Got Questions About High School Exchange? Come Visit the Exchange Mom This Thursday 4/10!

Got questions about hosting high school exchange students? Interested in seeing a few student applications? If you are in the Portland, Oregon, area, you are in luck! Come visit me Thursday evening 4/10/2014 from 5:30-7:30 at the Robert Gray Middle School multicultural fair in SW Portland – look for the EF High School Exchange Year table!

Gray MS fair image

Guest Blog: On #Sochiproblems as I See Them

Today I am publishing a guest blog by Vicki Boykis; it’s a reminder that we need to remember how we all view the world through different lenses based on our origins, our upbringing, and more.  You can see the original blog post from February 7, 2014, visit Vicki’s blog, and contact her here.

–Laura, the Exchange Mom

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When I was eighteen, my dad finally took me back to Russia. I had been begging to go since I was nine because I had been having dreams in where my grandmother and my aunt spoke to me in Russian and reminded me that it was my obligation never to forget the Volga. These dreams were intense and immense, looming over my childhood and saturating it with guilt.

Immigrants always wear an aura of survivor guilt that they’ve abandoned their countries, and even though I was only five when I left, it was imprinted into me with everything my family did.  I was taken away from what was the worst country on Earth so I could live in America. I survived, and because of that, I needed to feel guilty the rest of my life that others had not been so lucky.

When the plane touched down at Domodedovo, I was overwhelmed.  ”That’s your birthland,” my father said quietly through the window. Russian doesn’t have an exact word for homeland, only birthland, which means the country and the language keep you umbilically close, almost hostage, even if you leave.

All of the emotion I had been feeling my entire life, about my Russian roots, about Russia itself came together and apart inside of me and I felt like I could burst. I sat, looking at the runway and the grass on the sides of it. It seemed so much more Russian, somehow.  Everything seemed more inexplicably Slavic: the sky, the buildings, and me. “You need to get off the plane,” the Aeroflot stewardess said icily, not looking at me as she passed by in spiked heels.

That first night, I lay in my aunt’s apartment in Yaroslavl. I had played here as a toddler for countless hours, and everything was as I remembered it, but much smaller. I had only remembered it in my dreams for the past fifteen years, and I had to keep touching the couch to remember it was real.  The apartment, one bedroom where my grandmother slept with my aunt and one living room, seemed smaller. The kitchen was just a stove, a fridge, and a tiny table where my dad listened to Soviet news broadcasts as he ate breakfast over 20 years ago. Everything had shrunk.

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But the crickets outside seemed much larger. There was no air conditioning, so the windows were open to the stillness of the summer night and the distinct Russian summer darkness came in like ink through a sieve. Downstairs, in the stairwell that smelled like piss and thirty years of crumbling damp concrete, someone clanged up the stairs, and my heart raced for a second until I remembered the thick black door with two bolts that had survived the lawless nineties. I’m back, I thought, this is Russia, with a sense of anticipation and fear. This is mine, mine, this is who I am,  me, me, me, my mind echoed into the darkness of my dreams.

Two or three days after we came, my aunt, my dad and I took a walk, across from the cluster of Khruschevki project buildings where my aunt lived, to the place where my dad grew up in the 1960s, in a set of barracks. On the way, a wild pack of dogs ran by in the distance of the field we were crossing. “Stay away from them,” my aunt said, furrowing her brow. “They’ve been known to bite. We heard about it on the news.” The two-story barracks in their old neighborhood were made completely of thick strips of wet, rotting wood. “There was no real electricity or bathrooms when we were growing up,” my dad said, deep in his past.

“We were all so close. We had 2 meters of space per person, in a room for four people, but we knew all our neighbors. Everyone knew each other, all the kids were out here, always yelling, always playing with each other. Then we finally got that apartment, after years in line. “ There were still clothes hung out to dry on the lower floors of the building, and a deflated ball laying near the sidewalk. The barracks were still inhabited.

We walked further, past a school that looked like it should be in a bombed-out third-world country. The brick was sweating, the windows were pale and lifeless, unwashed from the 70s, and the playground was sad and dilapidated. I thought it was abandoned, but the bright pastel drawings and cutouts of leaves and stars in the windows told me otherwise. We walked past a closed-down disco called The Clockwork Orange. There were broken bottles and cigarettes everywhere. The building smelled of the same cinderblock piss odor as my aunt’s stairwell, like every stairwell in Russia.

For the first three days I was simply in deep shock. I grew up in America, and I had never been anywhere this dirty, this depressing, this-I didn’t even have a word for it in English. But there’s one that exists in Russian: toska, a combination of anguish, anxiety, and melancholy, and finally, acceptance that most things won’t ever change.

It shouldn’t be like this, I thought. It can’t be like this. How is it possible that the country that has produced the greatest literary cannon of the 19th century still has people using outhouses? We had beaten the French, the Germans, and sent the first man into space. (Later, I heard the wry Russian observation, “We beat Germany but they’re still living better than us. Maybe we should let them beat us this time.”)

I had a feeling I didn’t know how to reconcile. It was the feeling of simultaneously feeling proud of Russia, of loving Russia to pieces, but also one of complete helplessness. How to even begin fixing something like this, a country where people still live in barracks that weren’t meant to outlast Khruschev? A country where it’s reasonable to expect to to get bitten by rabies-carrying dogs?

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And a third, uneasy feeling swept through me, and I recognized it right away: American smugness. Everything is so terrible here. It would never happen this way in America. How can people just take it? People would never be this okay with broken roads, heinous public toilets, and men staggering-drunk in the middle of the day where I was from.

And yet it seemed my aunt was proud of her city, of the fact that Yaroslav was part of the Golden Ring, the historic heart of original Russian Christendom. She was proud that The Scorpions, of Winds of Change fame,  were rumored to come perform in Yaroslavl.  How was this possible?

I had this feeling again when the hot water went off the second week we were there. Hot water always goes off in Russia for a month in the summer for “maintenance”.  What, I thought as I my aunt calmly poured a cup of boiled tea water over my hair into the bathtub.  How is this Russia, and how it it ok?

“I hate it here,” I told my dad after several days. “Yes,” my dad said. Despite having spent the first half of his life in Russia, it was beginning to weigh on him, as well. Russia weighs on you psychologically, like a heavy, wet blanket. “But don’t you dare say anything to your aunt. Mind your manners. Be good.”

“But why not,” I said. I was eighteen and stupid.

“You’ll hurt her feelings,” my dad looked at me, incredulous that I would even ask.

“Why can’t we talk about how we can fix the country?”

“Because you don’t understand anything about Russia. You’re an American. And if you say anything to your aunt I will be very angry with you.”

When we finally got back from that trip, and I entered America again, it felt like breaking through a tightly-sealed plastic container that was full of inky blackness at the bottom and ice cream and whipped cream and sprinkles at the top. I hadn’t realized how depressed I’d become in two weeks.

“How was Russia,” all my friends from high school asked eagerly.

“It was so gross,” I said, laughing. “Like they didn’t even have public bathrooms or hot water there, how gross is that?”

“Ewww,” they said, which was exactly the emotion I was hoping for. Shock at how bad things were, and admiration at me for bravely having gone through them.

But inside I was burning up with embarrassment for criticizing something I didn’t understand.

***

This duplicity of emotions is something the Western journalists teeming into Sochi and taking pictures of broken door handles and faucet water that looks like someone pissed out apple juice will never understand or be able to explain.

It’s not their fault, but they don’t understand that they’re missing the first two emotions: an overwhelming sense of love and obligation to the country, and a nuanced, detailed intuition about how things can be made better. Hence, when they process the unfinished hotel rooms and the unspeakable amount of public money that’s been stolen to build the world’s most expensive but worst-looking games, all they can come up with is, “Haha, this menu says ass on it.” (Ass. is the abbreviation for assortment in Russian.)

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Added to this perfect storm is this feeling of exhibitionism, that they want to show the West how bad it really is in Sochi, without context, which is why they’re busy taking pictures of broken hotel rooms and writing sympathy pieces about how all of the stray dogs in Sochi are going to be rounded up and killed.

As opposed to…what? There are no shelters in Russia, and there is no system or culture of volunteerism due to the forced volunteerism everyone was made to do in the Soviet Union, so it’s a false dichotomy, a ploy from Americans, who are born pet-lovers, to hate those Evil Russians.

The more incredible and backwards-seeming the news from Russia, the more retweets journalists get, and there’s nothing journalists love more than being the center of attention. If they’re in it, it means they’re doing their job correctly.  It’s, as Julia Yoffe said zlaradstvo, an evil glee, a kind of schadenfreude.

Within hours of arriving in Moscow yesterday, Russian friends, even the Westernized ones, those who are openly, viciously critical of the Kremlin, have expressed their hurt at the Western blooper coverage of Sochi. A whole lot of their tax money has been spent on something they may not have wanted and in ways they find criminally wasteful, and, yes, their government has not done much to endear itself to the West of late, but they’re puzzled by why the Americans and the British are so very happy that the details are a little screwy, the way they generally are in Russia.

The word they use is zloradstvo, literally: evil-reveling.

I’m more than thrilled that attention is finally being called to how fucked up Russia is; it’s only something I’ve been talking about for years.  And it’s fine to make fun of something, but when that something is not your own, not something you understand, babies, goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind as Kurt Vonnegut would say. And kindness from journalists means adding context and not being sensationalist. Not playing the Ugly American Broadcaster.

And it’s very easy to be unkind in the face of unmitigated public attention.

Which is why the best people covering the Olympics are not any of the reporters that have been retweeted millions of times. Some of the best coverage so far has been by my perennial favorite, ViceTV, who first went to the sprawling Olympic complex, and then to the people displaced by its creation, who now live seven in a room and use an outhouse very much like the one nearly every family member I know did until at least the early 1960s. They also did a six-part piece on being gay in today’s Russia which I could only watch the first part of because of how cruel it is.

Unfortunately, in a mass public media event, being stupid and sensationalist is the only thing that will get you noticed, which is why the symbol of Sochi is now the toilet, instead of the people actually still going to the bathroom outside, instead of the hundreds of state officials paid to take bribes, instead of the underpaid laborers of the Olympic village, instead of the fact that the president of Russia owns a $200,000 watch while parts of Siberia have intermittent heating in the winter.

It’s hard to encapsulate context in a tweet,though, which is why this is the news we get.

Yes, there are Sochi Problems at Sochi, but they’re not the ones you see on the surface, and hopefully I did a good enough job explaining why.

Let the games begin.

Vicki can be reached at vicki.boykis@gmail.com.

Let Them Sleep, Let Them Eat, Let It Be – The First Day of the Exchange Year

I met some of my new exchange students at the airport this weekend; six of my new group arrived in Portland on Saturday, as well as students who will be supervised and guided by other local coordinators in NW Oregon and SW Washington. Host families waited excitedly in the waiting room with colorful signs, balloons, and lots of excited murmuring.

You could feel the excitement in the air.  People would ask anxiously, “has the plane landed yet?” and “where are they, shouldn’t they be coming out by now?” and “is that them?” And eventually — “there they are!”  The excitement is contagious — I felt just as excited and nervous about it as our host families, I think!

Nora arrival photo
Arrival Day!

The students, on the other hand, looked a bit frazzled and bedraggled, although they tried to smile for their arrival photos. They dragged their carry-on luggage or looking hunched over with packs on their backs, and dragging their feet. They can be forgiven for this; this group came from a 10-day language and culture immersion camp in New England, and had to leave camp shortly after midnight to make it to the airport for their cross-country trek to the West Coast.

Some of the host families have many things planned for August: trips to family elsewhere in the state, visits to Seattle or San Francisco, excursions to summer farmers’ and crafts markets, perhaps the State Fair or the Oregon coast.  There will be visits to local landmarks: the families’ local high school, of course, where their student will attend school for a semester or academic year; their town or city’s downtown center; places where teens hang out.  In Portland, favorite places to “show off” the city include Powell’s Books, the Portland Saturday Market, and Niketown, among other fun attractions.  We will have an entry meeting to talk about rules and expectations (perhaps not so exciting) and a “get to know each other” meeting with pizza or a sleepover (perhaps more exciting).

But all that can wait.  For this weekend, as the students arrive, it’s a blurry whiz of a ride to a place they do not yet call “home,” but will; a whirlwind tour of their new home provided by excited family members; something to eat other than airplane snacks, and a long night’s sleep.  And with that, our year begins.  It may take a few days (or a few weeks….) for the students to really be themselves, and then the year really begins!

Practical Tips for High School Exchange Students

I sometimes tweet a “tip of the day” for exchange students or host families.  Here are my tips from January for students, with some thoughts on each.  I’ll post more tips from time to time, both for students and for families.

Have a meaningful conversation today with someone in your host family.

Start a conversation on something you think might be interesting.  Don’t agonize about this, just do it! Talk about something that happened at school, even if it’s a small thing – the goal here is to get the conversation going.  “Meaningful” does not mean profound or wise; it just means a “real” conversation. Are people dressed differently at your high school as compared to back home? Was there an assembly? A fire drill? Talk about how good the food at school was today – or how awful it was! Pick a subject from the newspaper, and talk about that.  Ask your host parents something about their country or the local community.  Is a new bridge being built in your city? Ask about the bridge’s history.  Is a new store being built? Ask what was there before.  Does your high school look new? Ask your host parents or host siblings how old the school is.  Tell them about your school back home – how big it is, how many students, is it in the city, how long does it take you to go to school.

Learn a new word in your host country’s language each day.

Think about words you need to know in your classes at school, words that would be helpful in talking about your favorite sport or activity, or words that would help you talk to your host family about something they do in their daily lives.  Put a word on the refrigerator every day in your host language.  Post your new words on a bulletin board in your bedroom.  Ask your host parents what this means and what that means – don’t worry, you won’t offend them!

Offer to make dinner for your host family one day a week.

Parents LOVE not having to cook dinner.  It’s not that hard, either, you can start with something simple.  Spaghetti is easy to make and everyone loves spaghetti.  You could make some soup, chili, or super-duper sandwiches.  Talk to your parents back home and get some recipes and make something from your home country.

Ask your host parents if you can take the dog for a walk — it’s a small thing but they will appreciate it.

Most exchange students have a few chores here and there – putting dishes into the dishwasher, cleaning up the kitchen, doing your own laundry, vacuuming, and so on.  Offer to do something you’re not required to do once sometimes — it will work wonders.  People really appreciate it when you volunteer to do something! If the family has a dog, taking the dog for a short walk is a great way to make friends with the dog.  Are you supposed to help out with feeding the dog at mealtimes? No? Offer to do it! Clean the cat litter! Shovel the sidewalk or driveway if it snows! Rake up the leaves in the yard! (You get the idea!)

A tip for when you go out with friends in the evening: Tell your host parents who you are with at all times. It’s hard but it’s important!

Being an exchange student isn’t all fun and games, as those who have been here since August now know. So this is a more serious item.  This “rule” is hard for exchange students coming to the U.S. from many countries to both understand and accept.  Many students in Europe, for example, are used to much more personal freedom in their daily lives than teens in the U.S.  So it comes across as strange to European 16 and 17 year olds to have to tell their parents they are leaving Joe’s house to go to Nancy’s house, or asking permission to go from someone’s house to the movies.  If you are one of my students, I tell you “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”  We know that getting used to a different way of life is tough, especially if the rules seem stricter than what you are used to back home.  But we also know that it’s important for our students to follow these rules.  You’re here as a guest of the U.S. government, so you have a special status.  Your host family has taken on the responsibility of caring for you, and they take that seriously!

Never be afraid to try something new. That’s why you are living in another country after all!

Things my students have done this year that they have not done before:

  • Air ballooning
  • Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • Cooking
  • Target shooting
  • Scuba diving
  • Para-sailing
  • Lacrosse
  • Acting in a high school play
  • Carving a pumpkin at Halloween
  • Learning Japanese
Alex on his "fun cycle" at the Oregon coast (2010)
Alex on his “fun cycle” at the Oregon coast (2010)

I’m sure when my students read this they will remind me about all the things I haven’t listed — because there’s a whole lot more, and we’re only halfway through the exchange year.  If you’ve done something while on your exchange that’s not listed, let me know!  Take risks (well, reasonable ones!).  Do something you’ve never done before!  Be brave!

 

 

The “mom” in the Exchange Mom

The idea of cultural exchange sounds simple enough, but in fact several pieces of the cultural exchange puzzle need to fit together for a successful exchange experience.  There are the students, of course, whether high school or college, who make the choice to go abroad for adventure, education, and personal growth.  There are the families left behind, who hope that the year will go as planned, and worry that it won’t.  There are the host families who welcome a student into their home and community (with no compensation and with some personal expense), with the goal of expanding their own horizons and those of their own children.  There are the schools, which like having international students to enrich their community and expose their student body to other cultures and new ways of thinking.  Finally, there are the organizations that facilitate the exchange, and which provide support, ground rules, and oversight.

I’ve now been involved, to one extent or another, in all of these roles:

  • As a host parent, I’ve been a host mom to about a dozen high school exchange students from places as far away from Oregon as Germany and Colombia, from Italy and Hong Kong.  We’ve welcomed them into our lives and in several cases have welcomed our “children” back again when they have returned for visits.  I hope to be a part of their lives when they finish college, if they go; when they marry and have children of their own; and when things happen in their lives, both good and bad.
  • As a local liaison/coordinator for six years for one of the largest educational foreign exchange programs operating in the U.S., I have supervised several dozen students from Europe, Asia, and South America, and recruited dozens of host families.  I’ve cheered my students on to A’s in their American high schools, advised them on how to adapt to seemingly strange American customs, smiled at their prom photos, and wept with them through personal crises.
  • As the contact point and liaison to half a dozen local high schools, I have worked with high school counselors and administrators on how best to bring exchange students into their schools, and have tried to make sure that the students contribute to the school community.
  • Finally and most recently, as a parent, two weeks ago I sent my teen-aged son to a far-away place on his own exchange program for five months, in this case the country of Ghana.

In a way, of course, this last role is not completely new.  I’m a parent, and my children have traveled on their own. I understand how it feels to send your child off to places where they’ve never been before. I know the funny feeling in your gut when your child heads off for travel on his own and he goes through the airport security line, gives you a final wave, and trots off to his gate.  I know the constant looking at the clock, where you find yourself doing a mental calculation and wondering if he has found the people meeting him on the other side of the world at the end of a long flight.

I hope to continue posting this year on my experience with all of these roles – tidbits and items that I hope are useful to students and their host families, as well as tidbits from my son’s experience in Ghana (and from my experience as the parent left behind!).  I hope you benefit from my blog posts as I continue with it this year.