September 25, 2013

How Hosting an Exchange Student Continues to Feed the "Creative" In Me

Hosting an exchange student provided a noticeable boost in my level of creativity. Most obvious is the inspiration to write. Although I've already written several posts about the experience, I find that I still have more to say. On top of that, I'm bursting with new book ideas that relate to some aspect of the experience, and I have two new classes under development that have emerged as a result.
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I've also delved more deeply into pursuing my long-time desire to become fluent in Spanish. (If you share this desire, I cannot speak highly enough about a self-study program, called Synergy Spanish, that was recommended to me by a now-fluent friend. My whole family is currently learning/practicing Spanish via the self-paced lessons, and I'm amazed at how quickly we're all progressing). I think the process of studying a new, less familiar (to me) language has jostled my brain (in a good, creative kind of way!) and awakened parts of me that had become a bit dozy. As a teacher of language, the experience of learning another new language has been incredibly valuable. I've been reminded, first hand, of how difficult it can be to build vocabulary in a new language and of the importance of tools such as songs, games, and mnemonics to help cement student learning.

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I've also been intrigued by how the language centers of our brains seem to work. For example, both times our family has hosted an exchange student I've found myself signing if I needed to communicate and was struggling with verbal communication. Although neither of the exchange students we've hosted knew sign language, signs came out of me instead of (or before) the verbal words did. My brain seemed to be saying, "I see you're searching in the "foreign language section of our filing system. We have a lot of sign language vocabulary stored in this section. Could this be the word you're looking for??"

I've noticed a similar phenomenon when I've traveled to areas where English is not the dominant language. Everyone is literally speaking Greek around me, and my hands start moving! Similarly, my husband, who took French in high school, has found himself saying things in French as he tries to speak in Spanish. He hasn't studied or spoken French for years, but alas, those words are in his head, and they pop out now that he's studying and trying to speak in another language. There's probably a bunch of journal articles about this phenomenon, (and if there aren't, take note doctoral students and Ph.D.'s: there should be!). All I know is that I find it fascinating, and I suspect it is something that has some relevance to the work that I do. I intend to explore this more deeply sometime in the future.

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Another recent creative burst that is seemingly unrelated to hosting an exchange student are my dabbles with musical instruments. I've picked up a ukulele and started teaching myself some chords. My husband's childhood guitar is sitting by the front door so I can get it restrung and start playing that, too. Both kids have started strumming on the ukulele, my son is enthusiastically practicing his trumpet, and my daughter is exploring some musical apps on her iPad. Coincidence? Maybe. However, I think when you open one door to creativity, many other doors open (or reopen). Sweet.

Which brings me back to writing. There are some direct ways the hosting experience benefitted my writing life beyond what I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The host experience helped me think like a writer. It helped me practice describing things intentionally and precisely so my intended message is accurately conveyed. It also helped me pay attention. To the words. To the non-verbal queues. To my choices, and my kids' choices. To differences and similarities. To my surroundings.

One of the reasons I love traveling is that I suddenly see with fresh eyes. It's also one of the reasons I
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love parenting: looking at the world through the eyes of my children is exciting. It's hopeful. It's magical. But too often I get caught up in the daily grind and stop noticing the world around me. Hosting an exchange student  helped me bring back into focus the unique nature of my world.

I remember the afternoon that we were running errands and our exchange student said, "Is that a GUN store?" Yes, there is a gun store not far from our neighborhood. The red GUN STORE sign outside the building makes it unmistakable. I drive by that store regularly, but don't ever see it. I'd nearly forgotten that last year my daughter said her school bus passed by the store daily, and that a worker often stood outside the store, dancing and waving a sign to bring attention to it. Nice. That's quite a scene to overlook. Thanks Pablo, for reminding me to recognize the story starters all around me. Open eyes. Notice. Listen. Breath. Taste. Touch. Feel. Repeat.

The experience of hosting an exchange student has given me many snippets/story ideas/scenes/ and characters to explore. Many of these morsels are humorous. Like the very first conversation I had with Pablo. He had just arrived to our airport, and we were at the baggage carousel waiting for his luggage. Our plan was to load him into the car and make the 3 1/2 hour drive to Sunriver. I wanted to make sure he had his personal needs met before we hit the road. I asked him if he needed to use the restroom. He replied, "No, I'm just tired." I asked if he was thirsty. He said, "No, I'm just tired." I told him we had food in the car if he was hungry. He said, "No, I'm just tired." Now here is the funny part: My first thought was that this poor kid only had this one phrase in his toolbox. This is going to be a long month, I thought to myself. We got into the car and Pablo immediately zonked out. His snores shook the car. I remember saying, "I guess he was tired." Over the next days and weeks we learned that Pablo had a very rich vocabulary in English. Being one who sometimes needs to get bonked on the head to "get it," I recall asking him about the night we picked him up at the airport. I told him my aim was to get his basic needs attended to before the long car ride. He said, "I know. I wasn't thirsty. I wasn't hungry. I didn't need to use the restroom. I was tired." Ya, I got that . . . eventually!
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There was also the funny mixup we had at our dinner table over the Spanish words pollo and polla. Chicken will forevermore be a bit amusing at our house, and I'm pretty sure I will write some element of that scene into a story someday.

Lastly, hosting an exchange student provided a variety of rich emotional experiences that will strengthen my writing. Falling in love with a child is a cosmic experience. The beauty of falling in love with your exchange student/child is that their arrival does not necessarily coincide with intense sleep deprivation! I don't know about you, but I was in a rummy fog when my two kiddos took initial residency at my house. I fell in love with them for sure, but detailed recollections about how those feelings came over me are a bit sketchy! Hosting an exchange student also provided an opportunity for teenage attraction to unfold right before my very eyes. Not surprisingly, my daughter's friends visited frequently when Pablo was here, and with their visits came subtle flirtation and coy conversations. Great material for weaving a little romance into one of my works-in-progress. And then there was the time when we all had to say, "Goodbye." Yep, those feelings are still fresh in my mind.

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