Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bridges to Cross

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a friend and her husband about their experience with an exchange student. Unfortunately it has become a "bad" experience and the host mother was teary eyed about the outcome.

The high school girl who has been in their home for the past 10 months has become uncooperative, refusing to speak with them, avoiding them, unwilling to join in on family activities, snubbing her nose at the family rules. The parents have scolded, tried to reason, nagged and coaxed but in the end the father told the girl if she wouldn't change her attitude then she would have to leave. To which the girl answered "fine." And so the girl was leaving them yesterday after the argument the night before. The exchange program staff was coming to pick her up and find her somewhere else to stay or send her back to her country... at any rate a promise of apology was given (from the staff) before the girl left. How sad for all concerned. The girl, the parents, the younger son who has watched the confrontations, even the old grandma who stood around the kitchen asking "Why is this happening?"

It is not so uncommon however, and during the year I have listened to this family's misunderstandings and clashes in opinion. And I see my friends' experience with the exchange student over-layering Leiya's own experience of living with a host family for her three years of high school in Ohio. How hard that must have been for everyone involved and it was the tenacity of both the family and Leiya that saw that experience to its completion.

To say it plainly, it is hard to have another person come into your home to live.

Teenagers are self-centered and blunt. They don't think about consequences, they have a lot of moods that make them adventurous and wanting to be FREE one day and then angry and "LEAVE ME ALONE" ornery the next. They think they can do anything. They are completely helpless. Old fashioned ideas; ANY ideas other than theirs are dumb and boring. This is true of kids even in their own families! And then throw in a few cultural differences, child raising differences, language differences, different expectations or different habits, the stresses of living away from loved ones and friends, and there is bound to be friction between people.

Leiya's host parents were wonderfully patient. They gave her every opportunity available to them. They guided her (sometimes too much she thought), they spent money and time on her, they helped her with homework, they sacrificed some of the love they could have spent on their own children to help Leiya experience American high school and American family life. And in general, Leiya was appreciative. But she was also a teenager with her own ideas and preconceived opinions about how a family should run or what should be expected of her. So there were arguments and blow ups and I'm sure I only heard a fraction of what went on. I do know that there was at least one time when Leiya goaded her family by saying "then kick me out if you want to!" (and they didn't!) God really gave Leiya's host family a commitment to go through the trials of raising a teenager who wasn't even their own. And He gave Leiya the stubbornness to see something through to the end. We are infinitely proud of Leiya.

What it boils down to for me is that the host family has opened up their home and their hearts. They are under no compulsion to do so but they want to make a difference in a young person's life and they want to enjoy learning a little about another country themselves. They want to help build a bridge between two cultures. There may be three or four members in the family and none of them are obligated to change their attitudes or habits for a guest in their home. The exchange student is the one who has to make the effort to understand the quirks, the rules, to eat the unusual food or follow the seemingly ridiculous customs. Unfortunately, even though this might be drilled into the exchange student's head before he or she arrives in another country, somewhere along the line the "me" and "my way" falls into the daily thinking and gratitude seeps away.

As I say, it is hard to have a person join your family and it is hard for a person to try to adapt to another family. When Leiya was newly in Ohio I had to laugh when I mentioned to my pastor that Leiya and her host family sometimes butted horns, and the pastor responded,

"Leiya's getting great experience for someday living with her mother-in-law."

Now THAT'S a cultural chasm for sure!

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