Their home is a revolving door for the world

Foreign exchange students enrich a US family's life

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The buzz at the Cohens' home is about oldest daughter Rachel's huge success recently on a college foreign-language exam.

Ginny Cohen says her daughter, a freshman at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, was no natural with languages. But she got the travel bug when the Cohens hosted a Swedish exchange student in 1996. Rachel, who was in junior high at the time, eventually spent a year of high school in the Netherlands.

Now, though she's never taken a course, her university considers her fluent in Dutch.

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These days, a college semester abroad is de rigueur. But there's something to be said for exposing children to other cultures during more-formative years - even if only as a member of a host family.

"It can be more impactful in a lot of ways if it happens in high school, rather than in college," says Margaret Crocco, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who develops social-studies curriculums.

The Cohens, who have been hosting foreign exchange students for more than a decade, have gone beyond exposing their two daughters to a foreign culture. Their home is a revolving door for people from all over the world.

Which makes following the conversation at their kitchen table like trying to read Tolstoy: At first, the sheer multitude of foreign names overwhelms.

Eventually, Ginny and her husband, Dana, pause to explain.

There's Heikki from Finland. He was here in '97 and '98. Sara from Sweden - that was '96. Before Sara, there was Anja from Germany and Carmen from Spain. Last year, it was Josefina from Argentina.

A few quick mnemonic notes prove helpful for the rest of the evening. For example, Sara was the Swedish siren who attracted queues of neighborhood boys. And Heikki (pronounced hi-key) was the high-IQ wonder who placed sixth in a national physics and math exam in Finland.

An extended family

Of course, for the Cohens, these aren't strange names out of a book, but their extended family of sorts; the framed faces on their dining room hutch and familiar voices that call every Christmas.

This year, Sorrawee, or "Sorra," Suntharapot is staying with the Cohens through one of the oldest exchange programs in the US, run by the American Field Service (AFS). A petite 17-year-old from Thailand, she shuffles into the kitchen smiling shyly and wearing a hooded sweatshirt with jeans. She's carrying three bulging photo albums - an ongoing chronicle of her year in this small corner of New England.

Sorra opens one album to a page with her favorite relic. Wedged between a Gap price tag and a cheat sheet for the American monetary system is a collection of hall passes from Andover High School, where she is enrolled as a senior.

It's hysterical, Sorra says, that in America, where students regularly question authority and approach teachers as peers, they need permission to go the bathroom. Ginny and Dana laugh, too, as Sorra does a mock imitation of a stern teacher denying a student's urge.

It's a minor example of the way an exchange can broaden cultural awareness beyond the thin impressions tourists glean from traveling. It's cultural immersion - for the hosts as well as the student.

This exposure seeps into high schools with exchange students as well. The AFS director for Andover High School, Kate Chatellier, says exchange students "don't isolate themselves at all," despite an initial wariness about lunchtime politics (some, like Sorra, forgo the cafeteria - an intimidating place even for teachers - to eat in a smaller clubroom).

Indeed in some cases, they become popular leaders. This year, Bruno Zarotti from Paraguay takes the Oscar. A surprise basketball star, he's assimilated into the school seamlessly. "Everyone around here knows who Bruno is," Ms. Chatellier says.

Get prepared to shed your insularity

Because cultural differences can lead to unintended clashes, experts agree it's important for host families to be prepped as much as possible. According to Professor Crocco, this is especially true for Americans, who "maintain a level of insularity" unmatched by many smaller nations.

The Cohens couldn't agree more. "You can't assume [exchange students] know what toilet paper is used for," Dana says matter-of-factly.

Sorra nods. Some fellow AFSers, she points out, neglect to say "thank you" for small favors, or to excuse themselves from meals - basic codes of courtesy in the US, but not necessarily in other places.

Sorra, who dreams in English now, says she learned about this American custom from AFS leaders in Thailand. In fact, pinned up in her bedroom, which is sparingly decorated with pictures of family and friends, is a survival list of "popular" American phrases.

Laura, the Cohens' younger daughter and a sophomore in high school, played a critical role in helping Sorra interpret the list. For example, despite what the printout suggests, "space cadet" and "flick" are words not to use. On the other hand, "mall" might come in handy.

Some things are harder to prepare for, and that's where a sensitive host family can make all the difference.

Like the cold: Yasothon, Sorra's hometown, is about a six-hour drive outside Bangkok. The coldest days there hover around 70 degrees F. Anticipating that Sorra would be unprepared for Andover's harsh winters, the Cohens bought her a jacket for her birthday.

For foreigners, the frenetic pace of the Northeast can be just as challenging as its weather. "There's American time," says Sorra, and then there's "Thai time.... The first week of school I missed the bus so many times." Laura, again, plays the dutiful sibling, rousing Sorra for school.

As the Cohens point out, it's one thing to help a foreign student adjust to US life, but treating him or her like a perpetual guest should be avoided.

Ginny and Dana are sure not to fall into that trap. Full initiation into their family takes as long as the car ride home from Boston's Logan Airport. Initiation rights include regular doses of playful affection, enduring Dana's "corny jokes," and lots of licks from Sam - their Australian shepherd. It also means helping with dishes.

This approach solves potentially sticky issues like money or curfews. If Sorra is going out to the movies with friends, for example, she'll pay for herself -just as Laura would. But if the family goes out to dinner, then it's Mom and Dad's treat as usual (exchange students are told to bring between $600 and $800 for the duration of the exchange - typically 10 months).

The Cohens haven't been prepared for every situation. When Sara came to their house from Sweden, their daughters were not yet dating. Ginny and Dana say they were charting new waters with a child from a different culture. They ended up laying down the same rules (no boys in the bedroom) that they would have imposed on their own kids - even though the Swedish tend to be more relaxed around these issues. "Over the years we've learned to be even more upfront," Ginny says.

In some ways, hosting a student is like adopting a child.There's a lot of time and effort involved.

But the perks are often unexpected. The Cohens finally had a reason to see America's Stonehenge in Salem, N.H., and the Amish community in Pennsylvania.

Soon Sorra will treat them to a homecooked Thai dinner. She's planning the menu: chicken with curry and a surprise dessert that has everyone in suspense.

For more information about AFS exchange programs visit: www.afs.org/usa

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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