For 2 weeks we are hosting 2 guest students from China. They are 13 and 15 years old. We did the same thing last summer and I swore that I wouldn’t do it again but then, right before I left Sweden, I received an email saying that they needed to house 10 more kids. Since I want to live in a world where high school kids can go off and have an enjoyable cross-cultural/international experience with a host family and none of us had had any chance to work on our Chinese after our disastrous meal in the first week, I thought it would be great to have some Chinese-speakers in the house for a couple of weeks, I decided we could try hosting again.
I managed to correct some of the problems that made hosting stressful last year. From the very beginning I had the kids walk themselves the 20 minutes to and from school instead of driving them everywhere (if you’ve been reading for any significant time you know that is not our style). I established the expectation that they would load their dirty dishes into the dishwasher and do their own laundry. So, really, many of the more practical stressors from last summer were not present.
However, the thing that made it a bit difficult this time around is that we ended up with a couple of kids who were not particularly open to new things. This was not at all the case last summer when we had 2 very enthusiastic and adventurous kids. I know that it takes a lot of work to immerse yourself in another culture, particularly when you don’t speak the language (these guys have very limited speaking ability and even more limited comprehension. All of our spoken Chinese is rusty but comprehension is still slightly better). All the same, what is the point of travelling to a new country if you are not going to be open to new foods, experiences, etc?
I try to use my experience to bridge cultural worlds. For example, I try to make sure that half of our meals will be more familiar to a Chinese palate but I also offer other meals (pb&j sandwiches, oatmeal, salad, pizza, savory crepes) that will be a stretch and I expect my guests to try this food. Instead our students basically refuse to eat and even try anything that is really outside of what they are used to. We’ve experienced this in terms of activities and household organization as well as food (in which, again, I’ve tried to create a mix of things that will be more familiar and those that are new) and it drives me batty. I don’t capitulate at all. Instead I insist that this is what we are doing now and this is what we are eating now. I feign ignorance and a lack of Chinese comprehension in the face of their obvious distaste and annoyance.
All of this has me reflecting on my behavior when I am the foreigner. Food is one area in which I absolutely push the limits when I am in Asia but, interesting, not Europe. I often say that I am a vegetarian except in the interests of international relations and I don’t care to recall all the food I have eaten in my attempts to be a good guest (jellyfish, sharkfin soup and eel on toast, anyone?). I can remember other times, however, in which I have been a less than willing participant in my hosts’ plans (e.g. unwilling to sit through karaoke). I wonder how such situations are best managed. I try not to take it personally. I try to be sensitive to culture clashes but also to offer the cross-cultural experiences these very privileged kids’ parents paid for. In addition, I don’t have any inclination to spend 2 weeks doing what our guests want to do. They want to go shopping for a Coach bag. I want to go on a hike and take a swim at the community pool.