Five years ago, my family and I welcomed our very first foreign exchange student, a high school senior from China who wanted to pursue a higher education in the United States. I accepted his visit with some uncertainty, not knowing what to expect from living with a student whose culture and customs were so different from my own. But it was these very differences that have helped me gain an appreciation for foreign cultures and all the eye-opening lessons that come with them.
As a host family, my family and I share our home with junior high and high school students from countries such as China and Japan. Their stays range from a few days to a few months depending on whether they choose to tour the wonders of Southern California for a brief period of time, or study in a new environment for a much longer period. Either way, I can say with certainty that their stays are a lesson in customs and cultures that I’ve come to cherish to this day.
A vast majority of students who participate in foreign exchange programs are in junior high or high school, granted that at their age they have more freedom and a better understanding of the english language. Although they live thousands of miles away from the U.S., they have goals and aspirations very similar to ours. Many of these students dream of pursuing a college education in the U.S. and become computer programmers or teachers or engineers. They are proof that language barriers are by no means a hinderance to their success.
On weekends, our foreign exchange program allows the students to spend time with their host families and get a glimpse of American customs. Likewise, I’ve learned a lot about the customs of students from both China and Japan. Let me say that I’ve never met people as polite and well-mannered as Japanese students. And yet this is their culture – one I never would have known had I not been part of a host family. See, textbooks give us a very concise, one-sided glimpse of other cultures, which differs significantly from experiencing them firsthand. How else would I have known that my supposed Chinese name was not “Brianna,” but “Britney”?
It’s not uncommon for high schoolers to want to travel the world and study abroad. I can say for a fact that living in another country is high on my list of goals to accomplish in the next five years. And yet not all of us have the means of doing this – whether it be financial barriers or other hindering circumstances, the opportunities are not always there. What I’ve come to learn from hosting foreign exchange students is that you don’t have to necessarily be in another country to learn the customs and cultures of its people. You can let them come to you.