When we agreed to host a foreign exchange student because she’s lifelong friends with a lovely couple whose company I enjoy, I thought in abstract terms about timing. A month or a while or a summer or a few weeks is how I somehow imprecisely framed it in my mind. Right before she arrived I started understanding the math of having a new housemate for eleven weeks.
It’s not that this situation is getting old. And it’s not that we’ve stopped learning from each other. But the novelty is starting to wear off. A little. And being only a third of the way done is definitely overwhelming.
Before Rosí arrived from the DR, I told a friend that we’d probably have a great time the first week, hate her by the third, find new and exciting ways to learn from each other weeks four through six, despise her again by week eight, enjoy each other for the last few weeks, and have mixed feelings when she left. So by now, after week four, things should be swinging from “oh my gawd, what have we done?” to “hey, this is cool!”
Um…well…we definitely didn’t hate her during week three. That’s something, right?
This whole experience has a been a roller coaster. I don’t see, so far, many differences from moving in with a roommate. When we met everything was exciting. That phase ended very quickly. Then we realized what living together was like and had to have several talks about expectations. Then I realized what I’d really done was adopted another child. A teenaged child. Once she ceased to be an idea of cross-cultural exchange and became a human in my shower when I had only five minutes to spare, she was not a fun experiment in altruism. She was an extra set of strong opinions and pressing needs in my house when the last damned thing I need is another set of opinions and needs. In my house. A lot of the time.
Now that we’ve settled into our patterns, we’re carefully negotiating whether we’re a host family or landlords. Spouse and I agreed to bring this new friend into our home, thinking that she could stay with us in a downstairs room that has its own bathroom and separate entrance. We knew we’d have meals with our dormer, and we knew she’d stay rent-free (because we’re masochists, really) in exchange for cleaning the house.
But we didn’t know that she envisioned that we’d be surrogate parents.
Rosí is a university student in her native country, so we assumed she’d be independent and keen to explore. But the more conversations we have with her, the more we think that society in the Dominican Republic, personality, her family, or all three have made her timid about taking risks. She wants someone with her all the time, despite her strong English skills, the safety of our neighborhood and city, and availability of fabulous places within walking and public transit distances.
The problem might be that she’s overwhelmed by how much there is to do. Or that she hasn’t shaken the sense of unsafety that she says she has in her home country. Or, more likely, that we have a misalignment of expectations. We want to engage with her about her work, her studies, our work, our life, her country, and our country. We want to show her what we love to do and involve her when we can. Ideally, for us, we’d take her with us on our weekly hike, take her to museums, explore the wonderful sights in Berkeley and San Francisco. But we also want time to pursue our lives separate from her. And I don’t think she wants to be alone. Ever.
The times we’ve included her in museums, hikes, picnics, and travel, she hasn’t had fun. She doesn’t enjoy the things we do. And I think she’d rather we start doing her favorite things so she’ll have someone to do them with her. She’d like someone to shop with her, to see tourist attractions, to take her to the movies.
I hate shopping. I think retail as entertainment is one of the worst choices available, barring perhaps nuclear waste cleanup. But even this latter option helps people, and I’m all for pitching in when necessary. Not so shopping.
Tourist attractions make me itchy. Because they’re full of tourists and have no compelling reason to be so attractive, except that they’re full of retail entertainment which makes people think they’ve experienced something local. Because they can buy a T-shirt that says, “I’ve done something local.”
I do love movies. But we have two small children, and we’ve seen maybe four movies in the theater and two live performance events since the eldest was born. I can name them right now, without much effort. I’m not interested in playing subtitles for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing right now, thank you. (It was compelling, by the way. You should see it. Crazy what a group of artists can get done in two weeks when they want to.) The bottom line is that I want to be with my family doing the things we enjoy, or with close friends doing the things we enjoy.
I don’t want to be with my roommate doing the things she enjoys.
That makes me a bad person, I’m sure. But it’s my truth. And my blog, so I can kind of owe the truth here.
Look, I’d gladly take someone new on a wild tour of the Bay Area, exploring as much of its fabulous offerings as possible. And I do, with my kids. During the week. But the weekend is crammed with things for the family to do together and with time alone to write. Because these are the things we can’t do on weekdays.
And because it’s little bits at a time. Not eleven weeks of “this is your only chance so hurry and do something important!”
Three months is a marathon visit, and I have lots of work to do. Raising two boys full time is a raucous and exhausting job. Trying to nurture each of my other careers in the few hours of solitude at night and on rare weekends can be both draining and rewarding. All of that put together sometimes borders on too much. But I thought we could fit in having a roommate since she’d take some of the housekeeping tasks. I wanted to help give her an amazing opportunity where she could pursue her passions and learn as much as possible about American culture.
But I don’t want to do sightseeing tours. I don’t want to know that our food is gross and our hobbies are boring and our friends are unimpressive and our focus on our kids is weird and annoying.
I assumed a young person from another country coming to the United States to learn about the culture and language would want immersion in real American life. Not in pursuing typical activities from home in a new location.
I try to remember that, of course she wants what’s familiar. She wants what is from home because that’s what she knows and likes. This is a huge change for her, 24 hours a day. And to be fair, our food is probably gross and our hobbies are probably boring to some people. [Our friends couldn't possibly be unimpressive to anyone. FACT.]
But I don’t think it has set in yet for her that this is what she gets for the rest of her stay. Unless she takes the initiative to venture out on her own.
Because this is who we are and we’re doing what’s important to us. Going to another country means learning what there is to do and see and eat and experience. So if this household and this way of life—cooking fresh local food, hiking, going outside as much as possible, seeing friends, pursuing beauty and fun—are not your cup of tea, by all means, explore until you find something in this incredible area that floats your boat.
But please, don’t expect us to find your passion for you. We’re doing that for ourselves right now, as boring and gross as it may look to outsiders.