Small Talk and the American Mind

I thought our readers might like to take a look at the attached short article. It has some good ideas to help new exchange students (who often think Americans are Just Plain Weird because of all the “small talk” we do). Students can ask host families some of these questions, and host families can help start conversations with their students with these topics, too.

48 Questions That’ll Make Awkward Small Talk So Much Easier

two people chatting in coffee shop

Host Family Tips: Before Your Student Arrives

words welcome to our home

June and July are strange times for those of us working with international students. Our students who have been here for a semester or school year are returning to their home countries — yet at the same time, we’re looking for host families for the coming school year and beginning to reach out to our new students who will arrive in July and August. We have to put on different hats depending on who we’re talking to that day!

For those of you who see my social media posts talking about saying farewell and thinking about how our students have grown all year — here’s an example of switching hats. What kind of tips and advice do we give to our new host families who are beginning to get ready for their exchange student?

Contact Your Student a Little Bit at a Time

We recommend starting with an email to introduce yourself and your family, perhaps attach a few photos. Find your student on social media outlets: Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and WhatsApp. Start small a long email or text message may feel intimidating to a teenager who may be nervous about his or her English ability. There’s generally plenty of time to follow up with another short message, and another one after that. Before you know it, you will be having a real conversation. You can think of many different short chats you can have with your student: ask your student what activities he or she likes to do, for example (don’t assume that what a student wrote down in the program application six months or a year ago still best reflects his interests). Ask him whether he has thought about what activities he might want to join at school and whether he wants to try something new. Is she interested in sports, art, or music? You can ask about your student’s community and find out if she is used to a small town or school or a large one. Does she like movies, reading, or going on walks? Get on Skype and have everyone in the family say hello. Perhaps do a short house video tour while you are describing your home to your student and his or her family. Perhaps your student can show you her home the same way. These topics can be multiple conversations through Skype, email, or instant messaging; it doesn’t and probably shouldn’t be one marathon conversation.

Do a Basic Bedroom Setup

Send your student a photo of his or her new bedroom. You don’t need to remodel or get new furniture, but you do need to have a bed, a place for clothing, and somewhere to study either in the bedroom or elsewhere in the home. Think about something small you could do to make the bedroom personal — your student’s “place.” A stuffed animal for your student’s bed can make it feel more like a home rather than a hotel. If your student loves a particular sport, perhaps get her a blanket with a sports theme; the blanket can double as an extra layer at chilly evening outdoor events.

If your student is sharing a room with a host sibling, think ahead of time about how you will divide the space. Talk about it with your son/daughter and with your student (another topic of conversation!). It’s possible neither of them have shared a bedroom before; if that is the case, set some guidelines with them.

Be Prepared for Arrival Day

Think about making a poster with your student’s name in large print with some fun designs and colors. If you’re not artistic, just a big sign with their name on it in a bright color will do the trick. Balloons are great, too. Whether you are meeting your student at the airport or at a central meeting place determined by the exchange organization, try to bring the whole family! Don’t be nervous about showing your excitement. Conversely, don’t worry if your student doesn’t immediately show the same excitement coming off the plane — they’re excited inside, but are likely to be exhausted after untold hours in the air and probably several sleepless nights as the time drew near for their exchange year.

Have a small welcome gift ready — nothing extravagant, just something to welcome your student into the host home and host community. A t-shirt or jersey from your family’s favorite sports team would show that you want your student to be part of the “family team,” for example. Have an extra house key made up before your student arrives, so that your student will know you thought about it, and have it sitting on the student’s bed (with a good-sized key ring so it won’t get lost!).

Summary

Perhaps you can tell from the nature of the things I’ve listed that it’s not as hard as you might think. You know the old saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff …. and it’s all small stuff”? We like to flip that saying around so that’s focusing on the positive: *do* think about the small stuff because it’s the small stuff that counts. It’s the little things that help make a relationship. It’s the little things that your student will remember. In a way, it’s all (or mostly) little things all the way, one little thing at a time, one small step towards a new relationship.

August, we’re ready for you!

coffee cup adventure begins forest and river background

 

Photos courtesy of Pixabay and Matthew Sleeper on Unsplash

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: Sharing is How You Make it Work

Tip of the day for host families and students…

Sharing about what’s going on in your life is a great way to begin to get to know each other. What can you share with each other about your day? It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering or jaw-dropping story … just the little things.

Did someone at work say something funny? Share it with your student, and talk about some American jokes.

Did someone at school say something that everyone laughed at and you didn’t understand? Ask your host family what it meant.

Is the family’s favorite TV show on tonight? Share with your student why you like it and have the whole family join in the discussion — then watch it together.

Did the cat do something funny? Talk about all the past times the cat has made the family laugh.

Do you have a dog at home? Talk about why you think your dog is the coolest ever. Why did your family choose him? Have you had other dogs?

See how easy it is? Get started today!

Image courtesy Peter Fischer

Sports as a Tool For International Youth Exchange

high school lacrosse players

Sports can be another great way to bridge gaps across cultures and to get people who may think they have nothing in common to start talking. So it is not a surprise that there are organizations around the world that do their best to bring young people from different countries together to meet over their favorite sport. The question arises, though, whether these organizations offer what you personally need from an exchange.

We sometimes get questions from people interested in working with exchange students through the medium of sports. In one case, an organization in Brazil contacted us, looking to find a way to send promising teen and pre-teen soccer athletes to the U.S. as exchange students to learn about the U.S. and to have an opportunity to play competitive soccer during a school year in the U.S. In another case, a small U.S. non-profit was hoping that exchange students from another country could participate in the organization’s program while studying here in the U.S. and obtain competitive level basketball training, with the possibility of being recruited for college-level play.

We also sometimes hear from parents. One email was from a father in Greece who had visited friends in Florida with his family. The friends offered to host his son so that he could go to high school in Florida and play varsity basketball at their school, and the father wanted advice on how to make that happen. Another email we received recently was from a parent in Germany. She wanted to make sure that her son would be able to play competitive soccer during his exchange year in the U.S. Should she just tell the exchange organization she wanted to go through? Should she herself search online for a family who had a teen who plays soccer, she wondered, or perhaps she should get in touch directly with high schools that have high-level soccer programs and then contact a sponsoring organization?

Great ideas. The devil, as always, is in the details. The answer we had to give these people was essentially that they could not do what they wanted to do.

What’s the Problem?

There is a great deal of concern in the U.S. about students “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons. That concern crosses over into the exchange student world, and it’s against U.S. government regulations to place an exchange student in a school specifically for the purpose of playing a particular sport. In fact, when a family finds its own host family for their student (what we call “direct placements”), those students generally cannot play sports at their school unless they get a waiver from the local high school athletics association certifying that the student was not placed at that school for sports reasons.

Many exchange students do engage in sports at their school or in their town. But there are no guarantees. An exchange student may not be able to qualify for a school team, particularly if the team is competitive; exchange students often have to try out for a team like everyone else. Some U.S. states limit exchange students to less competitive teams, keeping varsity team spots for American students who may be using their sports experience for a longer term purpose (such as trying to get a college scholarship, for example).

If an exchange student doesn’t qualify or can’t play varsity, or if he or she isn’t able to play on junior varsity for any reason, there often are local city leagues, recreational clubs, or even possibly a competitive club in the student’s desired sport. These options would be outside the school day, and would be at additional cost to the student and his or her family. It’s also important to note that these opportunities may or may not be at the competitive level the student is seeking.

What about the option of coming to the U.S. on an F-1 visa instead of a J-1 visa, since F-1 visa students apply directly to a school? We’ve been asked this question; parents have contacted us thinking that this is a way to make sure their child can play the sport of his or choice. However, because F-1 students choose the school they will attend, they generally are unable to play school sports. The concern about “shopping” for schools for athletic reasons still applies.

Are There Options?

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Sports Diplomacy Division focuses on sports-related exchanges. These are short-term exchanges and are not intended as academic programs, so these programs are not a solution, for example, for semester or year-long exchange students. The Division’s projects include:

  • Sports Envoy Program: Sports Envoys are athletes or coaches who lead overseas sports programs on behalf of the U.S. They hold sports clinics, take part in community outreach, and engage youth in dialogues on the importance of leadership and respect for diversity. Read, for example, about Neftalie Williams, who has used his love of skateboarding and his participation in the U.S. Sports Envoy program to bring skateboarding to Syrian refugees in the Netherlands and to Cambodian youth as a representative of the U.S. government.
  • Sports Visitor Program: A short-term program for young people to come to the U.S. for a two-week intensive sports-based exchange.

Other programs managed by the Division include the Global Sports Mentoring Program for women, the Sports and Sustainability Initiative, and the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that if you are primarily interested in playing a particular sport at a competitive level, high school exchange programs are probably not the right vehicle for your student. But if you are primarily interested in the exchange experience — cultural and language immersion, growth in self-confidence, learning how to deal with new situations — then high school exchange may be the right answer, regardless of whether you can play a particular sport at a competitive level during the exchange. While on exchange, we always encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to engage in high school sports or other non-academic activities; it’s a great way to get to know other students at your school, and it can be a lot of fun. The experience is worthwhile!

It‘s hard to reach out to people of different cultures when you feel you have nothing in common. But bring out a soccer ball to a field, and kids who do not speak the same language will flock to it and play together without understanding a single word the other child says. As adults, the effects are the same. You don’t need a common language to forge friendships, just a shared love for a sport and respect for one another.

 –League Network, 6 Ways That a Shared Love for Sports Can Bring Cultures Together, February 2017.