Their home is a revolving door for the world
Foreign exchange students enrich a US family's life
(Page 2 of 2)
Get prepared to shed your insularitySkip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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