By Janelle Wetzstein
Northwest Asian Weekly
Each year, thousands of international students come to Washington through a variety of exchange programs. For many of these students, host families merely provide room and board for a fee negotiated through their educational institutes. But for students and host families who take the time to learn about one another, crossing cultures and creating lasting relationships becomes the purpose of the experience.
Jamin Henderson, a representative at the International Student Exchange, said that when her organization’s international students leave to go home, it is often an emotional event.
“There is never a dry eye in June when these kids leave,” she said. “When they get here, there is a time of adjusting, but by the time June comes, everybody is crying at the airport saying goodbye to each other.”
International Student Exchange is just one of several nonprofit groups that connect foreign students with host families in Washington. They work with high school students from 15 to 18 years old, placing them with volunteer host families.
“Our students come from all over the world, they apply to our offices, and they are placed in certain areas of the U.S.,” said Henderson. “The students are on a specific student visa for high schoolers, which means that no money can change hands to the host family. So it is completely a volunteer situation.”
For University of Washington international student Cheih-Hsin Lin, having a host family that was looking for an authentic cultural experience made her first study in America five years ago truly life changing.
“When I went back to Taiwan, my mom told me that the biggest change in me since staying with my host family was that I was more attentive,” Lin said. “One day, I was watching television when my mom came into my room. I turned off the TV and asked her how her day was. Before I came to America, I never would have done that.”
Lin said that her family life in Taiwan was so busy that her home often felt like a hotel, where family members only came to sleep. But after Lin spent time with her American host family, who spent hours talking to each other about their lives, she learned how valuable interaction with family members could be.
“All kids want to interact with their parents,” Lin said. “My parents couldn’t give that to me, but my host family could. I took that home, and it was something that I gained from the experience and took back to my family.”
Lin returned to Taiwan after spending nine months with her host family in Topeka, Kan. She continued to maintain a close relationship with them through social networking sites like Facebook. Now that she has returned to America for college, she calls her high school host family regularly.
Henderson agreed that families who invest time with their international students gain a lot from the experience.
“I have families that have life-long relationships with their students,” she said. “I had a host family that went to Spain a couple years ago to attend their host daughter’s wedding. Deep friendships can be made from this.”
Sasha Chang is a current international student from a Japanese university, studying for the year at the University of Washington. She arrived in Seattle in late September. Chang said that she is hoping for a close relationship with her host family, like the one Lin had.
“If my host parents reach out to me, I would really like it. I know they have done it in the past with other students,” Chang said. “They have hosted close to 40 students in the past, and they have pictures of them all over the house. If we get close, and I hope we do, I will definitely want to keep in contact with them.”
Chang admitted that for many international students, especially those from Asian countries, language is a major barrier in the beginning. “I feel awkward and shy,” Chang said. “Right now, the language thing holds me back. But I am hopeful that I will learn more of the language and about American culture through my host parents.”
Henderson agreed that communication is one of the greatest challenges in a host-student relationship.
“Host families have to pay attention to communication,” she said. “When you have your own children, you have them from the time they were born to whatever age they are currently. These students come into the home as teenagers. So we always have to communicate, from the simplest things to anything major. Always keep the communication open, even if it’s something we think is really silly.”
Chang said she hopes that her new host family will help her adjust to culture in America. She hopes that they will be patient with regarding the language barrier. Her program requires that she stay with a host family for her first quarter in Washington. Afterwards, she is able to decide whether to stay with them or not.
“I haven’t decided if I am going to stay with them after the first quarter,” she said. “But if this goes well, I will definitely want to stay longer.” (end)
For more information on becoming a volunteer host family, visit www.iseusa.com.
Janelle Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.