We had been bracing ourselves for the last day of our exchange student "daughter" Lucie's stay with us. Over the year the five members of our family had each developed inside jokes with her, had favorite things to do, from actually enjoying practicing piano with her, to predicting the outcome of each episode of Top Model, to watching for exotic birds out the window. We also had experienced a range of emotions together that only comes from living under the same roof as family.
Everyone pitched in to make our last hearty American breakfast together, and it was filled with surprises. Lucie and her parents had thoughtfully selected and packaged gifts for each of the five of us, and it turns out the rest of my family had each selected or made personal mementos for her, too. That sunny, late-June morning felt more like Christmas, but punctuated by heavy hearts and lots of tears. And that's where the biggest surprise came. Saying good-bye brought out heartfelt emotions, where the closeness we had grown to feel for our new daughter and even our greater appreciation for the rest of the family felt so palpable. In the midst of our collective, emotional good-bye, I realized that our giving had given so much to us: the life-long bond of a new member of the family, and many lessons -- or gifts -- we'll carry throughout our lives. Here are a few lessons I take from my year as a host mom:
- It's Never the Perfect Time -- So Just Do It. When a friend called to tell us about the need for hosting a nice girl from abroad who could attend our local high school, the last thing I expected given my own busy professional schedule and full plate of activities for everyone in the family was to add another child (my kids were in 12th, 10th, and 2nd grades this past academic year). Yet somehow when my husband and I discussed it between ourselves and then with our children, we thought 'why not' -- we have many gifts, let's share some. As long as the student knew that we couldn't entertain her like a tourist, and she attended our local public school, we thought we'd be ok. And we were!
- Global understanding grows best when it's personal and 'local.' Just short of moving abroad ourselves, hosting proved to be an unparalleled cultural education. So many of our assumptions about her food, habits, or attitudes weren't quite right, yet so many of our values -- especially among the parents -- were similar. Given the need for our children's generation to gain global competence for the jobs of the 21st Century, these personal experiences right from home will give them confidence in socializing, working, solving problems, and finding new ways to communicate with diverse colleagues and friends.
- Kids in many countries think the English word for "smile" is "CHEESE"! During unexpected moments, like posing for a picture, Lucie shared casual insights that you can't learn from a book or a movie. Sharing our day-in, day-out lives opened windows for refreshing surprises -- the kind that you have to experience for yourself.
- Hosting an exchange student helps kids cultivate more meaningful, life-long relationships. Unlike hanging out with a friend only when they're in the mood, living under the same roof means riding to school at 6:45 a.m. when no one wants to be cheerful, eating dinner together after an exhausting day, and everything in between -- in stark contrast to today's texting and IM'ing among 'friends' whose experiences often remain superficial. Adapting to living with someone raised by different parents can teach our kids much about their tolerance for different habits, and become better communicators and more cooperative, assertive, flexible, resilient, patient, grateful, compassionate and forgiving adults -- which is important as a college roommate, spouse, or business partner.
- Life can be seen with a new lens. Lucie took exactly 17,732 photos from our year together (I'm not kidding -- she counted and posted the number on Facebook, and yes, we are Facebook friends!), often at angles that we wouldn't have considered. After hearing this astounding number of snapshots, it struck me that her active camera offered a lens on the value of our family and the way we live our lives. And yes, it also caused my daughters to smile more, argue less (a bit less), and maybe even grow from that process of reflection that a new family member and a new "lens" brings.
Of course, there are so many more reasons, and each host family experience will bring different lessons, or gifts, but it certainly is a step worth considering, especially in these highly connected, globally-changing times we live in, where face-to-face still wins over virtual friendship. If you'd like to learn more about hosting, EF Foundation has a great support network and track record for matching up U.S. families with pre-screened youth from around the world.
Homa S. Tavangar is the author of Growing Up Global and is a spokesperson for EF Foundation for Foreign Study.