Monday, July 29, 2013

What It's Like Hosting Chinese Foreign Exchange Students

Our time with Ken and Tina, our Chinese exchange students, is going by so quickly. I can't believe they've already been with us for 10 days, and we have just 5 more days with them!

I was pretty nervous about hosting foreign exchange students. Just your basic fear of the unknown. I had a lot of questions and concerns swimming around in my mind. Will they get along with our kids? Will they like our food? Will we have trouble communicating with them? Will our family be bothered by the lack of privacy?

These are all valid concerns, but I have to say that things have been going far better than I anticipated.

They get along just fine with our kids. My impression was that most kids in China are only children, but both Ken and Tina have siblings (Ken has a younger brother, Tina has a younger brother and a younger sister) so they're used to brothers and sisters. Plus they go to boarding school, so they are used to sharing a room and having lots of other kids around all the time.

They have not turned away a meal yet. Every thing we give them, they eat. They try everything. The only thing I couldn't get Ken to eat was candy, and I'm not about to complain about that! Whether I cook or we go out to eat or have a picnic lunch, they have both been great about eating. Better, I have to admit, than I suspect my own kids would be in a similar situation.

Honestly, we have had some communication hiccups. I kind of think that us host families were lead to believe that communicating with the Chinese kids would be easier than it actually has been. The first couple days were particularly rough. Ken and Tina have been studying English for years, and with their rigorous school schedules, I'm sure that a lot is expected of them in their Chinese classrooms. But staying with a family who doesn't speak their language naturally puts things in a whole new light. Now that they've been here for over a week, things are going much better in the language department. I have made it a point to talk to them quite a bit, even when their initial response has been to clam up and keep to themselves. They are getting better and better as they adjust to speaking English all the time. We have used a translator app when needed, and that is a big help.

Both Ken and Tina like reading and often go off to spend some time alone. I have not once, since they've been with us, felt like they are in our way or interfering with our daily lives. In fact, I have had to draw them out and encourage them to hang out with us, when their natural inclination seems to be to go in bed and read or go off to be alone. Tina, in particular, reminds me quite a bit of myself as a child, because I always had a book with me. She has an iPhone, and wherever we are she can be found with her nose buried in an ebook on her phone. Since they are used to being away from home at boarding school, they are not needy or dependent. They don't get up at night and come in our room, they don't follow us around and badger us (if anything, it's the other way around!). All of the kids' bedrooms are on the second floor in our house, while our bedroom (Chris's and mine) is on the first floor, and there is a bathroom up there too for them. That has made things easier because I think they feel they don't have to be around everyone all the time if they don't want to, and no one feels crowded.

I want to do as much with Tina and Ken as we can while they're here, but I'm trying to temper the activities with opportunities to just hang out as a family, as well as time for them to be alone. I keep reminding myself that this is a vacation for them, as well as, possibly, a once in a lifetime opportunity. At the same time, they are living with people who were complete strangers just a short while ago, so I don't want to overwhelm them.

I didn't expect to become so attached to Tina and Ken so quickly! When I dropped the kids off at camp this morning, and watched the four of them walk into school together, I got a little misty eyed. I am really going to miss them. I think about their parents, and how much courage it took to send their kids to a foreign country and entrust an unknown family to care for them. I am thankful that they did it, because this has been a really rewarding experience. Hopefully we will keep in touch, and I would love to host them again if they return in middle school or high school.

From our end, we are learning so much about Chinese lifestyles and culture. My kids have impressed me with their patience and their willingness to share...their bedrooms, their parents, their time, and their home. There is more laundry and more dirty dishes, but I don't mind. Throughout the course of these past couple weeks, the world has suddenly become a much smaller place for my kids, as well as a much bigger place. China is so far away, and yet Chinese kids are not so different from American kids. Yes there are cultural differences, but they are kids. They laugh and act silly and get bored and tired and will spend way too much time with video games and electronics if we let them. We can still be friends, despite our differences. China is so far away, and now my kids have a better understanding of this far off place, and a better understanding that there is more to the world than our little pocket of southeast Michigan. Maybe an interest has sparked in them to learn more, to see more, to understand more.

Have you hosted a foreign exchange student? Or have you wanted to, but hesitated because of similar concerns? I'd be happy to answer any questions. If you have the opportunity, I think you will find it to be quite a rewarding and unique experience that your family will never forget!  I have a feeling this will not be our last time hosting exchange least I hope not!

Looking for ideas for things to do with exchange students? Read this post for inspiration!


Unknown said...

I'm Joy, just stopping by from Mom it Forward. Sounds like you're loving hosting even with the language barrier! That can be tough! But I'm sure those kiddos felt right at home!

Anonymous said...

I have lived and worked in China for 11 years now. Married with 2 lovely little twin daughters here.

My work has always been around teaching and I can tell you that it must be really hard to adjust to them. And vice versa.

keep it up!