Saturday, February 7, 2015

Live Like You're Hosting an Exchange Student

Last week we hosted a Chinese teacher and student in our home as part of an exchange sponsored by Big Sis's International Baccalaureate middle school. We learned about the exchange only a week before, and it seemed like there were one hundred reasons to say are you kidding me no, we do not need this in our lives right now, including that the visit was falling on a week of major events at my school (annual Strategic Planning, school board meeting, basketball game vs. rival high school, "Dirty in the Paint" dance--yeah, don't ask).  Adding in fun cultural activities, complicating an already complex carpool scheme, and cleaning the house in preparation could very well take me over the edge.  But Big Sis was excited.  And we have plenty of space in our house, which we bought for the purpose of sharing.  This is the kind of thing we love to do.  So we said yes.

The exchange students and teachers were arriving the evening of Super Bowl Sunday, and we learned in the morning that we had been assigned a male teacher and student.  We were disappointed; as a family of three girls it seemed obvious we would be paired with girls.  And how would it work with one adult and student?  We made an attempt to "trade" our guests with friends matched with two Chinese girls, friends who have three sons.  For a variety of reasons, though, we needed to stick with the original plan.  And that night we met our teacher, Dong, and student, Li Ze ("Tony"), and began five amazing days of cultural exchange.

Dong and Tony accompanied Big Sis to school each morning, so they participated in carpool and shadowed middle school students and teachers.  We picked them up each afternoon, taking them to the beach, Balboa Park, the Hotel del Coronado, and Seaport Village.  We introduced them to Souplantation, celebrated my birthday with them at Corvette Diner, and ended the week with Tony's favorites, pizza and spaghetti.

It took only a half-day for the awkwardness to wear off and for us to realize we were experiencing something wonderful.  I began thinking that there were some life lessons to be gleaned from our week.

1.  Opening Our Home Opened Our Family.  Hosting guests brought out the best in all of us.  Big Sis was a gracious, attentive, and generous hostess, ensuring that Tony was included in all conversations and activities at home and at school.  They became fast friends.  After a week when Big Sis and I had not been jiving, I welcomed reasons to praise and appreciate her.   Tootsie was charmed by our new family members and had Dong, father of a four-year-old, carrying her around and adopting a special protectiveness of her by the end of his first day with us. Hosting a foreign exchange inspires such simple generosity--we became ambassadors for not only our family and our daughter's school, but for our city, our state, our nation, our culture.  We became Team Family, with a shared purpose (versus what sometimes feels like competing interests):  invested in them being comfortable, welcomed, part of us.  We wanted them to have whatever it appeared they desired or wished for during their visit.  We saw glimpses of ourselves in their reactions to us:  we're funny; we're loud; we're busy.  We practiced our best behavior for most of their time with us until inevitably our warts (sibling bickering, parental impatience) began to show.

2.  We Need to Act Like Tourists More Often.  While some of my work obligations were non-negotiable, our guests inspired us to leave work and school early and embark on mini-adventures we normally wouldn't on a weekday:  roam the park, play at the beach, make family dinner a priority every night.  One evening during our dinner-time sharing of the Best Parts of Our Day, Big Sis offered that spending more time as a family and doing simple but fun activities was a highlight of the week.  It was a powerful reminder that the busy schedules of our daily lives don't have to preclude a quick evening dip in the ocean or pick-up soccer in the park, exploitation of this beautiful city we live in and all it offers.  We are challenged now to think, if we had foreign guests right now, where would we take them; what would we do?  And then consider doing just that, just because.

3.  Expressing Curiosity about Fellow Humans Enriches and Expands Us.  We were excited to share our guests and our experience with family and friends.  My brother and his wife brought their children over for a boisterous family dinner with Google Translate experiments, comparisons of and cross-cultural help with homework, discussions of food, and passing around of babies. We were reminded by Dong, who, per the Chinese norm, has one daughter and wishes he had more, what a privilege large families are.  Each new person we introduced Dong and Tony to brought out different sides of and information from them, too, including our Auntie T who's been to China four times, and our friends who are half Chinese.  We take a certain amount of multiculturalism for granted in our country, but we don't often take the time or have a safe opportunity to question and share with the clear intent of understanding one another's culture for the sake of better understanding humanity.

4.  We Live in a World of Wonder and Wonderfulness. Approach Life as an Adventure.  Practice Curiosity. Tony and Dong had never been to the ocean.  Have you been to the beach with people who've never been to the beach?  That made the beach 10,000 times more fun than it usually is.  The digging in the sand, the cartwheels on the shore, the squeals when waves of chilly water lapped over toes, the sunset:  all of it inspired a giddy celebration of simply being, and being in nature.

Tony and Dong approached all moments with eyes wide open, ready for surprises and learnings.  Every meal, every routine, every drive somewhere inspired more curiosity and questions and awe from our guests.   There were some comical iterations of this, too.  I sent Big Sis downstairs with a box of tissues for their room on the second night Tony and Dong were here.  The square Kleenex box, decorated on the outside as is customary, was mistaken by our guests as a gift, so they expressed overwhelming gratitude to Big Sis for the specially delivered present...and then found out it was tissues and were a little embarrassed.  Our tall pepper grinder was a mystery, so we emptied it to show them what it was and how it worked, with all of us grinding and sniffing pepper in demonstration.  The pepper reveal led to a tour and tasters from our spice cabinet, with Dong sampling Tajin and needing a tall glass of water as a result. Our family's structure, with Husband having the day off on Mondays and watching Tootsie, and my often-long work hours, was eye-opening to Dong, who described more traditional gender roles in Chinese families.  Meanwhile, we kept reminding ourselves that China was a country of largely no siblings, recognizing how our big-family backgrounds informed our world views, and even the questions we asked our guests.  We asked Tony and Dong what surprised them most about America.  After thinking a while, Tony, from Beijing like Dong, responded, the air.  The clean air.  Viewing our world through their eyes imbued with a renewed sense of gratitude.

5.  Caring and Giving Provides Us with Higher Purpose.  Most of us give to and care for others as part of our daily lives.  But moments when we are accountable to others in new ways recalibrate our priorities and help us find our center.  I have times when I work later than I planned and my family pays, and I feel guilty but also that the sacrifice is necessary.  But this week I felt a renewed sense of obligation and tug.  When I left work it was to be there for my family AND our special family, whom I grew to love in short time.  Hosting Dong and Tony made work feel a little less critical.  It made going home more so.  It made life richer for all of us.  We're going to try to hold on to the important parts, and embrace opportunities that stretch our family beyond ourselves.