Hosting an Exchange Student

Looking for opportunities for their children to connect with their cultural heritage, two families describe their experiences with a cultural exchange program.

Hosting an exchange student

Living in a small, Midwestern town where the Asian population is minute, it’s hard to participate in cultural activities as we’d like to. For financial reasons, I didn’t want to move to a new town or a neighborhood, and I felt uncomfortable seeking out friendships with people purely because they were ethnically Chinese. Having a Chinese student live with us seemed the ideal solution to our cultural isolation.

When my daughters, Maria, Eden, and Laurel, were 7, 4, and 3, our agency called, saying a Chinese high school student needed a place to live. And so began a great nine months.

Yuka didn’t teach us Chinese language, traditions, or cooking; rather, we Americanized her. What she did provide, however, was an excellent role model. My daughters absorbed her actions, unconsciously thinking, “This is what I will grow up to look like; these are the things I will grow up to do.” For now, all three are comfortable with their ethnicity.

Yuka connected us to the local Chinese-American community. We were invited to a Chinese New Year dinner and to play dates. I met local teenagers who translated for their non-English speaking parents and worked long hours at their family business.

I had heard that Chinese students were spoiled, only children who expected host families to be servants, but Yuka didn’t fit this stereotype at all. She had three siblings and was the neatest, hardest-working teenager I have met. She needed no prompting to study and do chores.

She enjoyed activities she’d never done before, such as painting a room, baking (most homes in China don’t have ovens), mowing grass, and gardening. She announced right away that she didn’t like rice one bit.

This spring, we tearfully said good-bye to Yuka. For months, my youngest two didn’t understand why she left; she had become their big sister, and, in a sense, I had gained a fourth daughter from China. Not all international student experiences may be as good as ours was, but it worked so well for us that we’ve decided to host a student every other year.

Marianna Haas lives in Muscatine, Iowa. This article originally appeared in the Our Chinese Daughters Foundation newsletter (Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 2003.)

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