First, I want to start this by saying that the past week that I have had has been one of the most rewarding experiences ever, and I mean that sincerely. I greatly enjoyed opening our home to two of the eight middle school children that came to visit us here in our town from Japan as part of our Sister City Exchange program.
This was precipitated by my older daughter's desire to be a part of the group to go to Japan this year, and one of the expectations is to have the family of a U.S. participant act as a host family for the Japanese participants. We were happy to do so, and in the process, invited two of the sweetest girls on Earth to stay with us for a week. All of that is fantastic. Now, on to some things I discovered.
1. Do not assume that something that is done where you are matches what is done elsewhere.
I learned this by having our participants have dinner with us at a somewhat high end sushi bar (well, high end for where we live). In the process of having that dinner with them, I discovered that most Japanese do not combine foods like tempura, sukiyaki and sushi in the same meal. I also discovered that the salad's that we often get to start a meal are also not particularly "Japanese", it's an American thing. Another interesting discovery, "American Sushi" uses a lot more wasabi in its making. Not as a garnish on the side, but actually inside of the sushi itself. The girls bit into several nigiri pieces, winced and say "wow, this is too strong!" I then watched them dissect the nigiri pieces and scrape away the wasabi. I found this fascinating; what I had often taken for granted as just the way things were done wasn't. In fact, it was an adaptation for our local environment that I had become accustomed to. Now I know better :).
2. Factor in at least an hour plus for any activity that is done with a group.
We took a trip to the city (San Francisco) and jumped on a MUNI line to go out to the Marin Headlands, the primary goal being to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, and then go explore some other areas of San Francisco. In the process, we gathered up all of the participants and all of the host families to come along. That worked out to about 30 participants. When you are bringing thirty people along to anything, odds are that you will need to pad significant time to make sure everyone can be accommodated. Bathroom breaks easily take 20 minutes with a group that size. Snack stops? Thirty minutes. Meal breaks? Well over an hour, plus an hour or more at any given venue. Needless to say, there were a lot of things that we did that ended up taking a lot of time because of so many people. The easiest way to get some leverage? Split up the group. We were able to see a lot more once we split off into smaller sections and only had to manage twelve people instead of thirty.
3. There are some things that are, on the surface, universal.
Early teenage girls of just about every culture will squeal with delight at a cute bunny rabbit. Cats are adorable. So are dogs. Spiders and snakes tend to weird them out. Cupcakes are a hit. A trip to the Apple Store and letting them test out headphones will last all night if you let them. Late night giggle fests are a norm. With this, my girls and these two girls from Japan got along famously. The Japanese girls considerably better English than my daughters spoke Japanese, but they were able to make themselves understood for hours, and it seems that Americas Funniest Home Videos translate well in to any language.
4. Being a Host Family is rewarding and exhausting
The participants had a full itinerary each day, and both my wife and I participated in it. It left little time for relaxation and just sitting still. Net result, we are both very tired, but it's that super accomplished kind of tired, the kind that makes you feel like you want to pass out, but if you do, you will do it with a grin from ear to ear. One other thing to remember, if you decide to be a host family, any other project you might have going on, just park it. I promise, you will not have the time or the emotional energy to do much of anything else.
5. It's possible to have one's heart stolen in a short amount of time.
Six days ago, I didn't know anything about these eight Japanese students. Today, I sent them home with a heavy heart. It was such a short time, but I already miss them. I know my girls miss them terribly; they cried and hugged for the longest time this morning, until they had to be almost forcibly separated (well, OK, that's a little over dramatic, but it was a hard goodbye). Just six days, and I grew to care about both of them tremendously, as though they were my own daughters. That will fade with time, I know, but the good thing is that the seed for a lifelong friendship has been planted. I will encourage my girls to help keep it growing, if for no other reason than that Christina and I want to know how they are doing.
For those who have similar opportunities, if there is any way you can be a host family to such a program, do it! It's such an awesome experience, and I would gladly do it again. I have a sneaking suspicion that once more may be in our future, when our youngest is in eight grade. If that happens, I'll gladly sign up to do it again.