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.
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”!
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.
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!
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.
It’s June again. This past week, and over the next two weeks, our 2016-2017 group of students will return to their home countries. It’s such a bittersweet time of year. And we’re “just” the program coordinators — we’re not the ones who lived the experience day-to-day! It just goes to show you how these cultural exchanges have ripple effects . . . the relationships are what it’s all about.
Some students have fit into their host communities and families seamlessly, as if they were born to it. Some have faced challenges they did not expect. One thing they all have in common is that they have had an experience that has changed them forever. How that will translate into their future lives, how it will shape them as adults — that remains to be seen.
We can see, though, the current effects, having watched over the past 10 months the development of relationships and heard about the daily lives of our students and their host families. We see the teens who are leaving more confident, more mature, more independent, and more tolerant of others. The teens who can navigate public transit confidently who may not have done so before, who can do their own laundry, and who can cook dinner. The teens who can speak more fluently in a language in which they were hesitant last summer. The teens who have gone on stage never having done that before, who have won praise (well-deserved) in public piano recitals and competitions, and who have participated in state-level athletic competitions.
We have seen the effects on our host families, too, and on our students’ families back home. Host siblings who are already planning trips to their new brother or sister’s home. Parents and siblings from back home who are visiting at the end of the year and finding a new “family” here. One of our host parents describes her feelings about her student:
I am trying to tell myself that nothing changes — that no matter where we all are, she remains family. And yet…no more having her come out to give a sleepy good morning hug. No more dinnertime conversations, or card games, or quick rides to the store. All that stopped as she walked down the security line at the airport tonight…
I believe it. Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.
We believe that, too … our students all now have a second home and second family. This video sums it up for how we all feel as the students return to their “first” home:
It’s amazing to me how different the rules of politeness can be in different countries. Looking at a chart like this helps me remember that our students may not know the rules here, and may find them strange. It’s a good thing to remember!