“Wow, you’re so nice to do that! I wouldn’t want a stranger in my house.”
“How can you manage it? I don’t have time.”
These are some of the conversations I’ve been a part of throughout this year, ever since I agreed to take an international student from China.
I joined the host family program in October of 2011 in much the same way that I returned to teaching five years ago, bought my first house 20 years ago, or even decided to become a mom nineteen years ago. There was a short spell of trying to think through the consequences, a recognition that I couldn’t really and a leap of hope and maybe even faith that it was worth a try.
And it has been. Our year went much the same as many others. It had ups and it had downs and in the end, it was worth it. At first, we had the honeymoon phase where our student was ecstatic with everything about us and vice-versa. Then life settled down to normal and we started having a few adjustment difficulties. Where do dishes go when you’ve finished eating? Am I the only person who takes out the garbage? You have to be where? When? And you’re telling me now? A year is a long time to have a guest in the house. We had to figure out better systems.
The international students at our school are high school students. They’re teen-agers. They have a lot to learn from us as well as a lot to teach us. They’ve traveled literally halfway around the globe to join our community. And they knew less about what they were in for than I did! They come from large cities, large schools, large classes and single child families, by and large. Many lived in dormitories in their high schools and went to classes and studied throughout the entire day. Test scores have determined their choices for their entire lives. Their options for different types of education or spots at good universities are limited in a way we, living in the land of freedom to choose, can barely imagine. The class size here is less than a third of theirs. Homework in China is a lot of practice and memorizing. Homework here is an enormous amount of critical and creative thinking, analytical essays, projects that span demand originality of thinking and applying of learning, thinking outside the box.
After four months of life with us, I heard my Chinese student ask my daughter, “What is sink?” when I asked her to take something to the sink. I realized that she was somehow managing in an entirely English speaking world in which she was still only catching a fraction of what was said at full speed. (Actually, since I’m from New Jersey and tend to talk very fast, the full speed in our home is closer to the speed of light - - which increases my admiration for her managing abilities!)
We saw Chinglish together – a Broadway show about an American businessman who mangles Mandarin and cultural norms while trying to put together business deals in China – and it was great to see the American being the one on shaky ground. We laughed heartily when the projected words above the stage showed us that instead of saying, “You should hire our firm because we’re worth the money,” the businessman ended up saying, “We’ll explain how we’ll spend your money recklessly.” Yes, it was funny. But also, on reflection, I realized there must have been so many of those moments in our home, yet without supertitles to fill us in, none of us knew that we might be offending or misinterpreting each other.
We saw Jesus Christ Superstar together, which is one of our family favorites, but what might have been more memorable to our student was the chance to speak Mandarin to the waitress at the Chinese restaurant where we dined before the show.
Some evenings were game nights, with our Chinese student bravely playing Bananagrams with the most competitive English speakers around. Or cards. Or Boggle. Or watching movies, which everyone agreed are better with the English subtitles turned on. But most nights were homework nights, everyone working independently in whatever space was most productive for her. There were tearful nights, when the student received bad news from home, or reeled from various types of rejection and snubbing at which some high school girls excel. And nights when we ate delicious and new foods our student prepared for us: homemade dumplings, lotus root, cooked cucumbers (!), and a sweet kind of Chinese cabbage with noodles. We laughed to discover that “wok” and “dim sum” were just as foreign when spoken by us as were our miniscule and occasional attempts to pronounce names and phrases in Mandarin. We waved and smiled and said the same thing over and over to her parents over Skype, because we know no Mandarin and they speak no English. And we expanded our idea of who we were as a family.
What inspired me to invite this student back to live with us again next year? For one thing, we can. We have so much, we don’t even realize most of what we have. Yet, when we’re faced with those who don’t have it, we remember and can feel extremely honored to be able to share it. It’s not that these students come from underprivileged homes. Far from it! I may make less money per year than their housekeepers for all I know. But they don’t have the opportunities we have – like an education that values creativity and analysis, or opportunities to spend time with people from other countries, or goofing around with siblings - and those turn out to be shareable!
Also, I grew up with exchange students and visitors from other countries. I want to give that to my family. How else will they know about the many perspectives and cultures that make up their future world?
And finally (please excuse my existential sappiness!) because it’s true that
Love isn't love till you give it away
Love isn't love till it's free
The love in your heart
Wasn't put there to stay
Oh love isn't love till you give it away
Our school has accepted eight additional international students from China. They will join the current eight Chinese students. They will arrive at the end of August and stay until a day after graduation in June. They don’t yet have host families. I have taken a job with a company called Green Planet Homestay to try to get homes for them.
I am appealing to families and readers in this area, asking for you to help spread the word about the chance to be a host family. Would you take a few minutes and use your connections to friends and organizations to help me find families who are interested in enriching their lives and making an enormous difference in someone else’s life? I know many people will love the experience. I just need your help to let them know about it.
It may help you to know that host families receive generous monthly compensation, that these students arrive with spending money and health insurance plans, that they have studied primarily written English since they were young, and that they are aware that getting a great education, including becoming fully fluent in English, is the most important focus of their time here. That they are loyal to their home country in a way that used to be more common in America, but for us post-Watergate children is surprising. That they are hard-working, focused students who don’t take this opportunity to improve their futures for granted.
No one’s going to lie and say this is so easy you can do it with your eyes closed. Host families take on full responsibility for parenting a teen from another country, and they have to make adjustments and decisions constantly. (Sound familiar, all you parents?) On the other hand, you’ll have support: from other host families, from me, from all the learning we've done this past year.
You can help by posting flyers, writing a blurb in any newsletters you are part of, sending emails to groups with whom you are associated, talking to friends and neighbors – any or all will be enormously appreciated. I have any materials you could need. With your help, we can make this year great for our own children and families and for all of our visiting international students!
I look forward to hearing from you with requests for more information. You can write directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org