It’s been about six weeks since we took in a high school exchange student from Chile. It was kind of a quick decision on our part – we knew a boy who’d been in the States since late August but didn’t quite click with the first host family he was matched with. When we found out in January that he was looking to change families, we offered to host him.
What’s a little unusual about our arrangement is that we’ve known him since September, so there wasn’t really any kind of getting-to-know you transition needed once he moved in. We’d already spent considerable time together, talking about what his life is like in Chile, his family, his school, etc. So there were no surprises there.
I’m happy to report that for the most part, things are going really well. It’s an adjustment for all of us, for sure, to have another person around so much of the time. More dishes, more noise, more food, more planning, more laundry. More everything, really.
Most of all, though, there have been a lot of unexpected opportunities to catch a glimpse of myself in the figurative mirror. I know that’s what these exchange programs profess in their organizational literature, but reading it is one thing while living it is quite another.
I’m sure I’ll encounter plenty more revelations before his stay is over, but these are the big things that have hit me as we’ve started out.
1. I’m not entirely sure I’d have the guts to live with another family for a year.
First, there’s the food. It’s one thing to take a trip and order from a menu while away and it’s quite another to drop into a family’s meal habits and be expected to conform. I suppose it could go either way – successfully or not – but how miserable would I be if I really didn’t like the food?
And the whole family dynamic thing – it most definitely takes a special kind of person who can step into the middle of a family and feel at home – and I’m for sure not that kind of person.
I admire the kids who can do that.
2. Our student from Chile is every bit as American as we are.
The first few times I used the term “Americans” to refer to those of us from the United States, our student was a little indignant. Confused, I asked him why it bothered him, and he replied that he was an American too because he lives in South America. He very clearly saw himself as an American, as well as anyone from North, Central, or South America. He definitely did not appreciate me referring to people from the USA as “Americans.”
So what does he call us, those of us who live in the USA? “United Statesians” he said (but of course). It’s interesting (but not surprising) that we’ve co-opted the term that applies to two full continents of people and grabbed it for our own. Hmmmm.
3. Our political system is too damn complicated.
It’s lucky for him (or maybe not?) that he came to the United States during an election year. His first observation of the process? Sooooo many debates, he keeps saying (can’t blame him there).
And he is confused by the process and relentlessly asks questions about it (great questions!) and I wish I could give him more straightforward answers about the process, but no dice. What is a caucus? Why do some states have them versus primaries? If a candidate gets the most votes in a state, do they “win” that state? (not necessarily, there’s that pesky delegate thing). Why do some states divide their delegates and others give them all to one candidate? Why do people care so much about the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire? Why does the whole process take a year and a half?
All good questions, and ones we’re answering daily here, which leads me to only one conclusion – can’t we simplify the whole damn thing already?!?
4. Having four teenagers in the house is loud (REALLY loud at times) but it’s also more fun that I ever imagined.
It amazes me how seamlessly our student folded into Fuller family life (see #1 above – probably not something I could do very easily myself). He’s 17 years old – so now in the house we have an 18-year-old female college student, two 17-year-old boys, and one 15-year-old girl. Mayhem? Yes indeed.
But I’ve never been one to shy away from noise or chaos at home, as long as it’s happy, productive noise and chaos and it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s ability to sleep. These four kids get along very well. My kids get along well to start with, so adding one more into the fold only made things better. Ping pong showdowns and rollicking dinners and yelling at the TV during political debates – the more the merrier, we’ve found.
5. We Fullers are a happy colony of introverts and that has shocked people.
This is probably the biggest surprise of the experience so far, and it really has nothing at all to do with our student. When friends have asked about how it’s going, I’ve replied honestly - I say that it’s going fine, but it’s a huge shift for five introverts to have an extrovert living among us.
Some people nod with agreement; it’s a pretty simple concept to grasp after all. But one person flat out denied that we’re a family of introverts, while several others have expressed their shock at hearing me use that term to describe my family (it’s true, I swear - all five of us agree on it!).
Which of course has lead me to wonder about how others perceive my family and to marvel that at least to some people, we’re giving off an impression that’s very different from reality. Weird, right? What you know to be true about yourself and your family is not how some people perceive you. It’s a weird thing, and probably the most unexpected revelation we’ve had so far. Weird. Just weird.
Overall it’s been a lot of fun and the organization we’re working with, AFS-USA seems to be a strong, well-run organization that I’m glad to support. And I’m very curious to find out what the next several months bring - more surprises, I'm sure!