Other people’s husbands, when they have mid-life crises, buy themselves motorcycles. Some of them buy fancy sports cars. Of course, some of them dump their wives for a newer model. So maybe I shouldn’t complain about my husband’s substitute for a motorcycle: foreign exchange students.
I had just become used to our nicely empty nest, especially the part where I could run around the house in my underwear, when my husband first broached the idea of getting a foreign exchange student. I was not enthusiastic. I wasn’t even sure that agencies would place foreign exchange students in homes where there weren’t other children. It turns out they will.
We decided to look for a student through the American Field Service. AFS started out as an ambulance service during World War I. After the war, a group of AFS members decided to explore ways to foster world peace, and they came up with the idea of sending high school students to live in homes in a foreign country for a school year. High school students. World peace. It was a simpler time back then.
Our first foreign exchange student was a girl from Thailand. Chan was outgoing and friendly, important qualities in a student who was going to have to make friends in school on her own with no host sibling to help. Her ideas of high school in the US, however, had been formed by watching Bring it On. Tara High School was a shock to her system: not only in that it did not conform to her movie driven ideas of life in the US, but also in that it was very different from high school in Thailand. After her first day at school, Chan came home to ask me if it is common in the US for 16 year olds to have babies. I told her that it does happen, but that most people don’t think it’s a good idea. In Thailand, she told me, people her age did not even have boyfriends and girlfriends. Just holding hands with a boy was considered seriously intimate.
On the other hand, Chan was accepting of other aspects of sexuality. She showed me pictures of her friends (before we had the no boyfriends/girlfriends talk) and I asked her if one boy was the girl next to him’s boyfriend. “Him? No, he’s gay,” she said, as if she were saying, “He’s left handed.”
Chan also had some dietary requirements. As a Buddhist, she did not eat beef. She also did not eat vegetables, not for religious reasons, but because (she claimed) she couldn’t digest them. She found our eating different foods at breakfast from what we ate at other meals puzzling, although she quickly came to love bacon. We learned how to cook fried rice for breakfast, and it was a breakfast favorite of ours for years afterward.
The second day Chan was with us we took her out to a seafood restaurant and one of the menu items was boiled crabs. She started laughing. Boiled crabs are her favorite food and before she left home, her parents took her out for some because they didn’t think she would get to eat crabs again until she came home. Once crawfish season rolled around, we tried to convince her to eat crawfish but she wouldn’t go near them. It wasn’t until we took her to a friend’s wedding where the reception was a crawfish boil that she tried a few. She wound up having three helpings. It was hard not to say “I told you”.
We had some conflicts with Chan. Second semester she made friends with Elizabeth, a senior who had a car. John had made plans for us to take Chan to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but he did tell her if she wanted to do something with Elizabeth, she could do that instead. Of course, he meant for her to discuss such plans with us in advance, not come home the night before and say, “I’m going to Eunice with Elizabeth’s family” as she was walking out the door. I suspect Elizabeth’s parents assumed that Chan had already talked the trip over with us and got our okay, but it puzzles me to this day why they didn’t discuss the invitation with us directly and sooner, especially since they were taking her out of town overnight. (We didn’t know about the overnight part until she got home.) We didn’t object to her going, but I had a serious problem with her telling us at the last moment.
In fact, Chan was so upset with my reaction (she told me later with a straight face that no one had ever reprimanded her before because she never did anything wrong) that she asked our AFS representative to be moved to a new host family. Our AFS rep was out of town at the time but we did get a rather cryptic message from her by email. In the meantime, as I found out later, Chan told her parents she was going to switch families and they were extremely unhappy with that plan. They told her she needed to stay with us.
All this led to my favorite Chan conversation ever. She asked me one afternoon what you should do if you really want to do something and it's not morally wrong, but your parents don’t want you to. Of course I asked her just what it was her parents didn’t want her to do, and got the answer, “I can’t tell you.” I reflected a minute and told her that she needed to think of the potential consequences of doing what she wanted to do, think of the consequences of doing what her parents wanted her to do, and decide which set of consequences she’d rather live with. Apparently she liked that answer because she changed her mind about a new family and stayed with us for the rest of the year, although she did spend a lot of time at Elizabeth’s. When she finally admitted to us that she had wanted to leave, she ended with, “I was just being a teenager.”
Elizabeth’s family was strongly Baptist and unlike us, tried to convert Chan from Buddhism. Chan was quite interested in learning about Christianity, which left Elizabeth's brother thinking he had, in his words, "led her to our lord Jesus". From what she told me, living in a country in which Buddhism was not the dominant religion made Chan think more about her own beliefs and realize that she had been taking them for granted.
As we found out when we went to visit Chan in Thailand, her father, like most men of his class and generation, had spent six months after graduation in a Buddhist monastery as a monk. The family had a small Buddhist shrine in their new home. It was customary for them to consult a monk a few times a year for guidance. (We got to meet him.)
Elizabeth and a friend eventually went to Thailand for a visit, too, on their way to a mission in Cambodia. I don’t know if she and Chan are still in touch.
The last time we saw Chan was this past June in London. She is political science graduate student studying there on a grant from the Thai government. In return she needs to work for the Thai government for several years, but that is the career path she wanted anyway. When we knew her, her ambition was to become prime minister one day. Since the fall of the democratically elected government, I don’t know if that’s a position that will be available again in my lifetime, or hers.
But if it is, I can say I knew her when.
(Part two of my experiences as a host mom is here.)
(Part two of my experiences as a host mom is here.)