The Meaning of Family and Other Transcontinental Truths
By Jillian Sims, High School Programs Compliance and Operations Manager
One evening, Swedish exchange student, John, was sitting at the kitchen table in California, working on some English homework with his host father, Don. As the two looked over high school grammar lessons and assignments, John thoughtfully looked up and asked how many hours his host father worked.
Don thought about it and replied that he worked about 60 hours on an average week, “But I work much less since you came here” he said. Don’s husband, Bill, was quick to agree that this was the case. Their family dynamic had definitely changed with the addition of John to their home. Don had felt that you “get from it what you put into it” when it comes to hosting, and they were serious in their commitment to John.
Upon hearing about the hours that Don was giving up to spend with him, John thought about it for a moment and with a smile brightening his face, said “thanks for taking the time to be with me.”
Don, who knows that John is rather reserved when it comes to sharing his feelings, was overwhelmed with the sentiment from his student. “That comment was a big deal to me. My heart turned over in my chest.”
For this family, the addition of John to their life has not just meant a great year of cultural exchange and the opportunity to welcome a new member of the family, but a chance to see the world through the eyes of someone else. It has meant bonding with another family miles away in another continent. It has meant memories that will never fade and will last forever in the hearts of all those touched by this exchange.
Don and Bill have not only been blessed with the opportunity to get to know John, but also his family. They have shared video conferences with his family, from grandfather, to sister, to mother. Don and Bill couldn’t imagine how much a parent must love their child to send them abroad to another family, and are so grateful for this gift from their student’s parents. Don laughs, sharing how when he speaks with John’s mother, it is her who insists that it is actually he and Bill who are giving her son such a gift.
It is incredibly obvious how much Don and Bill have enjoyed John in their lives and have gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. They prepared his room with care and intention: framing photos of his family from home, putting his name in big letters above his bed, and hanging inspirational messages like “Believe, you can do whatever you want” and the very beautiful and inspiring quote “Family, where life begins and love never ends.” They greeted him at the airport with a huge sign and open arms. And in their first week, they were already showing John what his new country had to offer.
Bill shares about their first bonding experience with their new son. “Like all new relationships, we spent several days just trying to understand the nature of the person that was going to live with us. Within the first week, we took John white water rafting on the American River. It is my first memory of him laughing. Our guide had us do a number of silly games that got us wet. Just the roller coast ride on the rapids made us all smile.”
One of their favorite things to do with John is travel, and its been a blast for both family and student. Bill says “There are so many things to remember about this experience. As we love to travel and therefore it was very rewarding to take John to Florida, Washington State and Southern California.” During a Florida theme park vacation, Don remembers vividly John’s face as he watched an impressive evening light show. Don and Bill had been frequent visitors to the park, but John couldn’t get his head around the grand themes and atmosphere.
Seeing John watching the show with a look of awe on his face, “that was a highlight,” Don says. He snapped a photo to capture the memory.
John himself speaks fondly of the experience and says “that place was awesome and we had so much fun together!”
But besides the opportunity for travel, the room tailored to welcome John, and all of the other wonderful things that Bill and Don have done for their student, there was something else that was at the foundation of their approach to hosting. They knew instinctively that universally, some things are true.
Bill says “We are a couple who have been fortunate to travel internationally on a regular basis. In our travels we learned that there are wonderful people everywhere and that all cultures aspire to have the same basic needs met.
Those needs include food, family, safety and comfort. We wanted to give a foreign exchange student an opportunity to experience, as we have, another culture. We also felt that with a life full of experiences we might have some life learning’s that we could share. We also expected that a student living with us would teach us many things about his/her life and culture.”
Don shares, too, how going forward with this understanding that essentially we are all the same, helped them prepare with open minds for the exchange. And though there are still some differences (such as the way that John always removed his shoes before entering the home, and now Don finds himself questioning whether he should remove his shoes upon entering his friend’s homes), generally, they see how life and family in Sweden is very much the same as it is in California.
Bill too has noticed John’s healthy lifestyle, and how he is not drawn towards the stereotypical American teen junk food diet. “We have learned the importance of sports and how his good health is part of his sense of well being. His outlook is consistently healthy.” But again,where there are some small differences, the larger theme of human universality is there. “I think John has learned that living with two dads or a dad and a mom are not much different. It’s all about having the same values and ethics.”
Having had such a great year, Bill says, “We would strongly encourage others to try hosting a student. Their are many little rewards to this experience that are difficult to articulate…. hosting gives you an opportunity to experience the world differently and do things you haven’t done in years.”
For all involved, this exchange has been a wonderful opportunity, and hopefully not a one time experience. The three plan to keep in touch through the years, as is often the case in many exchanges. If you are lucky, you gain a family for life, and it appears to be so in this case.
Ready to start a hosting adventure of your own? Visit CCI Greenheart to learn more!