Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Hosting International Students: The Toughest and Most Rewarding Years of my life."

At the airport! 
In 2012-2013 my husband and I decided to become host parents to two Chinese foreign exchange students in order to help raise funds for a non-Profit near and dear to our hearts. ( I'd like to share some of the highlights of our experience in case you'd like to know what it's like to host international students.

Cue Stage One: a.k.a. "Naive Euphoria."

In August of 2012, I tried to prepare the house as best that I could in advance, not realizing that everything would need to be changed almost immediately, because I had pretty much guessed incorrectly. Before the first week was out we had taken the bunked beds down and immediately went out to buy different food and school supplies and clothes.

Cue September. After a few weeks of unsuccessful and stressful roommate living, we moved one student out into the other guest room. Luckily, we had an extra room to be able to do this, because these two individuals could not have been more different. It had never occurred to me that these students might not get along! I should have remembered back to my own dorm experiences at Simmons College (my all women's undergraduate college.) However, pretty soon we settled into a routine that I could live with. Let's call this "The Honeymoon Stage." Stage two consisted of me giving up all of my free time and exercise time to shuttle the youngest home from cheerleading practice everyday (three hours after school had ended) and then to cook dinner at 7pm every night while I tried to be the perfect host parent. (I now empathize with parents of Varsity sports all over the country.) I gave up my weekends to cart the kids around to go shopping at all different places in Tampa Bay and to try to give them an incredible American stay experience. I even spent a record 15-hours searching for "the perfect" Homecoming dress for our younger student. (No joke.) I watched my colleagues leave school at 3:30 or 4pm with envy every day. I became frustrated with hearing "well, you're a parent now," in response to needed advice or understanding. I heard more and more stories of Richy's friends, also students at other schools in America, who were having horrible home-stay experiences because their host parents never took them anywhere, or allowed them to buy groceries that they liked, who never took them shopping, or let them hang out with friends, or go out to sight see in Florida. Apparently I had been a Super Host Mom. Cue the "Great Breakdown of October."

At some point in October, after running three loads of dishes in the kitchen in a single night with still more dishes to wash, despairing of seeing the guest bathroom two inches deep in water on the counter everyday, and having a general wariness or fatigue of cleaning up after teenagers everyday, I instituted daily chores. This alleviated some of the burden on me at 8pm every night, cleaning up after an already long day. Several people again advised me with a "you care too much" mantra which only made me want to react badly. (If my child were studying abroad, I would damn sure want to make sure someone was taking as good care of him or her.)

So at this point I should apologize. I should apologize because I did care about these girls so much. I wanted for them to be happy, safe and well adjusted as they studied here in America. I wanted their experience of the USA, Florida, Tampa, and for their experience at our school to be a genuine one, one that they reflected back upon  happily for the rest of their lives as being a worthwhile sacrifice towards advanced learning and opportunities. I wanted to share moments with them and delight in their expressions as they saw Disney World for the first time, as they tried new foods, as they scored a '100' on a test that they studied for four hours for, translating all of the information, and learning it in a foreign language. I want to share my own service to a community, gratitude and patience with them. I want to be fair, helpful and kind to them when they had a problem.

Cue "Survival Mode." By then it was almost Christmas Vacation, which means for teachers all across the nation, the next 21 days were the most painful of the entire school year. Sprinting through curriculum and exam review, grading an obscene amount of work in time for report cards, all with little to no energy due to a lack of time and exercise and an overabundance of work and caffeine. The girls holed up in their rooms. I holed up grading/eating/napping/walking/mindlessly watching television. A colleague, also with exchange students, bemoaned the relentless energy of teenage boys and I started to appreciate the quiet in my household. I saw the "light at the end of the tunnel" where the next weekend's cheerleading competition meant the end of the varsity season for my younger student. I knew that Tom and I would have two weeks to ourselves over Christmas Break when the girls returned to China for two weeks, for us to unwind, clean and house hunt... and also to spend some time alone together, something that literally had not happened for more than 24-hours since August.

However, I ended up spending a lot of Christmas Vacation worried about how things would get back to normal in January. Cue "The Break up." To be honest, things had been going pretty badly. I won't go into details. When they came back in January, the girls avoided each other, and Tom took over delegating the teenage chore regimen because it had become too stressful for me. Problems escalated to epic proportions, and finally, after eight challenging months, one of the students was moved out of my house. I've thought a lot about this "failure," and taken a lot of the blame upon myself. I've wondered how I could have been more patient; my nearest friends assuring me that I had shown the patience of Job throughout the year. Mainly, I was upset because I had truly thought that I might have made a difference for that student if I had just tried a little harder, which in retrospect was vanity, I suppose. In my dealings with over 600 students over the course of my professional teaching career, I've never seen a student quite like this one. I learned some very powerful lessons from this year of successes and failures. (1) For someone to change, they must decide to do so for themselves. It is vanity to assume that we can change others. (2) There is great happiness in sharing a home life with a teenager once a routine is established. I've never laughed so hard, been so proud of my husband's support and caring for our students, or had so much fun experiencing things and going on trips. (3) I can be a good parent in the future, but only with the help of a spouse as supportive as mine has been.

Cue "A New Beginning." Life became enjoyable again. There was no fighting, or stress in the house, and the three of us enjoyed a little more breathing space for the rest of the year. My mom and I excitedly prepared our passports and visas to make a trip to China with Richy to meet her extended family and to see her country. By the end of the year I knew a dozen Chinese songs by heart. I could cook fried rice. I could use a rice cooker. I had moved into expert status with chopsticks. I no longer needed to worry about ordering food at an Asian or Chinese restaurant: I let Richy order for us and I've never been disappointed. I looked forward to welcoming her back to our house for her Senior year, knowing how happy that time will be for Tom, and I and for her as she applies to an American college or University.

Fall 2013: Richy returns for her senior year! 

Cue "The Best Year of My Life!" Everything was whole again: Richy came back, thank God. (My husband and I had endured ten days together this summer when we were both home and the house was kid-free. It was weird. It was too quiet. We were both bored. We ate Chinese food anyways. We were ancy. We talked about having our own kids in the near future realizing that we had had a lot of fun with the kids last year, and that our dual independent natures are more conducive to being synchronized and balanced when there are kids around.)

I picked her up at the airport, no traffic fuss, easy baggage claiming, and then she slept for a week at our house and I barely saw her. She's pretty independent and self motivated, and studied all night long while she adjusted to the complete reversal of time zones and slept all day. She emerged from the cave of her suite to chat, eat food, or check on us, but mostly it was a quiet first week back. She went to school with me after four days to be an International Student Ambassador for the New Families Night at school, and she was extroverted, social, caring and a great hostess for another new Chinese student. I was so proud of her.

Her senior year went by in a whirlwind of "lasts," from dances to trips, and it was one of the happiest years of my life. I cried when she dedicated her "Senior Speech" to talking about her experience with Tom and I and how we had grown to be family.

When she graduated from Academy at the Lakes I have never been more proud. It was with great heartbreak for me that she moved on to college in California but I looked forward to welcoming her home to our new house for her college breaks and spending time with her, like over Thanksgiving in San Fransisco in '14 and Christmas in Tampa in '15. My life has expanded by tenfold from this experience and I would recommend it as one of the hardest and most rewarding life experiences possible.

Summer 2013: Traveling to China:
You can read about my experiences traveling to China on this blog, here. You can watch our trip video below: