Ever since I was a little girl, I have been surrounded by foreign visitors in my house. My mom, having lived and traveled in parts of Europe and Africa, felt that it was important for our home to be filled with people and artifacts from all over the world. We had African masks and drums in the house, and greeted our first Foreign Stay Student from Taiwan when I was six. The idea was that we were to house a graduate student who would be attending Stanford University from a different country and help acclimate them for a few weeks before school started. Eve wrote to us ahead of time to let us know that she was “very fat.” We didn’t know what to expect but were surprised when she showed up to find that she wasn’t fat at all, but quite tall for an Asian woman. (She confused the world fat with tall.) We had arranged for her to sleep in my bed in my room and I slept in my sister’s room. But she told us shyly that she preferred to sleep on the floor. We had a Nigerian couple, which was special for my mom since she had lived in Nigeria, but they didn’t bathe much and wore very strong perfume, so the house had an interesting smell. They also fought a lot because Victor felt that he should be in charge, but Ronke, his wife, was of a higher status since she was the daughter of a Chief, so she felt free to boss him around. I know they loved listening to me sing show tunes, which they had never heard before.
During one of California’s droughts, we had Masahiro from Japan, who insisted on bathing multiple times per day, even though we tried to explain why there was a bucket in the shower to collect water for the plants. He just needed to stay very clean, but he was quite polite and came with lots of gifts. There was David from the Cameroon, who became very close with my dad and planned to name his 7th child, the one his wife was expecting, “Stanford” if it was a boy and “Melinda” if it was a girl. They ended up having a girl and there is a Melinda Nti in the Cameroon somewhere. There were others, like Yulia from Russia and Ali from Iran, and not only did they stay for three weeks before their term began, they showed up at many Easter and Thanksgivings. Whenever I came home from college or flew out to visit as an adult, I never knew which “strays” (as my parents called them with a smile) would show up. I have fond memories of playing Pictionary with foreigners from several different countries. And, the highlight was getting to be in Eve’s wedding when I was 10. I still remember the long white dress with the green sash and the red roses down the front that I wore that evening. I felt like a princess.
Now that I have my own family, my husband and I have tried to expose our children a lot to different cultures through our own international friends and through travel. But until this last week, we had never been able to replicate my experience of being surrounded by foreign students. Since my daughter is part of a French exchange this year at her school, the British International School, we have been hosting a French student from Arles for the past week. Eva is a spirited and lovely teen who speaks some English but not enough to not have to use a lot of our French. I found myself jumping in and speaking my very rusty French which is becoming better by the day out of necessity. Eva gets so excited by things we take for granted, since they are new to her, like pancakes (they only have thin crepes), and large hot breakfasts with bacon and eggs (they have light breakfasts with bread and jam) and Reeses Pieces and barbecue chips (they don’t have as much junk food) and watching Dance Moms (she likes the dance and the moms shouting at each other). The first time she ate guacamole was like watching my kids discover their first bite of cake. She loves Mexican food and pop tarts and TJ Maxx and all discount shopping and grilled cheese sandwiches and making sundaes with candy on top. She loves how big the grounds are at my daughter’s school, since she goes to school in a small church that is centuries old. She loves American pop and knows a lot of the words. She uses way too much perfume and hair spray and spends a lot of time on her hair. She is very stylish, in a French teenage kind of way.
There is something about travel that takes us out of our own little world into something new and exciting. But there is also something about having a foreign exchange student in your home that opens your world even more. Unlike visiting a country and planning your trip and itinerary, teenagers are unpredictable and mysterious, particularly in a different language. Last night I found Eva in her room dancing to pop music and watching a video, too excited by the Science Museum and seeing Harvard, to sleep. This morning, it was all I could do to drag her to school, since she wanted to sleep. But she got up, took a very long shower, used a ton of hairspray and an hour later was as good as new. I am so grateful to have this fascinating person in our home, and feel hopeful about the world, because foreigners are really just strangers we haven’t met yet.
To find your world stage, consider the idea of bringing the world to you and invite an exchange student to stay. You won’t regret it.