Note to new readers: Our family took in two foreign exchange students this year. Denmark is a 17 yr old girl. China is a 16 yr old boy. The U.S. is our 15 yr old son (Little Man). Israel, when home, is our 22 yr old daughter (Principessa), and Canada our 19 yr old son (Middle Man). I am The Secretary General. Smart Guy is dad. Together, we are the U.N.: a home where laughs come daily, chaos reigns and borders fall easily, as we live like a real family. Know that no foreigners were hurt in the making of this blog post or in the incidents cited. All parties were aware that their comments were being noted, and pictures were used with permission, and assistance in editing for privacy. That said…
这会咬我: Spare yourself the Google translation, it’s probably wrong anyway. To some degree, that is the my point. If I’m ever in China, it will bite me. I ushered these words to Denmark this morning and she laughed, and then replied: “I don’t think so. I don’t think this is China (country), it’s China.” This followed on the heels of yet another “what doesn’t drive you crazy, better make you laugh” moment with China, the boy. The common sense chip was definitely not available in this “made in China” model. Brilliant, charming, oh so funny (as much when he intends it as when he doesn’t) and dear to us, but this kid did not arrive with that chip, and it is a source of constant “moments” between us. When my mother met Smart Guy, nearly 30 years ago, she murmured “For such a smart guy, he’s not very bright,” and we’ve been using it ever since. Smart Guy is brilliant, like China, but both miss some things… big obvious things sometimes… that can make me scream or laugh uproariously, depending on the moment, the circumstances, the time of month. (Neither would get that reference). This morning, it was a mix of the two. I wanted to scream, but ended up laughing, along with Denmark. China doesn’t always appreciate these moments, and hence my acknowledgement that if I were to ever end up in China for a year, no doubt these moments would come back to bite me.
I have been constantly aware of that fact for the 8 months that the U.N. has been in session. Daily doses of insanity, frazzled frustrated crazy moments, hilarity that reminds me that my bladder is getting old too, quick anger that surprises me and then (thankfully) abates just as quickly, and always, moments of sloppy humility. It’s sloppy, because I am constantly tripping over it and then realizing: oh, there it is again; me thinking it’s them, when it’s just as much me. How can I not feel humbled, when I stop to think what these two kids have done in eight months?! They are kids. Kids. They both left their homes, their friends, their families and landed here, with little to no preparation. In both cases, our home was a last minute situation and neither they nor we were prepared. They came not sure if we would be safe, kind, welcoming, or whether we’d even keep them. That, lost now in the eight months of falling in love, is a fact that can not be overlooked. We did not commit to keeping them, openly, until weeks after they’d been here. Given the last minute details of our accepting not one but two foreign exchange students, with very little consideration, and only 24 hours preparation, we used a trial agreement as our safety net. I can justify it, but then humility reminds me again of how scary that must have been for China and Denmark, as they slept here, ate here, lived here, each day for those 6 weeks, wondering what would happen. (Within the first two weeks, China had his first experience (ever) with snow, and should have realized this year could be a slippery slope a times.—>)
I still remember the night we announced at dinner that we’d decided to make it official… something that both Smart Guy and I had quietly known for weeks… that we would host them for the entire school year. Denmark got it right away (there you go, China needs the hard, clear facts spelled out) and teared up. She was so relieved and happy. China looked around anxiously, still trying to figure out what new detail he was missing. It was still early, we didn’t know that we’d be spelling a lot of things out. Sarcastic me jumped in: China, we’ve decided to let you and Denmark stay here for the whole year. It’s no longer a temporary placement. We’re keeping you. I smiled and added, but we’re sending U.S. back. Denmark guffawed. She arrived with strong sarcasm wiring, as if I’d nursed her myself. China looked down at his food, waited a second and then answered in a concerned voice: “I am very happy mom. But I think you should keep U.S. too.” I should have surrendered then.
Instead, it has been eight months of learning, for all of us. For the record, it turns out that China is a very sarcastic boy as well. Sometimes it doesn’t translate, but often he catches me in his Chinese web. Oh and then, how he grins. Yesterday, I was driving China and Denmark to an exchange student event. China eats tic tacs all the time, usually the fruity ones, and he took them out and offered one to Denmark and I. You know, you should buy the mint ones China, I said. The fruity ones are just sugary and do nothing for breath. Everything is a teaching moment, right? “Ahh. Ok mom,” he answered. He shook the container, and then said “But I don’t understand this word meeent on this container.” China! That’s what I just said, mint, mint, not meeent. Mint is something people use for their breath, blah blah. It took me a second to realize that China was smirking at Denmark, over the car seat, and I was the butt of his sarcastic, fake Chinese accent (meeent), and the one slow on the uptake this time. What a wicked web that boy has, when he’s in his groove. Those are the moments when I think he must be faking it all those other times, when common sense flies past him. Not so.
There are so many moments in the past year when I am reminded of all that goes into this experience, for each of us. I am constantly stumbling over moments that seem harder because they come from kids that are not really my own, even though we live like a family. This one leaves their dishes out, dual requests for food that then doesn’t get eaten (again and again and oh when it’s Organic or specialty, arrgh!), chores that are missed, requests for rides here and there and there again. I am flustered and annoyed by kids who claim to be bored, but will only go places when a ride is available, when they were accustomed in their own countries to taking the public buses. Granted, ours are not as easy to access, but they are there. “I really want to see some museum before I leave,” “I want to go to the mall,” “there’s nothing to do,” “I’d like to volunteer,” etc, etc… These things do not happen, unless I drive. With my own kids, it is easy to say no, and not feel guilty. I have had a lifetime to define the limits with my own, and for mutual agreements about how far either of us will push. It’s entirely different with someone else’s child.
When I stop to think that one may not see the museums, the other loves the mall, they are in all day on weekends (unless I threaten, cajole, or take them somewhere) when there are so many cool things to do… but only, apparently, if I drive… I find myself resentful and annoyed. Then, I stop and I am humbled for a moment, when I think that they still came a very long way, on their own, and they are kids. Would I venture out to these places if I was in Denmark or China for a year? Probably. Honestly, I think I would. But, I am much older and it doesn’t seem as daunting. Given the 5 rides per week home from track (after school), the drives 4x a week to choir, the hair cuts, the trips to the ban or store for necessities, I will forgive me and them for the missed museums, malls and moments that are not so important to them, that they will find a way there on their own. There is little point in letting it bother me, if they are willing to miss out.
Parenting two kids who are not yours, but are given to you for 10 months, presents constant challenges for all sides. Dealing with a girl who has her own issues and struggles that I may have handled with my own daughter, comes with different boundaries and conflicts. I can advise and offer my thoughts, but if and when she chooses another path: if she will not compete in track, if she will not wear a cami under her camies, if she is a strong young woman who has her own ideas about many things, I can only let it go. When a boy, who is not my son, needs guidance on everything from new customs here in the U.S. to dealing with the death of his grandmother, I can offer a hug, a correction, instructions for putting the toilet seat down and why it’s important (Hello? Don’t women in China complain about this too?), but if grief is a very private thing in China, and if advice about toilet seats goes unheeded, mints are not always used, fried rice is the preferred meal every meal, friendships are a struggle, I can only let it go. And that, is not always easy. (Yummy yes, but breakfast, lunch and dinner?)—>
With my own kids, there is that inevitable point of letting go as well. Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while, knows that I can be a dog with a bone when it comes to letting go. However, with our own kids the lines are clearer usually. I feel entitled, even required at times, to hold onto the bone. I don’t let nutrition go ignored. I can lay down the law about purchases. I am inclined to explore issues of friendship and emotions. I’m in it for life. Here, in this strange arena, there is always that gnawing “he/she is not your kid,” that requires that I step back and weigh the outcomes differently. As the day comes closer that they both will leave, that line is even less clear. Smart Guy reminds me constantly, “they’re leaving in a few weeks; it’s not worth struggling over this/that/the other thing.” He’s right, but it’s hard to let it go and accept that. What do you mean you’re not going to practice? You’re not competing? We don’t let our kids let the team down. I want to snarl; instead I grumble and then I have to leave the bone lying. Nutella does NOT go with liverwurst! (Seriously, and example) That is not a healthy snack! Why are you inside on a beautiful day? Go to a museum! You’re wearing that?! You need a haircut. It’s endless. The comments and questions pop into my head, and then I remember that they are indeed leaving soon and I don’t need to be so vigilant. Admittedly, Nutella on liverwurst requires a stand, but the point is: they will go home, they will have lots of memories and there is only so much that I can push at this point.
Again, the humility buffers reality. If I were abroad for a year, how many times would I miss the cues? How often would I feel totally lost in the language and customs of another place? How often would I resent “others” telling me how to do things that I’ve done differently my whole life? How often would I just be tired of trying to jump through someone else’s hoops, when I prefer my own? My guess is, that mostly I would just submit and go along, because they’re giving me my food, they’re letting me live there, they made this year possible for me, I need them, and because we love each other. And for the record, we do.