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.
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.