Five years ago, our family decided to host an exchange student who would attend the small, private Catholic high school our daughter attended. We knew very little about China or Chinese culture and were super nervous this only child would hate living in our crazy house of eight. We weren’t sure if we should call her Yizheng or her “American” name, Sherry.
Hosting Yizheng during her first year of US study abroad was much more than East meeting West. Yizheng taught us to appreciate what isn’t said in conversations as much as what is. She showed me a great snack, lunch or dinner only requires water, a few spices and noodles. She helped us understand the realities of growing up in an overpopulated country with limited resources and serious pollution concerns. She explained the difference between education in China and the US giving us a new appreciation for our freedom to choose public, private or homeschool.
We spent many hours discussing politics, differing cultural ideals, values and traditions with open minds and hearts. We laughed at our common global experience of relationship struggles between teen daughters and mothers. We learned we could love and care for someone very different from ourselves.
After a particularly challenging day of school one day, Yizheng got into our car sad and depressed. I tried to rally some optimism for her, but fell short. From the backseat of the car, my 7 year old son, Aidan, spoke up. He said,
“You just need to realize Yizheng that a lot of people care about you very much and you are not alone”. Be still my heart.
Whether teaching us to play Chinese poker or sharing stories of things she missed in China like her grandparents, friends from middle school, and authentic Chinese food, Yizheng slowly shifted from “exchange student living in our house” to “daughter, sister, friend”. We learned from her and she learned from us. We introduced her to American baseball, the incredible gift of Chipotle burrito bowls on a Friday night, and how much we love our complicated, fast-paced life in the US. We had a crazy year of activities, a daughter’s college graduation that included an invitation to sit in the President’s box because she was chosen to speak on behalf of the student body, and regular mundane trips to the grocery store and Target. There were highs, lows and everything in between. We shared our home, our lives and all of our family with Yizheng, and then before we both knew it, the academic year was over.
Once home in China our relationship with Yizheng shifted slightly as the business of life and time zone differences made regular contact difficult. Yizheng took SAT Subject tests, AP Exams and filled out admissions essays for her applications to US colleges. We moved forward with our busy family life filled with work, school, hosting a new exchange student from Brazil, and helping a daughter buy her first home. At the end of the year, Yizheng told us she would be back to the US in the Fall to attend George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her dream of attending college in the US becoming a reality.
Today, we continue to keep track of each other through social media, occasional messages and Skype. Life continues to move quickly and teenaged girls grow into young, professionals seemingly overnight. What I am so grateful for today, what I will never regret, is our family’s choice to enter into the act of citizen diplomacy and volunteer to host an exchange student. It has helped us grow as people, increased our world view and greatly improved our understanding and appreciation of diversity.
Academic Year in America is looking for American families to act as hosts to international high school aged kids for the 2017-2018 school year. There are three ways you can get involved:
1) Serve as a Welcome Family (6-8 week commitment)
2) Serve as a host family for a semester (5 month commitment)
3) Serve as a host family for a full academic year (10 month commitment).
Become a positive influencer in global relationships. Host with AYA and help bring the world together, foster understanding, and act as a bridge toward world peace. You will provide your family with an incredible learning experience and discover that “There are a lot of people who care about you…”.