October 16, 2013

Discombobulated Frenzy of Wonderful Snippets From Our Summer Exchange Experience

And now for a discombobulated frenzy of wonderful snippets from our summer exchange experience to wind down this series of posts:

Seize the moment. We had a four-week window of time with our most recent exchange student. Those weeks were action packed and memorable. (It essentially took us the remainder of the summer to recover from all the fun, but it was worth it!).

Lazy is not my thing, but I'm learning to go with the flow. As we neared the end of our recent exchange experience, and I once again asked our student what he wanted to do before he returned home, he said, "Have a lazy day." This was joined by cheers from my two kids. Chill mom. So I did.

The power of suggestion. I put a stack of board games on our kitchen counter and we worked (or played) our way through them throughout the summer. We played more board games and had more family game nights this past few months than any summer I can remember.

Soak up the simple things. The laughter. The wrestling. The music. The accent. The snickering of kids sharing taboo words in their respective languages. The visit to Voodoo Donuts and the pink box that was flattened and brought back to Spain as a souvenir.

Capture the moment. I planned to send our exchange student home with a photo book of memories, so I snapped pictures all summer long. Now I, too, have a vast collection of memorable photos. My favorites are the ones I took just to "capture the moment" or the space/place.

Food. There were so many foodie spots we wanted to take our exchange students to, and I realized how much of my being centers on food. When we hosted our student from Korea, we took her to the Asian grocery and then she cooked us a traditional family dish. Yum!

Ask. Talk. Listen. Many great conversations started with a probing question or cultural comparison. The classic, "Do you do this here/there?" kinds of questions. We covered politics, school, bedtimes, dating, shopping, guns/weapons, manners ("Is it rude to ask a woman her age here? "At home it's rude to keep your hands under the table during a meal"), routines and traditions ("We eat a big lunch and a small dinner, and our dinner is eaten much later at night"), and common foods (we learned about Spanish omelets, and we introduced meatloaf and cornbread).

Find out. We looked so many things up when our exchange student was visiting. If he asked a question and we didn't know the answer, we looked it up. We look things up during our ordinary life, too, but not quite as often. Now that my kids are older, I usually encourage them to look things up on their own. If they aren't motivated enough to find out, the learning opportunity tends to escape. Yes, it's good to encourage kids to do their own research, but it's also okay for parents to look things up to keep the interest level up and/or get the conversation going.

Realize that kids squabble. Get over it. Good luck. It drives me nuts when my kids bicker and argue.
However, I noticed that I didn't get as annoyed when my kids were involved in rivalries or spats with their exchange brother. I actually found it amusing. I didn't feel compelled to mediate or pontificate. I let them have at it, and if they tried to drag me into it, I gave the problem right back to them. Somehow it felt more about "them" and less about "me" and I could let them own the argument and the consequences. When wrestling got out of hand and resulted in minor injuries, I found myself saying, "Wow, it looks like someone got hurt." There were no lectures about settling down or reminders about the consequences of being physical. When arguing involved words and raised voices, I found myself chuckling about how much stronger my exchange student's accent was when he was mad, and I was intrigued with his sense of indignation. I had a sense of pride when my own kids stood up for one another (they really do care about each other), and I felt a sense of validation when they competed for our exchange student's attention (because that's what kids do). Somehow, I think this recent exchange experience made me more accepting of sibling rivalry. I'm trying to hang onto that vibe and stay out of the way, so my own two kids can learn to problem solve with each other.

It's nice to have friends in our home. It seems we entertain more frequently when we have an exchange student in town. Our local friends and family want to meet the student, and our home becomes a hub of activity. There was a stretch of about 14 days this past summer where there was at least one "extra" person sitting at our dinner table. Good times.

It's nice to have friends in other parts of the world. Some of our dearest friends live in Perth, Australia. We met them on a cobblestone path in Santorini, Greece about 20 years ago. Our families have traveled to each others' countries, and we have high hopes of meeting up again somewhere in the world. And, because of our exchange experiences, we now have friends in South Korea and Spain. I feel good that my kids are even more excited about traveling (and that at least one of them is thinking about the possibilities for her own exchange experiences in the future). Technology makes it easy for my kids to be in regular contact with both of their exchange siblings. I anticipate their relationships with these special people will continue to grow and develop into the future. Trips will be planned. Life events will be shared. A new generation of kids will be put onto airplanes someday to meet family in another country. The world will feel smaller and more interconnected because of a summer exchange that started back in 2013.

So how does this discussion (that I've carried on for weeks!) tie into my work and the themes of this blog? For starters, I've broadened my definition of literacy. My family's exchange experiences have enriched my cultural literacy and inspired my whole family to improve our Spanish language literacy. I've reflected on the experience and drawn connections that will inform my teaching, writing, and parenting. I've been inspired to write new stories and develop new classes so I can share my experiences and learnings with others. For me, that's what lifelong learning is all about: Immersing myself into new experiences, applying what I've learned to what I already do and know, and then circling back with others to share my insights and gain new perspectives. I welcome your perspectives any time!

October 10, 2013

Resources for Arranging International Student Exchanges

If I didn't scare you away with my last post, you might be wondering who you should contact if you want to host an exchange student. Here are some of the organizations I've worked with and/or been in contact with in the Portland (Oregon) area:

American Education Center (AEC). This is the organization we worked with for our summer 2011 exchange (when we hosted a college-aged young woman from Korea). It's my understanding that this organization focuses on exchange programs for students from different parts of Asia. Some of their programs are for high school aged students, but several of their programs are for college aged students and even for med students. For the program we hosted, the exchange student was in Portland for one month. The first week they were here they stayed in dorms on the campus of Portland Statue University. At the end of the first week, host families picked up their student(s) and brought them home. For the remaining three weeks, the exchange students went to school from approximately 8 AM to 5 PM every week day, and they were with their host families on evenings and weekends (although some weekends there were group activities/field trips that the students participated in). Our main job was to feed our student three meals a day (with lunch being a sack lunch), show her the walking route to our nearest Trimet bus stop, give her a place to sleep/shower, and involve her in family activities when she was with us on evenings and weekends. At the end of the program there was a banquet for exchange students and their host families.

Northwest International Student Exchange (NISE). This was the organization we worked with for our summer 2013 exchange (when we hosted a 14-year old boy from Spain). The particular exchange program we hosted was called a 30-day 24-7 exchange. What that means is that the exchange was for 30 days, and we would have the student with us 24-7 for all 30 days. In other programs (like the program mentioned above, and some other programs offered by NISE), the exchange student is involved in other activities (such as English classes and field trips) throughout the day (and on some evenings and weekends). We really enjoyed having our exchange student with us 24-7.

Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). This organization has opportunities for hosting high school students, and has study abroad, teaching abroad and work/travel opportunities. I've not hosted one of their students (yet!), but I have interacted with some of their staff and was impressed with their program offerings. The programs I'm aware of that they offer are during the school year (and typically for a full school year). There are other programs that are shorter (or there are cases where you might "split" a student's visit with another host family, i.e. you host them for 1/2 of the school year and another family hosts them for the other half of the school year).

Rotary. This organization has a well-established record of supporting and encouraging study abroad programs. It's my understanding that when exchange students come to the US for a school year, they are typically "rotated" between three different host families during their stay. This means that no one family must host for a full school year and it means that the student gets to learn about our culture via their experiences in there different families. I've not worked with Rotary's exchange program before, but one of my colleagues has, and she can't say enough good things about it. Get in touch with your local Rotary Club if you want more information about their programs.

I would love to hear about other organizations you've worked with (either as a host family or as for a study/teach abroad experience).

Next week I'll bring this series of posts to a close with a discombobulated frenzy of wonderful snippets from our family's summer 2013 exchange experience.

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.