If You Ever Get the Opportunity to Host an Exchange Student, DO IT!


If You Ever Get the Opportunity to Host an Exchange Student, DO IT!When the school where I work sent an email plea asking for “host families” for a group of middle-school-aged Chinese students coming to visit our campus, I felt nervous and hesitant.

What will the student think of our always-messy home? 

What if he hates my cooking? 

Will my three-year-old and five-year-old drive him crazy?

Can I really fit a full-sized person between those two car seats in my backseat? 

Despite my fears, I went ahead and offered. The ladies in charge of the International department at our school were grateful. They confessed how difficult it had been to find anyone willing to open their homes, especially during (what was the very beginning of) the Coronavirus scare. They asked me if I’d be willing to host two boys instead of just one.

*Gulp.* I ignored my doubts and assured them that I could. And let me tell you friends, it was the best decision that I’ve made for our family in a while.

My husband and I lived in China for a brief time prior to having children. It was, up to that point, the most significant year of our marriage — simply because of the way it challenged us (hello language barrier), the way it gave us so much one-on-one time to spend together, and the opportunity it provided to travel to places we’ve only seen on postcards. I grew a lot as a person during that year, and I also fell in love with the Chinese culture. We have since had children and purchased a home and set down really strong roots here in Knoxville, but we are both aching to go back someday and share the wonders of that magical place with our children.

Hosting those two boys in our home was like having a little piece of China here with us. There were so many things that I had forgotten about our time spent living there that they reminded me about. Their cultural norms, their superstitions — and even some Mandarin phrases that were buried deep in my subconscious — all came rushing back to me. We ate a lot of really good Chinese food and got out the map (more than once) to discuss different places we’d been and still wanted to go. We also got the chance to share our love for Tennessee culture and show them why we decided to call this place home.

It was a fun and unforgettable visit, but here are a few of the direct benefits that I saw (both to my family and to the boys who visited):

  1. We finally got to share the Chinese culture with our sons in a real and tangible way. We have told them about “mommy and daddy’s year in China” quite a bit, and we’ve shown them pictures before. We’ve hinted to them that we would like to take them back there one day. However, they’re so little that it’s really difficult to grasp the concept of another place on the other side of the globe. Having two boys living in our home, speaking Chinese, sharing Chinese candy and cuisine with them, etc. made the idea of foreign countries with foreign people much more real to them. They are still really young, so we may not take them out of the country for at least a few more years, but hosting these boys definitely ignited a spark of curiosity to know what else (and who else) is out there beyond our American borders.
  2. We made great strides in breaking down the language barrier. Half of the battle of speaking a different language is embarrassment. Sometimes you think you know the right words to say, but you don’t feel confident at all that you’re saying them correctly, so you decide not to even risk it. I felt that way quite a bit when I lived in China, and I could see our two Chinese friends struggling with the same thing. But then something magical happened: The younger boy visiting us (who was only 11-years-old) reached out to my three-year-old and began speaking to him in English. For the first several days of his visit, I felt convinced that he must not know much English at all; he kept relying on his friend to translate things for him. But eventually, his desire to connect with my son Teddy and speak to him won out over his fears, and I began to hear them playing with toys and having conversations in the next room over when no one else was around. I was amazed at how much English he knew! Speaking to Teddy was just a gateway for him; it gave him the confidence to start speaking to the rest of us in English. By the end of his two-week stay, he was feeling so much more comfortable around us that I was a bit disappointed that it was already time for him to go back home. I also saw my five-year-old transition from feeling super shy around his new friends to being open and willing to learn new Mandarin phrases from them. The barriers on both sides were completely gone by the end of the two-week visit.
  3. The boys that stayed with us set an excellent example for my two sons. All I can say is, Chinese moms are TOUGH and they set high standards for their children. It was obvious that our two Chinese friends had been raised right, because I know very few middle-school-aged children who readily offer to wash dishes after dinner or help out around the house without being asked. Anytime they saw me struggling with heavy bags to carry, they would insist on taking them out of my hands. The older of the two boys staying with us often seemed surprised that my five-year-old wasn’t also offering to help, and he kept encouraging him to step up. One night, our friends wanted to treat us to some authentic Chinese hot pot. I suggested a place that I know on Kingston Pike, but they insisted that they cook it themselves. So we headed down to Sunrise Market to pick up supplies, and when we arrived back home, they got to work. They wouldn’t let me help with anything (other than finding them cutting boards and pots and pans), so I just stood back and watched them chop and dice and stew to their hearts’ content. My sons were not super excited about trying the unusual food on the table at dinner that night (though they had no objection to some plain ramen noodles), but they were definitely impressed that I let a couple of middle school boys cook dinner that night.

There were lots of tears and hugs as we parted, along with promises to stay in touch (which have already been fulfilled). My boys are already planning to send some care packages overseas. Like our year spent in China, it was an experience that brought us closer together as a family, and it was a visit that we won’t soon forget.


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