October 2, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student: The Dark Side

I have a dirty little secret: As I've enthusiastically shared my family's positive experiences hosting exchange students, I've received a few reports about others' less than ideal experiences. For example: One person said that her teenaged female exchange student arrived with a suitcase full of birth control devices and a one-tracked mind: Visiting Portland's downtown nightclubs. Apparently "under-aged clubbing" is the norm in the town she's from. Similarly, another person said that her female exchange student (around 14-years of age) was very flirtatious and had inappropriate physical boundaries with her college-aged son (she sat too close to him and tried to sit on his lap). Someone else said that their high school-aged exchange student lit up a cigarette in their house without asking, and another person said their college-aged exchange student told her own (grade school-aged) child to "shut up." Each one of these people said they would never host an exchange student again.

Now granted, I haven't personally experienced these particular situations myself, but I do have to say that in each of these cases, when I heard the host parent explain their "exchange student horror story" (and that was how these stories were characterized), my reaction was that each of these situations were opportunities to learn about others' personal/cultural norms and to teach about our own personal/cultural norms. I realize I didn't have to "live through these experiences," and maybe I'm really missing the boat here, but I don't see the absolute horror in these stories.

I've traveled enough places to know that there are other cultures that are a lot less hung up about sex and sexuality than our culture. A quick visit to the post card section of just about any port town in Greece will illustrate (quite graphically) my point. Different cultures also have different needs for personal space, and different levels of tolerance for touch. Smoking is another area of distinction. I've dined in European cafes where the waiter had a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth when he brought plates of food to our table. Not my idea of appetizing.

Language can also be tricky. Important things really do get lost in the translation. I have to wonder if the family who had to endure their child being told to "shut up" merely missed an opportunity to educate their exchange student that that's an especially strong term in our culture. One of our exchange students had the habit of saying "I want to kill you," or "I'm going to kill you" to my kids. Those are strong words, but we soon realized that it was likely a routine phrasing of something he spoke/heard at home because we read similar references in the emails from his mom (e.g. "I told him I'd kill him if he doesn't behave himself"), and we've heard his grandmother use the term when we've Skyped with her. If this exchange student was going to attend school in our school system, I would have made a point to let him know that he should avoid that particular phrase, but I never did get around to mentioning it. I am curious what the equivalent phrase is in Spanish, and if it's used regularly in casual conversation, or if it's more of a "family thing."

We have had situations come up during our exchange experiences that other folks might have been bothered by. For example, one morning our exchange student stormed out of the bedroom he shared with my son. He was piping mad, and stomped down the hallway, muttering to himself in both English and Spanish. Apparently my son had tired of waiting for his "brother" to wake up (and with all due respect, it was past 10:00 AM), so he started doing noisy, annoying things. Pablo woke to the sound of my son belting out, "God Bless America." He was not amused.

In fact, he was in a grumpy funk off and on for most of the day. It finally came to a head when the boys were in the basement and my son refused to help with a clean up project they were supposed to do together (my son was too tired). Eventually Pablo stormed up the stairs to "tell on" on my son and to argue his case about how infuriating it was that now he was tired: "He wasn't tired this morning. No, he wants to sing all morning long. Now he's too tired to get our work done. . . " And that's when I knew that this kid genuinely felt at home. He was comfortable enough to show his emotions. Comfortable enough to protest the injustices bestowed upon him by his younger "brother," and confident enough to call upon "mom" for help. So I sent him back downstairs and told him this was a problem they needed to solve together. And before long they were rolling on the floor wrestling, and the house was filled with boisterous laughter once again.

10 comments:

  1. We've hosted exchange students too, and I can tell you some horror stories. One is going on right now, which a group hosting from Paris, France this summer for a few weeks. All of these students have more money than the local coordinator expected, and they also expected expensive and fancy shops to shop at everyday which most of the towns they live in don't offer. Some have had to be moved out of homes because they don't like the bugs that are outside. Very prissy, I know. I also know not all people from Paris are like this as we've hosted students last year (four) from Paris as well and they were fine with the bugs and no public transportation. You win some and lose some.

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  2. Hi Leanne. I'm sorry to hear you are having a difficult time with your current exchange experience! I do think the odds of an exchange going well increase when there is only one student placed per family. When there is more than once student placed in a family, it can become more like a "camp" experience amongst traveling students vs. a cultural experience with a host family. I hope things turn around for you this year . . . or that you have a winning exchange sometime in the near future! Best wishes. Dawn

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  3. It's a good idea to lay down ground rules when students arrive, or even include them in the application. So they know what's expected of them, and the civility level of where they will be staying. I have some horror stories too; they mainly come down to these kids come from a different culture and parental background, and think they can behave however they do at home. Which, if it isn't approriate, they have no way of knowing coming in. If you sit down when them when they arrive, after they've rested and go over everything, there's less likelihood of problems arising. And, if they still do, it's on the student, NOT the host family. The student currently staying with us from Denmark expects me to be his domestic slave. Obviously, that's how his mother behaves at home. I've let him know our rules and if he doesn't adhere to them, he's welcome to stay somewhere else. You have to be kind but firm, and NOT let them walk all over you. After all, remember, we are doing THEM a favor by hosting them, NOT the other way around.

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    1. I do agree that some ground rules up front are really helpful, and if you are working with a reputable company, this will be a part of the application process (for both the host and the hosted).

      I will say that I respectfully disagree that the favor is one-sided. I have found that our hosting experiences provide gifts beyond measure TO our family. Yes, we are opening our home to a student, but they are providing our family with a window into another culture, (and a new friendship in another part of the world), and that experience is priceless.

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    2. I recently something from a Danish individual who said that “We as Danes believe that the discipline measures are too much for young Danes to spend a year abroad because how would it benefit them when they return?” is above reproach. It is the same level of arrogance that you make in your statement that articulates why there are so many difficulties with hosting a Danish student. The level of entitlement and air to their thought of superiority is sickening at best. The problem is that they come here thinking they are above the system and should not be subject to the rules as anyone else. We have hosted 11 students and by far the worse by a long shot was the boy from Denmark. It was like having PTSD after he left and my family took a bit to recover from what was a horrible experience. I guess we were due to have a rotten apple after hosting so many students that were wonderful and still a part of our lives. But to get the whole bushel of rotten apples in one bunch was too much. He not only was pompous and arrogant but clearly was nothing short of a narcissist. There were 6 (including ours) Danish boys in our region that year and ALL 6 families struggled with their boys—ALL of them. Good families that I knew and had had wonderful experiences hosting previously had miserable experiences. The end result was now that ALL 6 are no longer hosting again.

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    3. I'm sorry to hear what a difficult experience you and others had. I would hope that you and the other families would share your feedback with the agency that coordinated your visit so that they could help other students and host families have a more positive experience that what you described. Best wishes to you in the future.

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    4. Dawn,
      We have hosted twice. Our first experience went well. She was from Bosnia and a very private individual, but we had some great experiences with her. We are vegetarian, so was she. We cooked and tried new foods together. We took her on day trips to see where I went to college and took her to a college tour of her choosing. She integrated herself in our family and was very much considered a part of it. Our second experience went sour within the first two weeks. He was from Denmark and to agree with Peter, we are experiencing PTSD. His families experience was spot on, to what we went through. We had a ton of things planned and they went out the window, very quickly. Our first evening together we explained our rules. Very simple, weekly and weekend curfew, small chores when asked as well as no one in the house that we have not met. Simple??? Well, he broke the third rule within 5 days. He was very deceitful and was the type to tell you what he thought you wanted to hear. He lied about where he was, who he was with and when he had people in our home. He had issues with acne (not all his fault) and continued to leave blood on commonly used hand towels, on the bathroom mirror, on all his bedding and on the light switch. He constantly clogged the toilet, used the toilet brush to unclog it and then deny it. After his lying was discussed with him, he continued to lie straight to our face. Like it did not matter, as if we were just a hotel to stay at, or like I said to family, we are his Bed and Breakfast. His girlfriend broke up with him and he used very harsh words on social media and to his friends to describe her (the girls mom called me, asked us to discuss this with him, otherwise we would never had known). We understand that this may be common teenage behavior. But, not from someone who is representing his country etc... We did discuss sending him home, but felt that things would improve (they did not). My husband gave up, but a part of me kept trying. In the 5 months he was with us, he not once asked about us, like what we did for living or for fun. He just showed zero interest in anything but himself. When he left, he left behind pictures we gave him, gifts from the group who sponsored him, gifts from his other hosts... all in the trash. We are deeply disappointed with this past experience, so much so that we will never host again. I feel that we let a stranger in our home and 5 months later that stranger left.

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    5. Dear reader, I'm so sorry to hear that you had such a difficult hosting experience. We have been very fortunate in that all of our hosting experiences have been extremely positive. Just last month we put our Italian son on the airplane back home after five wonderful months of shared experiences. His visit enriched our lives immeasurably, and we miss him terribly. I am so sorry you had such a difficult experience. May you heal quickly and fully.

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  4. hi, i want to stay with a host family and as someone that has hosted before what are some tips you give me for having the best relation ship with my family, im going to stay in florida,saint petersburg ...im colombian so in here everyone is very touchy touchy is that acceptable ?

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    1. Thanks for your message. How wonderful that you will be visiting Florida. The best advice I can offer you is to talk openly with your host family and ask them what is comfortable for them. In my experience, if a family is willing to host someone from another country, then they are more likely to be open to different cultural norms. Best wishes to you for a wonderful experience in the US. I'd love to hear how it goes for you!

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