane.
The best thing about being a host family has been discovering our children from around the globe and loving them for the individuals they are. With each child we host, our family grows, making space for our new sons and daughters around the globe who will always hold a special place in our hearts. Our children have brothers and sisters of their own from a variety of nations that speak a plethora of languages. The goal is to one day make a pilgrimage to visit each of them. We want to see their nations, partake of their cultures, and celebrate the blessings of having shared this incredible journey together.
Anna is here now and we are so happy that she is with us. Our daughter has gotten the “big sister” she wanted and we are getting to learn about Japanese culture. A bright young woman who is always working hard to please us, she wanted to see the Grand Canyon and Disneyland while she is here. We have marked the Grand Canyon off her list and she plans to visit Disneyland in the spring with her student council class. What a wonderful joy Anna is to have.
If you are interested in learning more about hosting a foreign exchange student, visit My American Year online.