What I am about to share with you is “all wrong”. As a matter of fact, it’s not “supposed” to happen. You see, I’m a guy…an avid bow hunter, a computer nerd by trade, a hockey enthusiast, a fisherman, a volunteer police officer, a husband, and a dad. I have two fantastic daughters, Michaela and Chelsea, with my beautiful wife, Julie, of 13 years and two incredible, brave German daughters, Luisa and Jana, who while they weren’t born to us, are most certainly family and we absolutely consider them ours…even though we only get them for a very short time.
So what’s wrong you ask? Two misconceptions:
1) That guys are macho, tough, don’t show emotion, are distant, difficult to really know, don’t do relationships. They aren’t supposed to cry, hurt, feel pain, show emotion, etc.
2) That because exchange students are here only for a short period, we, host parents, are more like tour guides or maybe even park rangers. Showing the sites, navigating hazards, careful to setup boundaries, the resident experts, here to keep them safe, but never really attached.
Why does it bother me? You see, I have this crazy idea. It is neither profound nor earth shattering… as a matter of fact, it has been around thousands of years and is at the core of truly healthy people. What is it? That people are worth investing in. That hosting, and life in general, is all about relationships!
What does that mean to me? It means that hosting is worth the time, heartaches, frustrations and joys that are part of the journey. It means that I would rather spend hours on the couch talking with my wife and daughters, getting to know them, hearing about their day, being crazy and goofy, playing games or aching while they tell me the hurts and pains in their lives. It’s true! I would rather sit in awkward silence next to my daughter who is crying because her horse passed away so she knows just how much I care about her, than do anything else on the planet. I would rather give one last hug before I head out on duty, even though it is the seventh “one last hug” and I am now risking being late for roll call.
By now you are saying, “Jason, I thought this blog was about hosting exchange students.” It is…I’m getting there. I’m a new International Coordinator with Aspect. It is my pleasure and delight to find fantastic, warm, caring, supportive and encouraging homes for students coming to the United States. I love it! While my first year did not yield record numbers of host families, two to be exact, it did solidify my belief. It’s all about relationships! When I talk with potential host families, my ears perk up when I hear them speak about the importance of family, about investing in others, about being encouraging and supportive, about loving a student they have never met as if they were their own.
My encouragement to all of you, students and host families alike, is to invest. Invest in your relationships.
Host families — invest in your students. Listen to them, ask them questions, work through the language difficulties, encourage them through long silences as they formulate English sentences, challenge them to grow and learn with the heart of a teacher. When they are riding the highs of high school life, encourage them, celebrate their successes, give ‘em high fives and a BUNCH of affirmation. Build them up. But also be there in the awkwardness and difficulties of the lows. When they hurt, offer a listening ear. Sit with them when they are sad. You don’t always need to have words…sometimes your presence is enough. Learn to read their body language. Check in with them about how they are “really” doing. Encourage an environment of honesty by being honest yourself. Be safe. Be willing to hear criticism. Offer a hug. Be present. Love on them. Oh, and host dads, this means you too! “My wife is the one who normally interacts with the student,” you say. Why? You are missing out on something amazing!
Students — invest in your host families. Show that you are interested in them. Ask LOTS of questions. Clarify if what you have heard doesn’t make sense. Open yourself to the possibility that the stereotypes you have heard aren’t true. Assume the best possible meaning to what you have heard. Be open to new experiences. Fight through the awkwardness of silences or embarrassment of not knowing the right words to say. Allow your host family to love you. And always keep in mind, your host family chose YOU to spend time and live with them. Be appreciative, thankful and don’t be afraid to show it!
In a society of toughness and rugged individualism, the idea of vulnerability is often cast in a negative light, but I am here to tell you it is essential and important. It is essential for both students and host families alike. Sharing life together puts us in this place naturally. Embrace it. It is not looks or “feelings” that make one beautiful…it is vulnerability and authenticity that makes you trustworthy, dependable and safe. By the way, being vulnerable is hard! I recently shared the story of my dad, who has had dementia for many years now and no longer remembers my name, with Jana…it was an incredibly vulnerable moment for me as I shared about his illness and its effects and ended up tearing up. It was worth it. Jana got a glimpse of a side of me that very few people know and it makes our relationship deeper and richer.
I’m not your typical guy as you may have guessed by now. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. When Luisa left us last summer, my heart broke into a million pieces in the best possible way. I was very happy for her to be able to go home and be reunited with her natural family and friends, but also very sad at our loss. This not-so-tough tough guy cried within a block of leaving the house and for most of the hour long drive to the airport. I “ugly” cried when she made the awful walk through security at the airport after our last hug, which was not long enough. When Jana makes that same journey, history will repeat itself. Maybe even more as I have learned now to cherish my time with her. We have actually coined the phrase “Jana Time” around our house, making sure each family member gets quality time with her regularly. I can’t tell you, in the last six weeks, how many long conversations we have had on the couch in our living room or over dinners, just sharing life. I would not give any of this up for the world.
One day, when I leave this life behind, I don’t want to be measured by my accomplishments, awards, or what I had or didn’t have. I want to be remembered by the lives that I have impacted. That I made a difference to someone, somewhere! That somehow, someway, their lives were changed for the better because of our relationship. Hosting a student is more than cultural exchange for my family…it’s about sharing life…it’s all about relationship and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Recently, Jana posted a family picture with all of us sitting together in the pine needles as summer has now changed to fall in Minnesota. It’s a beautiful scene and a great picture of us together, rich with color and warmth amidst the chill of winter on the door step. The words that she used struck a chord with me and will echo long after we say our “see you laters” in June. She wrote, “Family is not an important thing – it’s everything! #exchange” Our German daughters have changed our lives forever…after all, it’s about relationships!