Monday, August 7, 2017

On the experience of hosting an exchange student (and Private Month of Poetry check in)

Our Japanese exchange student departed early Saturday morning, bound for a few days in Sydney with her school group before flying to Singapore for a 2-day stop and then home to the town of Kani in Gifu Prefecture, Japan.

It's taken me a couple of days of reflection to be ready to write about the experience overall, as it was a very intense one, in ways I both was and wasn't expecting. Much of the weekend was spent slumped in an exhausted puddle, recovering from the much higher than normal social and physical engagement of the past two weeks - time we all needed, which was simultaneously very good but also quite melancholy. It seems ridiculous to say after only two weeks, but my house felt - feels - too empty now, with one less teenager in it.

Probably the most important thing to say about the experience, for me personally, is that I learned something I always suspected to be true, which is that my maternal impulse has no practical limits. Language barrier aside, my desire to take care of our student and make sure she was happy was extremely powerful; and finding ways to communicate with her was essential. By day three, she was asking me to braid her hair for school and talking (often via Google Translate!) about the things she likes and the things that make her sad or worried in her life. Substitute-parenting via an app on my phone was a new experience, not without its challenges, but it was was rewarding as any interaction with a young person in one's life. (Which is to say - for me - extremely rewarding. I like kids and teens, often better than I like adults - even when they're completely maddening, which is, of course, often).

As a family, we found the two weeks amazing for shaking us out of our rut (we have a pretty deep rut and it involves too much screen time and too much hermiting in our house). We got out and did things we'd either never done before (ArtVo, High Tea at the Langham) or haven't done for years (Werribee Zoo). We explored our own local area - the shops, the beach, the parks - with fresh eyes. For the kids, seeing our student try Australian food that she'd never encountered before was an eye-opener. (She loved BBQ, pav, fairy bread, roast lamb, risotto, and cheesy potato bake; didn't mind fish & chips, cheese & bacon scrolls, cherry ripe and Tim Tams; and thought Vegemite was the work of Satan).

My girls (and husband and I) really came to love our student. She is a beautiful person, with a gentle, slightly nerdy, goofy nature that fitted in so well with our family dynamic. She and my 12 year old shared a devotion to ice skating, and happily watched competition skating clips on YouTube, skating-themed anime, and taught each other full skating-related vocabularies in their respective languages. (When we travel to Japan next April, we are *totally sorted* if we want to ask someone where is the closest ice rink, where we can hire skates, or whether they can do a triple jump :-) The day we actually went skating, I thought they would both burst with excitement. It was a lovely thing, seeing that connection grow.

I could write on and on about the strangeness and wonderfulness of trying to bridge the language gap (it was often tricky but never less than euphoric when we got there); about listening to the cadence of speech in a language not your own, and rekeying your ear to hear your own flat-vowelled accent through another filter; the pleasure of rediscovering not just your own city, but the awesomeness that your family is capable of; the hilarities and delights of sharing food and culture; even the extremely dorky pleasure of spontaneous singalongs whenever we struck a song that, miraculously, we all knew.

All of that would be true, but the truest thing of all is very simple to say: We made a friend in this fortnight. Whether or not we are able to stay in touch long-term, time alone will tell, but it has been one of the richest two weeks of our lives in the past few years.


Just a little tack-on to check in:

1 August: Ignition (Poem based on the story of the Little Match Girl)
2 August: Bones
3 August: Series of not very good haikus about my cat (but at least I wrote something!!)
4 August: Untitled poem in progress based on the character of Anna Karenina
5 August: NO POEM (some further refinement on the Karenina poem though)
6 August: Villanelle called Starblind (not great, as the rhyme doesn't sit well yet - to be worked on)
7 August: Just started working on a poem tentatively titled Blood

So that's one day missed out of the first week - not terrible.

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