Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Foreigners In Our Lives

“The plane’s here. That’s her flight!” Why am I so excited, I wondered. We have hosted three foreign exchange students, so I should be getting used to this by now. It was less than a month since we said good-by to Gudi, our German ‘daughter’. What a horrible day that was. Most of her friends were there. Her parents who came for graduation were leaving with her, and they did not understand why she was crying. Bob had to push Gudi into the gangway because she wasn’t going of her own accord. I’m sure her parents thought we bewitched her or something.  Actually, the opposite was true.  Gudi charmed her way into our hearts and saying “good-bye” was tearing us apart.
            So here we were doing this again, opening our home to a high school student that we would welcome and treat as our own child for a school year. Our close friends thought we were crazy.
            “If it hurts for them to leave, why do it?” they would ask. That’s a good question. Is it because it feels better when you do it again, like a drug fix? Were we addicted to exchange students? Was such a thing possible?
            I was holding the “Welcome Pat” sign and balloons because our son didn’t want anything to do with it. It might threaten his cool. This was the year we were going to host an Italian, but our exchange coordinator had called to say she had a file on a Brazilian girl that she thought would fit well into our family. So much for the Italian.     
            Finally we saw people deplaning, and took a spot by the gate. That was when you could actually go to the gate to meet your party. The excitement was like waiting for a birth; only the result wasn’t a baby, but a teenager. Impatiently we looked at everyone getting off of the plane.
            “Is this her? No, too old; no too young; no she’s with someone.”  Then down the ramp came this smiling, bubbly, dark-haired girl.  We knew her immediately.  You would not know she had been traveling over 24 hours from Sao Paulo. That’s because she’s Brazilian and they have boundless energy! Welcoming hugs and kisses on the cheeks (I think our son shook her hand) and we were off for another adventure.

That was our life from 1985 to 2006. I can't even imagine our lives without our foreign "kids". It wasn't long before Bob and I took on the role of working as  Representatives for an exchange organization, and finally I became a State Coordinator for Washington and Oregon. I don't need a script to give a talk on exchange students...it just flows out of me.

We've had around 22 students live in our home, most have been year long (9 months) students, but some were here a semester and some for the summer. I can honestly say that hosting isn't something everyone should do, but I wish they would. The student may be a stranger when they arrive at the airport, but they don't stay that way. It does take a conscious effort to make them a part of your family. You have to treat them like a son or daughter. Hosting can be compared to taking in a foster child, but exchange students are usually older, come with their own money, don't require intervention by a psychologist, and can be just wonderful. We developed a deep and abiding love for most of our foreign sons and daughters.

The idea of hosting is that you learn about another culture and country. But it's interesting that you learn as much about yourself as you do about them. You learn what is really important to you when the student doesn't know the family rules yet. You learn how much you treasure something when it isn't appreciated or gets broken. And when they leave, if she left the key to her suitcase in her bedroom at your house, you know she wanted to stay. Thinking of that, even now 28 years later, I tear up.

We gave up hosting when grandchildren appeared. There wasn't time for everything, and grandchildren had to come first. But I still miss the excitement of choosing a new student and waiting at the airport for them to arrive.


  1. Thanks for sharing this! I knew you hosted and then represented for washington, but this post really got to the heart of the matter.

    1. Thanks Emily. It really is a heart issue...you open your heart to love someone you just met. It's risky alright, but oh so worth it.

  2. I bet you have some wonderful stories to tell, and touching as well. I always wanted to be a foreign exchange student when I was younger but it never materialized. It's a wonderful thing! Good job!

  3. Sounds like an amazing and enriching experience

  4. Sounds like a grand adventure. I remember exchange students from Thailand, Japan, and Scandinavia when I was in high school. Interesting folks.

    1. We hosted students from Spain (3), Basque Country (2), Finland (2), Germany (3), Brazil (4), Netherlands, Australia (2), England, Scotland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Denmark, Thailand (2) and Italy. We also developed relationships with students we represented. We are still in contact with most of our "kids".