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Our two year Chinese exchange student adventure is over. Qi Qi is on his way home.

He is leaving Fort Myers a different person than when he arrived. His education at Canterbury included a recent week-long trip to North Carolina for an Outward Bound trip. That’s where he learned how to rock climb and carry his own pack while he walked for miles through mountainous terrain. I’m sure that’s what it felt like being in a new country.

After hosting two exchange students, we have climbed our own mountain as well. It’s been rewarding and challenging in many ways. The rewarding parts have included watching Joanna & Qi Qi succeed in so many ways in their new environment. In one year, Qi Qi was a top tennis player, math club participant, and earned exceptional grades. Joanna, who didn’t know how to play tennis when she arrived, made the tennis team this year. We have also learned so much about Chinese culture that we didn’t know before.

The challenging parts are logistical – how to get three teens organized and where they are supposed to be. There are cultural differences as well. Many of the students (like American teens) like to stay in their rooms. They have had to learn how to do more self-reliant tasks like laundry and making cereal or sandwiches. But both of our exchange students have been very kind and polite and we are glad we had the chance to get to know them.

More students will arrive in August and Qi Qi still needs a host family. He is a wonderful young man. The stipend has increased for next year, which will make it easier to provide for these students. Meg Hawthorne, their residential coordinator, is a tremendous help in making sure everything runs smoothly. If you are interested in hosting a student or need more information, contact Meg Hawthorne at 917-705-6318.

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All kinds of people become host parents. The Lee County folks who have opened their doors to exchange students are all very different. They include  a retired couple, a retired single, working parents and working couples with no children. Some of these homes have three generations – children, parents and grandparents. One family has four children. Sometimes they start off with the best of intentions but life interferes. Someone gets sick. A grown child returns home. But there is a system is in place so that it all works out.

Next year marks the third year Canterbury will admit Chinese exchange students – and the third year host parents are needed. Only one family will have the student they began with for the third year. But many will do it for two years and others will agree to host for one year. Every family and every student is different, which is why there is an intensive screening process.  Some of these Chinese students have made the tennis, track, swimming and basketball teams – one has become very successful on a Cape Coral rowing team. Other students have been in plays, math competitions and joined other clubs.

Next year, there will again be another shuffle. Seven new students – all girls – are enrolled in Canterbury. Some of the students from year one and year two need new host families.

All of these students get tremendous academic and social support. Meg Hawthorne, their residential coordinator, checks in on them every month and develops a social event for them every quarter. They are assigned a peer ambassador from the school. All exchange students take ESOL classes and new students have an additional seminar. If any situation arises where the student’s natural parents are needed, translators are available. In my two years as a host parent I’ve never been in contact with the parents beyond our initial meeting. For some families, they are in contact a lot.

It is an adventure. If you are interested in learning more contact Meg Hawthorne at 917-705-6318 for more information.

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The choice not to host another Chinese student was a family choice. After doing it for two years, we decided it was time to take a break. But Qi Qi has always been polite and easy to be around. He just returned from a trip to Orlando with Canterbury classmates where he competed in a math competition. In a few weeks he will travel to North Carolina for a week-long Outward Bound trip with classmates. He’s busy studying, playing basketball or spending time with his friends. He’s very independent and he has been raised that way.

He makes sacrifices to pursue his goals. This summer he will travel with his parents to places like Tibet and the UK and then will study for a month in Beijing far from his family. My kids are also busy finding their way. We have been happy to host these amazing students, and have shared lots of memories and laughs. My kids have had a unique experience and none of us will forget it or these students. But it’s time to open up the guest room for family from cold places (and warm places) and regroup.

If you are interested at all in this experience, check out the Gphomestay website at www.gphomestay or call them directly at 781-996-0429. New students are coming next year and older students – like Qi Qi – will need new host parents. You won’t regret it.

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Time is flying by. In the past three weeks, Qi Qi has flown to China and back. One of the Chinese students left and did not return. She was the first exchange student to leave the program since its inception. It’s not always a perfect fit for everyone – including the students.

Qi Qi returned to our home on Saturday night after visiting friends and family for spring break. They thought he looked “stronger” since he arrived in August and he does. He plays a mean game of tennis and hasn’t stopped practicing basketball. He’s disciplined. He flew for two days from China and finished all of his homework on Sunday. He brought us sweet presents. He’s slightly supernatural.

We’ve really enjoyed hosting Qi Qi but this is our last year as host parents. Qi Qi is ready to have a new “cultural experience” and the kids are ready to have their home back. We have learned a lot including one basic truth: wherever you go, there you are. I imagined that we would be tidier or funnier or more polite while an exchange student lived with us. But we remain the same family. There are changes, for sure, and I will spend the next few weeks figuring out a way to write them all down.

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Most people are comfortable telling me they wouldn’t want to be a host family. But my strongest reaction came last week from someone who told me that hosting an exchange student was detrimental to the entire family.

She thinks, because of an experience with someone many years ago, that hosting an exchange student is damaging to your family. Therefore, I assume, she thinks I have damaged my family.

Clearly, being a host family is not for everyone. It requires compromise and some sacrifice – but no one has been damaged by it. Life is complicated and messy and living in a house with three teenagers and two working parents isn’t always pretty. But it’s life. Qi Qi – and Joanna before him – got thrust into a hectic American household. My children had to set another place mat at the dinner table and adjust to different personalities with very different cultural habits and perspectives.

Joanna is thriving and Qi Qi has developed into a very independent young man.  The host parents of Jackie and Desmond – who are in this photo at a recent bonfire – don’t feel damaged by the experience. It’s changed their lives in many positive ways.

We will not be a host family next year for many reasons (elaborated on later) but I do not regret our decision to invite these students into our lives. I don’t know – and may not know for years – what this experience has taught my children. We have had unique opportunities and experiences that we will never forget.

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Happy Birthday Qi Qi!

If he celebrated his 16th birthday in China, Qi Qi would have been surrounded by relatives at a dinner that lasted four to five hours. In the end, he would have to make a small speech to thank everyone.

In Fort Myers, Fla. he was surrounded by Desmond and Donlans at a meal in his favorite restaurant that may have lasted an hour. All of the Chinese students favor DJ Chinese restaurant on 41 near Bell Tower. They think it offers the most traditional dishes. We ate a lot of dumplings because that is what you eat when you are celebrating. And we ordered a lot of dishes – Singapore spicy noodles, pork egg foo young, pork chow mein, chicken fried rice and a spicy tofu dish. Then all four teenagers split and drove to Cold Stone Creamery ice cream while we paid the bill.

It felt very American to me.

Qi Qi heard from his parents and grandparents and friends today. It must be hard to be so far away. But he handled it with grace as always. He’s an amazing young man and we are lucky to have the chance to celebrate with him.

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Qi Qi felt he had the true American experience: he went to Disney World. Our neighbor, who is also Desmond’s host parent, took a car full of teens to Disney for three days last week during their winter break. They had a blast. Qi Qi’s favorite ride was Space Mountain, which he rode three times. He thought Disney World was “perfect.”

I asked Qi Qi and Desmond if they bought any souvenirs and they shook their heads.

“No,” Desmond said. “They’re all made in China.”

But Qi Qi brought us back a beautiful Chinese scroll that I hung up on the wall. So in the end, a little bit of China returned from Disney after all.

We are heading into spring and everyone has developed their own rhythms. My two teens like their autonomy and Qi Qi is no different. He has a full life studying, playing tennis and hanging out with friends. Other host families have reported the same thing – teens like to do their own thing. That remains the same whether you are American or Chinese.

But I think having Qi Qi in our home during this time when everyone is asserting their independence has made us try to make meal times count. I know households where sit down meals have vanished. There are days when we struggle as well. But when we can, we make a concerted effort to cook breakfast (if only Qi Qi eats it!) and sit down for dinner – complete with table settings.  It’s never as fun as Disney but it’s one of the truest American experiences you can have.