For­eign stu­dents can teach host fam­i­lies about Amer­ica


It was Miao­fan Chen’s first trip away from her na­tive China. At lunch with us in Den­ver, she looked so be­mused that I had to ask: “Is this the first time you’ve had a ham­burger?”

“No,” said the 15-year-old. “It’s the first time I’ve had such a BIG ham­burger.”

That en­counter with su­per­sized Amer­i­can por­tions was one of many ob­ser­va­tions that stu­dents from abroad have shared with us. Miao­fan, from He­fei in eastern China, was the lat­est of a half-dozen young peo­ple from around the world who’ve called our guest room home. Need­less to say, we learn as much from them as they do from us.

Our in­ter­est in host­ing in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors comes from our own ex­pe­ri­ences abroad. My hus­band, daugh­ter and I re­turned to the U.S. in 2012 fol­low­ing my two decades as an Associated Press cor­re­spon­dent on three con­ti­nents. Peo­ple wel­comed us in their home­towns around the world. Host­ing for­eign stu­dents lets us pay those debts for­ward. SEE­ING THE U.S. THROUGH

THEIR EYES It’s also a way to con­nect with the world from our front door and see our coun­try through another’s eyes.

An Iraqi stu­dent who stayed with us for two weeks was sur­prised to see peo­ple in wheel­chairs go­ing to work or school in Den­ver. Not that her own coun­try, wracked by decades of war, doesn’t have peo­ple dis­abled by in­jury or dis­ease. But in Baghdad, she said, they’re hid­den away. She helped me see that I’d taken for granted the progress here for Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties.

The State Depart­ment-backed Iraqi Young Lead­ers Ex­change Pro­gram and lo­cal part­ner WorldDen­ver kept this Iraqi teen busy meet­ing with lo­cal devel­op­ment groups. Other or­ga­ni­za­tions have taken our vis­i­tors to bas­ket­ball games, to moun­tain re­treats and down­town for scavenger hunts. Of­ten our vis­i­tors go to school with our daugh­ter.

But I some­times think our main con­tri­bu­tion as hosts is giv­ing them time to rest and re­flect. We share meals and show off Den­ver, in­clud­ing my favourite view of the Rock­ies, which hap­pens to be from soc­cer fields near my house.

Guests help make pancakes on Sun­day morn­ings. We’ve sent a French stu­dent to work out with our daugh­ter’s swim team and a Brazil­ian to her pi­ano prac­tice. Miao­fan went ice skat­ing with us, and han­dled her first time on the ice with as much aplomb as she’d shown eat­ing a ham­burger the size of her face. ENGLISH, FOOD AND

LO­GIS­TICS All our guests knew English well enough for daily in­ter­ac­tions. Any young per­son will­ing to em­bark on th­ese trips has the pluck and flex­i­bil­ity to meet us more than half­way when it comes to nav­i­gat­ing cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

But th­ese are teenagers. The one place where courage has failed a guest or two has been at the ta­ble. I once Googled “hunger strike” to re­as­sure my­self that a par­tic­u­larly picky eater could sur­vive the week on only blue­ber­ries and co­conut wa­ter. And pancakes.

Host­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties have been easy for us to ar­range through our daugh­ter’s pub­lic mag­net school, the Den­ver Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. Stu­dents there can study Chi­nese, French, Ital­ian, Ja­panese (my daugh­ter’s choice), Lakota or Span­ish and have rich op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­pe­ri­ence the world through classes, clubs, travel and host­ing.

A school staff mem­ber helps con­nect or­ga­ni­za­tions with host fam­i­lies. Or­ga­niz­ers have ac­com­mo­dated our pref­er­ences for girls around our daugh­ter’s age and for one guest at a time. IF YOU’D LIKE TO HOST Con­tact your child’s school or one nearby. They might have, or be will­ing to es­tab­lish, ties with an or­ga­ni­za­tion that recruits host fam­i­lies through schools. Among them are the Ame­son Ed­u­ca­tion and Cul­tural Ex­change Foun­da­tion, which fo­cuses on U.S.-China re­la­tions, and Global Ties U.S., which con­nects Amer­i­cans with peo­ple around the world.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions you can ap­proach di­rectly in­clude Ado­le­sco, which matches fam­i­lies but lets them work out their own sched­ules for vis­it­ing.

Among the best-known or­ga­ni­za­tions that bring young peo­ple to the United States are AFSUSA and Ro­tary In­ter­na­tional.

Groups of­fer deep and broad sup­port. Ro­tary, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides a list of ques­tions in English and in two dozen lan­guages rang­ing from Afrikaans to Turk­ish that they sug­gest hosts and guests an­swer to­gether the first night.

Ed­u­ca­tion First brings young in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers to­gether in New York for ori­en­ta­tion be­fore dis­pers­ing them to fam­i­lies across the coun­try. The group ori­en­ta­tion eases culture shock as they try new foods to­gether and get used to hear­ing English.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions say th­ese small in­ter­ac­tions can have out­sized re­sults. Alyssa Fox, a home­s­tay man­ager for Sis­ter Cities In­ter­na­tional, which emerged from an Eisen­hower White House con­fer­ence on cit­i­zen diplo­macy, de­scribes their goals this way: “Achiev­ing peace and cre­at­ing con­nec­tions, one per­son, one com­mu­nity at a time.”


For­eign ex­change stu­dent Miao­fan Chen, left, of He­fei, China, chats with Thandi Glick dur­ing a potluck meal for Chi­nese ex­change stu­dents and their fam­i­lies at a school in Den­ver.

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