Saturday, August 02, 2008

Excited to Host a Foreign Exchange Student This Summer

In June an email was posted to a local homeschooling discussion group asking families to open their homes to a Japanese foreign exchange student for four weeks this summer. This is something I always wanted to do back since I was in high school and a number of European exchange students attended my school for a full school year, being hosted by families in my town. I had hoped that some time our family would be able to do it. We had a family meeting to discuss it. We decided to apply. After a phone and in-person interview in our home, we were approved.

As to which child will be our guest, this organization has two rules. One is that the child is the same gender as your ‘host sibling’ and the other is that they are within two or three years of age of each other. Knowing that, we were able to pick from a list with information listing the children’s personality traits and personal interests. My older son felt that all the kids would be a good fit, but it was me that narrowed it down to those who had the closest interests to my children and whose personalities I thought would make a good fit with our family (the profiles included personality traits such as shy, talkative, likes to laugh, and so on).

Later I received a phone call with a stipulation about the boy we selected that I must agree to or else would have to select a different student. I think this was the problem with getting this boy placed in a home, why he was not chosen on the first selection (we entered the process later, in phase two). He is a strict Buddhist and he does not want to see or hear prayers to Jesus Christ, such as before a mealtime. He does not want to be taken to a church or forced to attend Christian worship services. We agreed to this although it will mean that our family will have to alter our typical routine (when in reality we are supposed to take the child into our lives and live as we typically do). My older son was disappointed that he could not take him to his youth group religious education sessions at church on Sundays. I’ll have to juggle around our family’s routine, but that is okay. The organization hosting this is not meant to have these visiting students converted to the host family’s religion, I understand that. However the lack of tolerance of allowing a family to practice their own religion just in the presence of the student is a bit different for me to comprehend because here in America we are so open minded and I’m used to more tolerance. It is one thing to not want to pray but another to not even want to hear the host family praying in his presence. I’m open minded to learn more about the Buddhist lifestyle.

Not knowing much more about the student, we were curious and excited to learn more. After about a week we received a paper application in the mail which contained more information about the student as well as some photographs of him and his family. For some reason this family has not provided us with their email address so that we can communicate with them right now via email (as other families are already doing). I do wish we had that option available.

I tried buying some books about life in Japan (children’s books) but found that Amazon didn’t have many that I wanted in stock and some were obviously out of print, which was quite surprising. (I’ll take a guess. Learning about the Japanese culture is not in state’s educational plans or on the standardized test for NCLB so the books are not in demand.) I then went to two public libraries to borrow some books. I have been reading the books and my children are reading some. Our family has been learning and discussing the differences in our cultures.

My kids and I have been discussing the different things we want to explain about life in America. We have been brainstorming foods to make sure we eat for dinner and places to go, such as our favorite, farm ice cream stand and to the best pizza restaurant around here. After the boy arrives I will try to figure out his preferences and see if he has a preference about attending a baseball game, a Broadway show, seeing sights in New York City or Boston, touring Yale University’s campus, and/or museum trips. Our family does do all those things so these are all in line with our normal lives. I would prefer that we do the things he has an interest in.

Then later we received a letter from the student and his mother. They were worried as the date is fast approaching and the boy had no placement. They are relieved now. I had been told the children speak English but the letter from both his mother and the boy says that the boy speaks very little English. I got a little nervous. We wrote letters back and explained some about what we will be doing while he is here. I included photos of our family to show more of what we are like.

A few days later we received a letter from the boy’s father and two more family photos. This letter again stated the boy speaks little English and he asks me to praise his son on his English speaking abilities. Since the boy says he is shy, I take this to mean that with encouragement he will feel freer to use his English. At this point with all the mentions of his challenges with speaking English I’m getting a little worried.

At an orientation meeting one family mentioned they purchased an electronic translator gadget for about $130. I envisioned something that I could type a sentence into and it would translate. I spent about an hour on the Internet investigating options but from what I figured those devices are little more than electronic dictionaries. They do not translate sentences. Some have phrases that are common in travel, such as for an English speaking person to use to ask a waiter for food when visiting Japan. Perhaps it might say “where is the restroom” when I need it to say “do you need to use the restroom before we leave for a two hour drive”. The expensive ones talk, which is useful for the example I just gave. Some run upwards of $500 but still they don’t translate full sentences. I settled for a good print dictionary instead (about $11) and am also getting a “point and speak” dictionary with images of many things that happen in normal daily life along with the English and Japanese words for the pictured item. That book is published by a United Kingdom company and is not really available in America; the only Internet provider I could find was company in Japan, with slow yet expensive shipping times. I mentioned this to the program coordinator (it is good to say such things) and found out they sell it in a Japanese shop in Manhattan, which she happened to be visiting the next day, so she picked up copies for everyone at the meeting that wanted them.

I was impressed and a bit envious at the meeting when I saw that a small group of homeschool mom friends were all hosting an exchange student. Two people were even sisters. They all live close to each other and plan to spend lots of time together. I knew some of them a little bit through homeschooling circles, they all live over an hour away from me. Some of them did this last year and they said it worked out great as the Japanese teens could talk to each other and it helped them not get lonely. As a matter of fact this group will be doing a camping trip together. I wish I could convince a group of my friends to do this together so we could hang out as a larger group!

I am both excited to expose this child to the American lifestyle and interested to learn more about life in Japan. Of course I want this student to have a realistic and positive opinion of Americans. It feels strange to feel that our family will be a major influence in this student’s opinion of our country and of American people (a bit frightening to be honest). What I will be concentrating on is who we are as people, how we treat each other (with respect), being kind and being just ourselves. I would like to somehow convey that in America we don’t have the same class system especially including that women are NOT second class citizens as they are in Japan. I also want him to see typical American life, daily life routines and how we go about living. To that end I am keeping our schedule as normal with an orthodontist visit for one son, a mammogram for me and a visit to the barber. I am not interested in showing off material wealth or giving him a full American history education.

As to what this visitor can teach us, I expect this to be a learning experience for me, my husband and my children too.

One thing that I have been doing is looking at our entire house and thinking about our lifestyle, trying to see it through new eyes. I noticed clutter that seemed invisible before. I noticed dust on places that have eluded the last cleaning, and I even found a few (small) stray Christmas decorations that somehow never got put away. I am trying to view our home as it may look through the eyes of not just a stranger but someone who will judge the American lifestyle on what this one house looks like and how this household is run. Yikes.

To make a good impression, I have been working to finish up some projects that I’ve procrastinated on, such as ridding the house of piles of papers. I have tidied up the overflowing books on most of the bookshelves and gotten rid of yet more books. I finished the playroom reorganization, because that is where the visitor will sleep. I had to rearrange furniture to make a good spot for the bed to be set up. We got rid of lots of toys that our children outgrew or are no longer using. My older son’s bedroom was entirely reorganized and straightened up as well as deep-cleaned. I’m even working on the clutter in my own bedroom. All the bathrooms are being scrubbed from top to bottom. The last thing on the list will probably not get done by the time he is here. That is to finish moving books around for next year’s homeschooling. Right now the family library has stacks of books on the coffee table about a foot high and the two end tables are stacked. Other books are stacked in neat piles on the floor. Perhaps I can continue that project after he gets here, or perhaps that will have to wait until after he goes.

I hope the student has a good time here and is happy to be here. I would hate for the teen to have a problem and put on a false face just to be polite. From what I read and have been told in the Japanese culture it is a sign of immaturity to show emotion on one’s face or to express emotion verbally. To have a more serious face and to be very polite is more important than being truthful about how one feels. If a person is given a food that tastes terrible to them they also would eat it and would not say anything and would even say they liked it. The focus on being polite to others is more important than having a person’s emotions known to others or one’s internal happiness. This is so opposite of the way American children are and the way many American adults are! I’d like to explain at least to the boy that in America open expression of emotion or opinions is welcomed, even if he cannot do it himself. Apparently it is a sign of maturity to mask one’s feelings, facial expressions and body language.

The last thing I’m worried about is giving my kids some down time by themselves. I’m worried especially for my older son to feel over-taxed by keeping the boy company and ‘being on duty’ all day long. To that end I have prepared a separate room for this boy to use as his bedroom. I am told that sometimes the Japanese exchange students prefer to sleep in more crowded, shared quarters with their host sibling(s). However I think at the end of the day my son needs some quiet time, as he does right now, to read in bed alone and to have lights off when he is ready for it. We’ll see how that pans out.
It is interesting to hear reactions that some people have when they hear that we are going to have a foreign exchange student in our home. Some say they would never open their home or give their time in this way. I don’t have a problem with using my time in this way or sharing our life with a child, my biggest worry is the ability to communicate and if the child’s personality will be compatible with our family.

I can’t help but assume that many positive things will come from this experience. I don’t know what interests or doors this may open for my boys but you never know. Maybe it will result in them being more interested to learn a foreign language, for example, that is the type of thing I am hoping they take away from this, as well of course, as learning about another culture and realizing that people are people and we more alike than different even when living across the world from each other and even living with different cultural beliefs. I hope the core common foundation of kindness and friendship will be established between us.

We are so excited about this opportunity!

Note About Blogging This Experience

For privacy reasons I don’t plan to blog about the details of the hosting experience while it is happening, nor will I share photographs of the Japanese foreign exchange student. I do not plan to mention this hosting experience again until it is over and then MAYBE I will blog some general information or some thoughts that don’t directly relate to the student that we hosted in our home after it is over though. I plan to maintain confidentiality and privacy out of respect for the student. Depending on how it goes my blogging may also occur less often as we prepare for this experience, as well during that time.

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