I’ve been trying to downplay the adventure on which our family is poised, but I don’t see any way to be blasé about the fact that tomorrow a visitor arrives. For the whole summer. A stranger from another world will be living with us for three months.
And I might be a bit nervous. Maybe.
A friend asked in an email months ago if anyone would be willing to host a longtime friend of hers in a foreign exchange extravaganza of goodness. The project would involve a 20-year old woman from the Dominican Republic, whom my friends have known since she was a child. Now grown, this young lady wants to have a chance at making a better life by gaining work skills and building language fluency through an established program in the U.S.
She would have a full-time job, my friend’s email noted. Her family has been kind to mine for more than a decade, my friend pointed out. This opportunity would change the young woman’s life, I told Spouse.
So tomorrow a woman I’ve never met will arrive at our house. We’ve cleared the boys’ playroom to make it a bedroom. I’ve written instructions on how to call 911 in an emergency and where to find the towels and soap. I’ve tidied up the best I can and tried to figure out what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.
Because more than the house sharing, I’m concerned at the project I’ve just signed up for. Our family is going to model language and culture to a woman about whose culture I know very little. About whom I know almost nothing. And for whom we might be a very bad fit.
May I note for the record that in an email exchange, she expressed interest in my offer to cook for her what I’m making for the rest of the family. She probably passed out from the shock of hearing that we’re vegetarians. In the same message I explained that yes, shorts are acceptable attire. Except that the summer in the Bay Area averages temperatures in the high 60s.
I’m pretty sure there will be more shocking moments during her trip. A meatless, cold summer might be the peak, but I have no idea since I’ve never traveled to the Caribbean.
Sure, I’ve read The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But I’m guessing, as vibrantly written as it is, I still know almost nothing about life in the Dominican Republic, and particularly about this woman’s life. I’ve seen photos of rainwater collection via PVC piping jury-rigged along a hillside and the village market and the local trash heap. But that doesn’t mean I understand the realities and nuances of public utilities and water issues and food availability in our guest’s country. I’ve read her questions about modesty and propriety for single women, but I don’t intuit the full extent to the misogyny of her island’s culture.
Of course, we’ll all learn soon enough.
While we prepare, I’m keenly aware of how aseptically most suburban Americans live. In little boxes with windows and doors closed and locked: boxes with wheels or foundations, we’re still all isolated from our neighbors and fellow commuters, closed off from sounds, temperature variations, and smells. We avoid physical contact with strangers, including trying desperately to keep our bodies free of sweat, odor, oil, and other signs of life. I wonder how differently my senses would process life in Santo Domingo than they do suburban Northern California. And how much of that is based simply in exposure to heat, humidity, sounds, neighborhood, and skin.
I’m also fixated on all our stuff. Dozens of shelves full of books in English, cupboards full of food, a closet full of jackets. Electricity that fails so rarely that outages are big news. Toilets that flush. Hardwood floors. And toys. Oh, good gravy the volume of toys. So many possessions nationally that become so much trash. But trash that isn’t thrown into heaps and burned. Trash that is separated into four different bins and picked up by four different trucks and taken all over the world for cheaper processing.
So I’ve collected large piles for St. Vincent de Paul and Goodwill and the dozen other charities that will take from Americans the perfectly useful items they have grown tired of, not only to clear away the clutter, but also because I’m embarrassed of our accumulation. Nobody needs three colanders. (Even the wordpress dictionary doesn’t think anyone needs three colanders, because it accepts the singular form “colander” but flags “colanders.” I know, WP, I know. I’m working on it.) But I got the second two colanders as a set to replace the one that wasn’t useful. Then I kept the not useful one in case the others were dirty or being used. Because, it would seem from my purchasing, we eat pasta and cherries and salad with such frequency and ruthless efficiency that there’s never a time we can just rinse one colander and use it for the next food.
And as I spiral into a self-loathing, anti-consumerist whirlwind, I realize that what I’m really worried about is that a stranger is coming to live in our house for three months. A grown child who thinks that women are somehow different, more valuable if they’re married. Who has been taught that single women are a threat. Who asks what the heater is for.
Well, she won’t be a stranger after tomorrow.
By about the same time I’ll know more about life in the Dominican Republic than Junot Díaz wrote.
And I’ll know very soon if this project is a lovely respite from spending time with three males who rarely listen to me; if we achieve the ideal co-educational experiment in cultural exchange. Or if it’s a hurricane of unforeseen dilemmas, the solution to which is simply to invest in whiskey, gummy cola bottles, and a new puppy. Because as much as I pretend otherwise, this adventure is either no big deal or quite a big deal indeed, the kind of huge big deal that sends me scurrying toward impossible projects. Like full-time parenting and writing a novel with a house guest and a puppy.
I won’t know for a little while how blissful or gobsmacking my decision to host a foreign exchange human might be.
She won’t know for a little while how awesome or freaking insane her host family is.
So I guess I’ll go gather together more for Goodwill while I wait. You can’t go wrong decluttering, I always say. (I never say that, but wish I were the kind of person who says things like that.)
Wish us luck!