Why Host an Exchange Student (or is Technology Enough?)

laptop phone book on table

This time of year, high school exchange student programs in the U.S. are seeking host families for the coming academic year. You may have seen posts on Facebook, read flyers in your local coffee shop, or visited an exchange organization’s booth at a local community event. Your thoughts might be “what a cool idea!,” or perhaps “why would anyone take a stranger into their home?”

In one of my regular telephone calls with a host parent the other day, the conversation turned to our students’ ever-increasing use of technology. She wasn’t quite sure their student this year had ever truly immersed himself into the local community and our local world. It’s harder than ever to separate the students from their home country, she commented. Once upon a time (really just a few short years ago) students rarely arrived with smartphones; now, it’s rare for them not to bring one. Once upon a time, they rarely brought  laptops; now, most of them do. Once upon a time, parents back home were content talking to their children on weekends; now, many text their teens every day.

Why host, indeed? Is there still any point to this idea of citizen diplomacy and this type of personal cultural exchange in a world where we’re always connected? With instant translation available on our phones, is learning a foreign language still relevant? Isn’t virtually visiting a foreign country through your computer just as good as being there? So does putting teens into the homes of American families for a full semester or school year still make sense?

Well … yes.

  • It’s about the look on our Italian student’s face a few years back when standing in line at a donut shop in Portland and a shop employee walked by offering a free donut to everyone waiting in line. “This. Is. America…!” he cried. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t know … but it was certainly memorable.
  • It’s about coming around the curve on Highway 101 on the Oregon coast and seeing Haystack Rock loom up out of the surf and hearing the “oh wow” from the back seat from our somewhat-jaded-having-been-to-the-US-multiple-time German student. And yes, it really is a pretty cool sight … his comment reminded us that seeing your world through someone else’s eyes can re-awaken you to your own values.
  • It’s about a student excitedly talking about a weekend geology field trip he took with a few students from his class. “Excited” and “geology” are not usually terms one would use to describe a high school student’s activities. But you could hear it in his voice. It meant so much more to actually see what they had been reading about in class, he said. He talked about how they learned about how the flow of rivers had changed, and how much fun it was to take a ferry to an island.

Each of these is just a little thing by itself. But isn’t it the little things that makes the difference?

Beyond learning about another culture and how daily life might differ, these cultural exchanges challenge our assumptions about other cultures, teach communication skills, and help develop patience and flexibility. That sentence sounds like a platitude, doesn’t it? But all I need to do is look at our own experiences — and we’re just one family.

We’ve learned that what we thought we knew about Europe was just a slice off the top. Beneath the similarities lie fascinating differences between Nordic cultures in the North, Slovak cultures to the East, and Italy to the South. The slices we’ve learned about Hong Kong, Thailand, and Japan are humbling; as educated persons, you think you know something, and then you learn you don’t. Living with a student from Hong Kong taught our own two children more than a book ever could about how a teenager from a Chinese culture approaches life, decision-making, and relationships. It helped them understand the family histories and family dynamics of their own second generation Asian-American friends, and it taught them tolerance much more effectively than us parents standing there saying “be nice, don’t judge.”

We’ve learned that when people think they’re clear in what they are saying, they’re not. We’ve learned to stop ourselves and ask “do you understand what I meant when I say XXX?” It’s not something we ever would have thought about doing before we started working with international students. And in reality, it helps you realize that the potential for miscommunication is huge even when you are talking to native English speakers.

silhouetted people facing away from each other with question marks in air

We’ve learned to be more patient and to not expect perfection overnight (if ever….!). We suggest to our students to read the local newspaper to learn about the local community. We take students in our home with us when we walk the dogs or run errands to get them talking, asking them about their family back home and what their school is like, one topic at a time, day after day. We ask them how their parents expect them to manage money and try to get a sense of their financial situation, one topic at a time. We try to get students who are nervous about speaking English to talk more, a little at a time. Success in the beginning may be a sentence or two.

We’ve learned more than we could have imagined when we started down this hosting and coordinating path about seeing other people’s viewpoints and recognizing other people’s realities.

Some things seem to be the same everywhere. Teens everywhere groan when asked to do their chores before they go out with friends and roll their eyes when asked to do something they don’t want to do. Parents the world over can recognize their children are not perfect. Adults the world over make mistakes in their relationships, and adults the world over are not always better than teenagers at accepting their mistakes and learning from them.

There is no such thing as a perfect person: no perfect student, no perfect teenager, no perfect host families, no perfect adults. It would be nice if we could wave a magic wand at the airport on Arrival Day and announce “congratulations, you now have a long-term forever relationship.” But that’s not real life, and it’s not really how we learn about each other. Having someone you have never met before live in your home for 6 or 10 months as a member of your family is rewarding — and yes, it can be hard work. That work leads to rewarding experiences, and this is what long-term relationships are built on.

I think (and I hope) that it all does still make sense. If our 21st century environment of constant contact, 24/7 online connection, and no-real-life-always-texting life takes over, I think we’re done for in more ways than one. I think cultural exchanges — including but not limited to hosting high school exchange students — offer benefits far beyond being “a good citizen.” The volunteerism component is important, yes …. but it goes beyond that. I hope that these experiences are still possible in today’s ever-connected, never-disconnect-from-home world. We’ll keep working at doing our small part to make it possible.

 

Images courtesy Ewan Robertson on Unsplash and Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

 

Thought for Today: It’s the Little Things That Matter

Sharing about what’s going on in your life is as important for host families as it is for exchange students. What can you share with each other about your day? It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering or jaw-dropping story…share the little things, too! It’s what makes families … families.

family at sunrise on pier

Superstitions: Our Strange Beliefs

four leaf clover in glass of water

We often find ourselves stopping while we are talking to an exchange student in our group and asking, “do you know what I mean by what I just said? When I say “knocking on wood,” does that mean anything to you?” It’s really easy to just use terms like that and continue on with whatever we were saying, while the teenager from another country (or adult, for that matter!) nods politely.

At least half the time, they have no clue what “knocking on wood” or “toss some salt over your shoulder!” meant. They know it’s a saying of some kind, but it just doesn’t always translate into something meaningful. Understanding local sayings and superstitions may not be critical to understanding the meaning of a conversation in the host country’s language — but it could be helpful to understanding the culture.

Our own beliefs are not strange to us, of course, despite what the title of this blog post says! But to someone from another culture, a local superstition may come across as silly at best and perhaps bizarre. Here’s a sprinkling of a few superstitions from around the world that we found interesting, in no particular order:

  • Japan: Don’t whistle at night — whistling used to be a sign criminals would use to communicate with each other.
  • Brazil: It’s bad luck to leave scissors lying open for very long.
  • Italy: If your nose itches, someone loves you — or hates you.
  • Russia: You will get good news if a black spider comes down from the ceiling.
  • Nigeria: Walking over a person while they’re lying down will keep them from growing — unless you walk back over them again.
  • Australia: The number 87 is considered the “devil’s number”; it’s extremely bad luck in the game of cricket.

Some superstitions are common across many cultures; walking under a ladder is supposed to be bad luck in a number of places, it seems. But many are “locally grown,” resulting from some event 100 or 1,000 years ago and changing over time into odd pieces of good or bad luck omens. We often have no real idea where these odd sayings come from. Knocking on wood may come from early Christendom … or perhaps from the time of the Celts … or perhaps from a 19th century children’s game.

black cat looking up at you
Am I bad luck … or good luck?

Check out the map in The Totally Jinxed Map of Global Superstitions for a sampling of superstitions and good/bad luck omens from around the world. Ask yourself how any given omen might have come about — or find a way to travel somewhere to find out “on the ground”!

 

Black cat photo courtesy of Kari Shea on Unsplash

Why We Believe

person holding globe in front of them

Our new year starts this weekend, with one student arriving this Saturday . . . and then next week about a dozen more . . . and almost a dozen more over the following two weeks. Host families they have never met will be waiting for these teens. Families have gone to great lengths to make their new family members feel welcome — perhaps repainting bedrooms, re-arranging space in homes, making personal welcome signs, and making plans for showing their student the community in which he or she will be living. They will greet these strangers walking out of the airport’s security area with the kind of the enthusiasm usually reserved for immediate family members.

With the stroke of a pen (well, the clickety clack of a few keystrokes), we exchange coordinators create new bonds and create paths to new friendships and relationships. It’s a joy to watch and an awesome responsibility. We know there’s a ton of work to do; our role doesn’t end the day the students arrive. Indeed, you could say it’s just beginning.

We believe in the value of these exchanges, and that the work is worthwhile. We’ll end today with this video … yes, it’s a promotional video, but it’s a darn good one, and makes some good statements on why we believe in hosting, in the words of host families who have done it and students who have experienced it.

See you at the airport!

 

Feature photo credit: Slava Bowman

More Beginnings: New Goals!

one sign over here other sign no this way with sky in background

Over the years, we have learned so much about the challenges involved when students leave their countries to experience a different culture. It’s difficult for parents to see their children fly away, often for their first lengthy absence from home. It can be difficult for the students to adapt to different behaviors and expectations in the United States (as when one student confused Spam with cat food…). And host families may not know how to successfully welcome a student into their home. We’re proud to be a part of this — to be able to send more mature students home to their parents and to be able to help facilitate Americans learning about other cultures, one person at a time.

It’s not always an easy path from August to June — 10 months is a long time. The reality is that everyone involved is human, and humans make mistakes. Most of these mistakes don’t have to lead to big problems, but sometimes they do. Small misunderstandings and cultural differences blossom into conflicts for many students and their host families every year. We started The Exchange Mom blog and website several years ago with the goal of helping to tackle these kinds of misunderstandings on a broader level than just our own local exchange student community. We hope it’s playing that role, and we’re gratified by the followers that The Exchange Mom has on Facebook and Twitter. We would like to make it something more, though.

That’s why we have set up a Patreon page. For those who are not familiar with it, Patreon is a crowdfunding platform for people creating all kinds of work: written work as well as podcasts, videos, artwork, music, and more. Instead of gathering up funds in one sitting and then moving forward like Kickstarter, Patreon’s “creators” are paid by patrons who pledge an ongoing amount. A patron can be anyone who believes in the item being created, and contribution amounts can range from $1/month and up — you can choose!

With your support, we can take our role as “exchange year information source” further. We’re not charging for our content; our website is still here and we’re still blogging, and that’s still free. We’re just asking for your support. We would like to be able to post more often, as well as provide tips on a more regular basis. We would like to be able to update and add to our website. We have goals of doing videos and perhaps even pulling together thoughts for another book. We don’t know yet exactly the direction this will take us … it makes us nervous but hopefully it will be fun, too!

roads going off to right and left with question mark in the middle

I remember a few short months ago going to the home of one of our host families to say goodbye to their student from the Netherlands, who was getting ready to return home after her one-semester adventure here in the U.S. We both began to cry. But it was a good cry…recognizing all the ups and downs during the past six months, the things she has learned, the “stepping outside your comfort zone.” She has grown so much! And seeing that growth — and being a small part of it — is why we do what we do.

We couldn’t even dream of this project without you — our followers here on the blog and website. We welcome your support at any level.

 

Support the Exchange Mom on Patreon!

 

Patreon in black on red background