Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What I Learned From My Foreign Exchange Student

It was that email, the one I tried to avoid, but it came anyway. "Dear Mrs. Steele, please consider hosting another exchange student (we are desperate!!)." It was followed by an email from my daughter, "Mommy, they are getting more students, can we have one?!" Of course, my initial response was NO! We had already hosted a student in November and December (one of the busiest times of the year) and now I had a full plate of events coming up - how could I possibly have time to host another student?

I had to do some soul searching. Having an exchange student means more than just supplying a bed and meals. It means showing them the sites, paying for the majority of their experiences, cooking more than usual and not being able to be a slug and telling my kids to eat cereal for dinner because I'm tired of cooking. I mean, I wouldn't want the student to see how I actually run the household, that would be embarrassing! But, I didn't want the student to be sent to a family who wouldn't go the extra mile, who wouldn't show them our wonderful city,  and who wouldn't look at the experience as something they could learn from as well. So, I said YES.

Our exchange program is unique in the sense that there are no guidelines and no expectations. These students come from my daughter's sister school in France, and their primary goal is to be immersed in the English language. Of course, they are coming to one of the best cities to visit, San Diego. We have a multitude of things to see and experience here, and I can't imagine sending them home without experiencing a good majority of it. Before our student arrived, I was already trying to figure out how we were going to fit everything in. My youngest was in a musical with tech week and two weekends of shows, I was flying up to move my son home from college, my middle child was preparing for the ACT and focusing on the last two months of her junior year, my husband and I had weekend plans for two of those weekends she would be with us. How in the world would I make it work?

Somehow, even with our crazy schedule, we did make it work. But what was more eye-opening to me was how much I enjoyed having this student during this crazy time. I can get caught up in the whirlwind of our busy life, never coming up for air, never taking in what I am actually doing because I keep thinking that I just need to get through it and survive. But this time, our student had me seeing things through different eyes.

Our student comes from a small city three hours from Paris. They don't have Starbucks (what place doesn't have Starbucks?), malls, large grocery stores, grand sized cinemas or a never-ending supply of restaurants offering cuisine from all over the world. Just seeing our student's excitement over the smallest things was, at first, amusing and then caused me to reflect on how lucky we truly are. The first day, when I picked her up from school, I asked her how her day was and she said, with wide eyes and an animated smile, "So fun! School here is so fun!" I think you could have picked my kid's jaws up off the floor because they would never describe school as fun. Every time we took her to something we thought as standard and ordinary, she would think it was extraordinary. After a while, her excitement became infectious, and I found myself looking at all those things I took for granted as marvels, pure blessings.

It has been five years since we moved back from living in Asia. When we first moved home, I loved to visit the grocery store and enjoy the multitude of choices down each aisle. I enjoyed the ease of getting what I needed whenever I needed it, being able to order food or drinks in my native language and not worrying about the water I drank or the food I ate. I appreciated the palm trees, the roar of the waves, the painted sunsets and the clean air. But, like all things, after a while it's just expected, and we often forget how wonderful all those things truly are.

Our student has taught me to appreciate these simple pleasures again. Even in the busiest of schedules, I realized how lucky I am to have what I have. Too often I find myself saying, "I just can't wait until this is over with," instead of embracing each moment and learning something from it. Granted, there are those things that we endure and really just want to get over with like colonoscopies or mammograms, but there are also those events that seem invasive and exhausting yet hold invaluable lessons and hidden appreciation.

As we embark on summer vacation, I encourage you to take in the things you have often taken for granted and see how remarkable they truly are. Try to see things from a different perspective; put yourself in someone else's shoes and experience it. I guarantee, you will start to see the ordinary become extraordinary, and you will cherish it more. Whether it's struggling to stay sane while your children are home from school or getting yourself through another menial week of work, know that the childless and the jobless envy you. We have a lot to learn from the simplest of blessings.