Over 10 days in late January/early February, The New Century School welcomed 23 Chinese students to Baltimore for a Winter Exchange Program. The program, hopefully the first of many, was a smashing success, with the students merging seamlessly into TNCS classrooms and daily school life. Please read Immersed‘s coverage of the event from 2/10, linked above, for details. This post explores the experience from another perspective—that of two of the many families who hosted the students, welcoming them into their homes and their hearts. Their experiences were different in some ways, but what they have in common is the real story. (A forthcoming post will provide a slightly different host family point of view: what it’s like to host TNCS interns.)
The Wolds/Barrys hosted three girls, ages 9, 11, and 14. Although they had originally signed up to host one student, they opted for another, and then another, during the home visit conducted by the program coordinator, Kerrigan Dougherty, who saw the Wolds’/Barrys’ multi-bedroom home as ideal for the visitors. Their car is also large enough to transport five kids (they have two of their own, a son in the primary division at TNCS and a daughter in elementary) to and from TNCS. In the end, they did not want any of the prospective exchange students to miss out on this opportunity and figured that they could make it work with three for the relatively short 10-day duration. Ms. Wold says the home visit had a dual purpose, first to make sure from the coordinator’s perspective that the exchange student(s) would have suitable accommodations and second to allow her and her family to ask practical questions (such as, What will the students’ day-to-day itinerary consist of? Do we need to pack them lunch? etc.) and address any potential concerns. Host families were given a stipend of $200 per student to cover food and any miscellaneous expenses.
This kind of preparation was essential. Surprises are inevitable in a cultural exchange; the trick is in gathering enough information beforehand to be able to roll with any unexpected turns of events. Make them surprises of the pleasant variety, in other words.
For example, the Wolds’/Barrys’ visitors arrived around midnight on 1/16, and were very eager to see something new, having never been away from China before. Getting them to bed and rested for the next day, a full day of activities, was not going to be easy. But Ms. Wold had the inspiration to take them up onto her roof deck to look at the skyline and the city lights. After some talking and getting to know each other, the girls retired for a few hours and then went to TNCS for their first day. “This time difference and jet lag aspect was the most challenging part,” said Ms. Wold. “It’s harder for kids to get over jet lag, I think. Their little bodies just give out on them, and they can’t rally as easily as adults can. But they adjusted pretty quickly all in all.”
The oldest girl, nicknamed Lily, spoke the best English of the three and was helpful with communicating the needs of the younger two as well as provided the most insight into what their daily life is like back home. “I’m glad I had all three,” said Ms. Wold, “because I was able to normalize one’s behavior in comparison to the others. And, they had each other for camaraderie at the end of the day.”
The biggest (and funniest) surprise for the Wolds/Barrys was with meals. Ms. Wold had gotten a rice cooker and taught herself how to make several Chinese dishes prior to the girls’ visit, but they made it clear from the start that they wanted American food . . . particularly spaghetti with tomato sauce and pizza. Every day. Even for breakfast.
Ms. Wold laughs, “I was not anticipating that. After 5 days of serving them my spaghetti, I took them to Chiapparelli’s Restaurant in Little Italy to have real Italian spaghetti. So we had a day out, which they loved, with all of our Western dining rituals, from the fancy tablecloths to the formal table setting.”
Silverware and table settings turned out to be a big deal for them and marks a culture-sharing moment. Ms. Wold describes this moment fondly:
For every meal, even breakfast, we set the table with a full silverware setting including salad forks—which we don’t normally do in our house—because they were so intrigued by it. They had never used silverware before. They were initially a bit clumsy with the knife and fork, but they got used to it. I offered chopsticks, but they declined; they wanted the Western experience. They had been prepared before coming to embrace the culture.
Some aspects of daily life were kept consistent for them, though, to ensure their comfort. For example, families were instructed to serve warm meals, never cold ones. The spaghetti for breakfast starts to make a little more sense to an otherwise American sensibility in this context—cereal was a no-no. “I tried to think in terms of their parents being worried about them not eating and attempted to serve enough of a variety that they would always find something they were happy with. So, in addition to spaghetti and pizza for breakfast, I would also put out watermelon, waffles, and toast. It sounds random, but they would eat little bits of all of it,” said Ms. Wold.
In fact, eating “family style,” with small servings from a variety of dishes is akin to what they are accustomed to at home, with dishes commonly being rotated around the table on a lazy Susan.
Naturally, some things were easier to embrace than others, and each girl embraced certain aspects of Western culture to varying degrees, with the youngest (nicknamed Annie) adapting most readily to the comparatively more relaxed daily structure.
The exchange students were not the only ones to be exposed to new ideas, however. The Wolds/Barrys gained both some cultural knowledge of China as well as a new layer of understanding for their own native culture. Explained Ms. Wold:
Every day saw a new discovery on that level. One thing that the oldest said a few times was that she really wanted to see a blue sky and breathe fresh air. That was eye-opening for me—just how accustomed they are to urban living and density and what it means to live in cities of tens of millions of people. Getting to see our daily life here through their eyes helped me appreciate it in a fresh way.
They especially commented on the architecture. It’s very European-looking down here in Fell’s, and they were charmed by all of the 18th- and 19th-century buildings. They’re mostly living in small flats in high rises, whereas Baltimoreans live in row homes.
They also described the differences in schools, not just academics, but also the approach. They start at 7:00 am and don’t finish until 7:00 pm. It’s very rigorous and much less fluid, than, for example, TNCS’s Montessori-inspired approach. They loved all the art, the drumming [see —Winter Exchange Program], anything outside the typical pencil-and-paper busy work.
It was important to the Wolds/Barrys to show the girls as much about their lives as possible and visited spots around Baltimore frequently, such as the American Visionary Art Museum, Fort McHenry, a paint-your-own-pottery studio, and the Science Center, In addition, they asked, “What do you want from this experience? We can take you places and show you things, but let us know if there’s a specific wish you want to fulfill.” Ms. Wold says her desire to show them as much as possible served several purposes. “What if this was their one chance to visit the United States or even to leave China?” was foremost, but she also needed to keep them occupied during daylight hours to facilitate their time adjustment. Simply getting them out of the house was another reason because, as this age group is inclined to do, they might otherwise hole up in the bedroom absorbed with their phones. Variety was yet another reason: “They’ll all each remember something different, and I was trying to make sure they would individually get something out of the experience.” For example, driving around one day, they saw a Tesla just ahead of them, which delighted Lily no end, as she has an interest in all things mechanical and liked to chat about topics ranging Elon Musk himself and Buckminster Fuller to Chinese poetry.
Not everything about the girls’ visit was surprising, however. As anticipated, and why the Wolds/Barrys signed up for this host experience to begin with, the interaction among the Chinese and American kids was “just awesome” in Ms. Wold’s words. “That was the best part. For example, Mary (a nickname), the 11-year-old, and my son had this connection. There was some magic between them. They would look for each other first thing in the morning and build Legos together, draw together, and play games together, and they sat together at every meal.”
At one point, Mary took pictures of her little friend, which her mother later sent to the Wolds/Barrys. “I got tearful,” said Ms. Wold. “Seeing my son through her eyes was really special.”
Annie and the Wolds’/Barrys’ daughter are about the same age. Although neither really spoke the other’s language very fluently, “to watch them form a friendship and a bond and to find their own way to communicate was magical,” said Ms. Wold. “The relationships our kids formed with the exchange students was pretty amazing.”
Annie was the most animated, and, even though she spoke the least English, she was the easiest to communicate directly with. Ms. Wold says facial expressions and hugging told her almost everything she needed to know about how Annie was doing. Once, she misinterpreted Annie’s meaning, though, with very touching results.
The last day, she was crying in the back seat of the car on the way to school. I asked Lily to explain to her that she was almost done and would see her mom soon. I thought the homesickness was catching up with her and she was just breaking down. ‘No, no,’ Lily told me, ‘she’s crying because she doesn’t ever want to leave this place.’ I was not expecting that. That was not even on my radar of why she might be upset. To see that she loved it here so much then made me cry. I realized after I dropped them off, that they had become a part of my family so fast, because they’re in this other country; they’re so vulnerable . . . those are now my babies, too. When I had to let them go, it was really emotional.
As a parting gift, the Wolds/Barrys gave each girl a photo album of their time together, with the last page of each book being a photo of the Wold/Barry family with their contact information and a message to please stay in touch. Mary’s mom has already established contact and has expressed interest in also making a visit.
The Ligon family hosted one girl, “Sunny,” age 9, whom they fell completely in love with, and the feeling was clearly mutual. They forged such a strong bond that, a month after the exchange students departed, the Ligons are still in communication with Sunny and her family. The Ligons have a daughter age 6 in the TNCS elementary program.
Why We Do It
Said Ms. Ligon of her experience, “This was a great, great way for my daughter to understand TNCS’s holistic approach in terms of not just language-learning, but also people and cultures. It was a way to bring that full circle.”
That “bringing the approach to life” is why the Ligons chose to be a host family. “We wanted to welcome Sunny into our home and learn from her. We also were very eager to share both American and African American culture with her.”
Sunny immediately became part of the family, playing a big sister role. She is aptly nicknamed, apparently, as the Ligons commented more than once about how much fun they all had together, thanks to Sunny’s sunny nature and lively personality. Sunny also had a wonderful experience playing with the Ligons’ new puppy. Household pets are not the norm among urban-dwelling families in China, due largely to practical reasons of limited space and long hours spent outside of the home. The Ligon’s puppy was a source of endless delight for Sunny.
One adjustment that Sunny and the Ligons had to make together was with food. Ms. Ligon said one night she cooked four different meals to give Sunny something she would eat. It didn’t take her long to discover Sunny’s predilection for sweet things. “Sunny has sweet teeth,” she said, and sent some American candy home with her as a delicious, but probably very fleeting, memento.
Like Ms. Wold, Ms. Ligon embarked on this experience with a good deal of positive energy. “I like to be prepared,” she said, and had lots of great ideas for fun ways to keep the new “sisters” engaged both in and out of the home. Jaunts around town in Sunny’s spare time included a good dose of American food culture, such as visits to a Red Robin restaurant and a Rita’s, both of which Sunny loved. They also saw Moana in the theatre, because no visit to the United States is complete without a taste of Disney (wink). They expressed their creative sides at Amazing Glaze by painting some pottery. The Ligons were constantly impressed by Sunny’s artistry and were thrilled that Sunny left them some artwork to remember her by.
School nights, though, were for participating in the Ligons’ family home life. “I believe girls should have more STEM,” said Ms. Ligon, and so she set up experiments for the girls to perform each evening, drawing ideas from Project Mc2—“Smart is the new cool.” She blinded them with science! (Fun Fact: Thomas Dolby, British creator of that iconic 1980s synthpop tune now teaches here in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University as Professor of the Arts.) Slime-making was perhaps the biggest hit.
Finally, here are the takeaways each family shared. The Wolds/Barrys would advise families who are considering hosting to “know what you’re taking on. It’s a big commitment, but you’re getting a lot out of it, and the kids on both sides are getting a lot out of it. If you’re open to a little hard work, and you keep an open mind, you can have a very gratifying experience.”
Another piece of advice Ms. Wold offers is to host two students, when possible, to ward off the isolation one might feel in such an unaccustomed environment and simply to have someone to share the experience with who is coming at it from the same point of view. “They can then have each other to bond with and reflect on the day together, in their own language.” She is clear that, although the experience is not without its challenges, it’s so worth it on so many levels.
Ms. Ligon, on the other hand, found that having just one student worked out beautifully for her family. Both her daughter and Sunny are only children, so they struck a good balance together. She describes her daughter as being “over the moon the whole time. It was a great experience for her, and for all of us. We’re going to keep rolling with it.”
Ms. Ligon recommends that future exchange programs have an orientation to increase understanding going in of what families can expect. Having more information specifically about the student prior to his or her arrival, in particular, would be a big help. “Luckily, we had a great child who jumped right in, and we all enjoyed the ‘adventure’,” she said. An orientation would also provide a forum for first-time families to hear from veteran hosters and to ask questions.
Another suggestion that Ms. Ligon offers is making participation in one of the whole-group activities available to host families. The Ligons missed Sunny when she went with the group on the weekend trips such as to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration.
To prospective hosts, Ms. Ligon says, “If any parent has the opportunity to do this, it can be life-changing. It’s what you make it, of course, but at the very least you go on a wonderful cultural excursion without leaving your home.”
Interestingly, both families drew a much larger significance from the experience of hosting than even their own personally rich encounters. They seemed to see in this kind of program the key to a better global society and to being better human beings. Said Ms. Wold:
It’s a risk on both sides, but I love that we do this. They put themselves out there and we put ourselves out there, and we’re making these connections. This is how our society will move forward, is if we are open to uncomfortable situations and exposing ourselves to new cultures and different ways of thinking. If we’re not, and we want to stay in our close, comfortable little bubbles, then we’ll never move forward. Come on, let’s give it a try.