The following article was contributed by Terri, an AYA host mother and Local Coordinator from New York, reflecting on her experience as a host mom and lessons learned while hosting a foreign exchange student for the first time.
Six years ago, and new to Facebook at the time, I happened to notice a post from my husband’s cousin, about the need for a host family for a Chinese exchange student. I remember looking up from my screen and giving a shout out to my husband and kids, “Hey guys, you want to host a kid from China?” Surprisingly, they all shouted back, “yes!” My husband wanted a little more information, but he has the “What’s one more pound to an elephant?” philosophy as well. So, quickly the forms were filed, the home study and references completed, and within a few short days, Junming arrived.
When we picked up Junming at the airport, we were excited that he learned all of our names in the few days before he arrived and identified us all. We, however, were not as successful with his name. The tones in the Chinese language are just not in our everyday speech, but we managed to work out a butchered though heart-felt attempt that stuck until this day: “June-ming.”
Every day was a new experience. His first night, he went out on our back deck and started screaming. My first thought was, “Oh My Gosh, he makes it all the way from China only to be attacked by a coyote!” I ran out, to find his enthusiasm was not fear, but appreciation for a beautiful view of the night sky and the abundant stars. A sight that was hidden by smog in his home city.
His first encounter with our dogs was epic as well. (Note to potential host families: Meeting the furry family members for the first time is always epic.) Junming ran to his computer to see if the Chinese word for “Border Collie” was indeed the dog he had wished for all his childhood years. The bond was instant and real. He would take our Chester out for walks, and he spent one afternoon in the woods, building a fire and cooking hot dogs with his trusted companion by his side. We all knew that was a dream, too. Hosting a foreign exchange student is about lots of things; realizing dreams is just one of them.
The language challenge was quite pronounced in the beginning, but it didn’t bother us too much. I knew I couldn’t speak another language fluently, so I was in no position to judge. We just enjoyed the ride. There were moments when the wrong words or definitions created such laughter. As I stated, Junming loved our dogs, and he wanted to know if they would have pups. Aside from both of them being male, they were “fixed,” a word that required some explanation.
So later that week, when we were at the high school and speaking with the principal and superintendent, they asked him about his schedule. He reported that one class might not be the right fit. The principal stated, we can “fix” that, unaware of our previous explanation of the word. The color drained from Junming’s face. He looked at me in horror. Racing through my thoughts, I finally ran into our previous conversation. I burst out laughing and shared the conversation with all. One of Junming’s best traits was his infinite ability to laugh at himself.
We used to check in with Junming at the dinner table, “How much of that conversation did you get, Bud?” After a thoughtful moment of calculation, he would respond with a percentage, like “30%”. We knew we had some slowing down to do. But it never discouraged Junming. In fact, you could see he was up for the challenge.
It wasn’t all laughter. There were tears. Tears when he was injured and required stitches. Anger when some kids at school posted cruel, racial remarks. Frustration, as his little sister tried to boss him around. Confusion when expectations and reality clashed. And sometimes, thoughtful loneliness. His perseverance was so remarkable that I couldn’t help but be impressed by him.
Junming stuck it out with us. He didn’t give up on us as we navigated through these uncharted waters with him, and we are all forever grateful.
And he changed us. He changed us all! Before Junming, China was just a place with a lot of people who were “trying to buy up the world.” A place with restrictions and communism. I will never forget Junming’s expression when I finally got up the nerve to ask about the “c” word. He was very puzzled at first, and then he laughed and told me that “communism is a club for the nerdy kids. No Chinese teenagers want to be a part of that.”
Wow, talk about a wake-up call. On another car ride conversation, the discussion moved to limited rights and the infamous Tiananmen Square incident. I will never forget his response: “Mom, every country has its dark times. You can look back and let that be what defines you, or learn from it and do better.” Wise words from a very wise teenager.
The days before he returned home were the toughest. I was miserable and, at times, mean, battling between my feelings of inadequacy and inevitable loss, but Junming’s mom helped me so much. We Skyped before he headed back, and she told me that she had changed this year too — she would often tell her friends how good Americans are, and what big hearts they have. Her kind words were just what I needed to hear.
The story doesn’t end there. Junming soon attended and graduated from Purdue University. Now, he is closer to home (or at least, “our home”), getting his Masters at Columbia University. He has a beautiful girlfriend, so our family grows even more.
After Junming, we only had one significant decision to make that spring: Who would be our next foreign exchange student? And from the Far East, we then expanded our family to include the ancient culture of Egypt and the traditions of Pakistan. And yet again, the verbal mauling of another son’s name… sorry Khaled!
In addition to being a devoted host mom, Terri helps many other families enjoy the opportunity to host with AYA in the state of New York. If you would like to learn more about hosting a foreign exchange student, please contact Academic Year in America to be put in touch with one of our fantastic Local Coordinators, like Terri!