So close and yet so far

I’ve tried, y’all.

I welcomed a lovely young woman into our home in the hopes that we would all—foreign exchange student and host family alike—learn from each other.

And we have.

But when she charged upstairs to find out when Anne Frank died, then excused herself to go back to watching a movie downstairs, I felt deflated. “Can’t we talk about WWII?” I want to call down the stairs. “Wait! How do they teach the Holocaust in your country, because Anne Frank’s diary has proven a useful tool to introducing the horror to school-aged children,” I want to bellow towards her room.

*Sigh.*

Another change at true cultural exchange lost to the draw of Skype and YouTube.

Our Dominican houseguest brought a stack of thrift store finds to my home office for show-and-tell. She asked me if “Vagina Monologues” meant what she thought it meant. “Yes, and no,” I began, wanting to have a discussion about domestic violence and talk about female power and patriarchal structures and rape in India. But she grinned and said she’d have some explaining to do back home when she wore that shirt, and skipped off to pack her overstuffed, 700-pound suitcases. (You’re welcome, DollarTree. Your third quarter profits are predominantly courtesy of this Dominican-American exchange.)

If a mama can’t get some good conversation going about Anne Frank and Eve Ensler, then there doesn’t seem much hope for this pairing. Seriously.

Sure, sure, we talked poverty and cancer and AIDS protocol adherence. *Sigh.* I guess that counts. <Pout>

But seriously. Wouldn’t you want to know about how they teach history in other countries? Feminism? Experimental theater?

What? That’s just me? Poor Rosí got the weird end of this deal, didn’t she.

*Sigh.*

 

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Translating charity

As our foreign exchange experience comes to a close, I’m marveling at how little I know about Rosí’s culture. I don’t mean the little stuff. I know Dominicans drink their coffee small, strong, and syrupy sweet. I know that being a pedestrian in the Dominican Republic is hazardous to your health. And that following the traffic laws there is hazardous to your health, too. I know that few Dominicans pay their utility bills because the electricity, water, and Internet are often off for hours or days at a time. As in several hours a day, every day. Nothing is reliable, she says.

I know details. But I don’t know how that feels and informs assumptions.

When I first learned Spanish, reflexive verbs fascinated me. In particular, I was (and am, still) obsessed by the differences in language wherein your thought process and language output say “my leg broke itself on me” rather than our apologetic “I broke my leg,”or the passive “I am called by others this name” rather than our ownership claim, “my name is.”

I haven’t thought much about these linguistic differences while Rosí has been here because she speaks to us in English and her challenges are not those conventional differences. In fact, her biggest colloquial struggle, for at least the first month, was saying she wanted “light” instead of “a little” of something. She wanted a light bowl of chips and a light minute to get something done. Her predominant linguistic challenge is pronouncing vowels correctly, i.e., the lazy-mouthed American way. the schwa is not a Spanish sound, fyi.

But yesterday, her confusion about an email reply she’d gotten confused us both.

About halfway into her stay, Rosí proposed creating and funding an animal shelter back in the Dominican Republic so she could attend to all the strays running the streets of her community. She asked a charitable arm of the organization that got her here to the United States for a contribution to her cause. They turned her down and told her to try something more modest.

So she applied for funding for a friend’s chemotherapy.

The organization emailed her to praise her idea and tell her how worthy the cause is. And they told her that she just needed to organize an event or fund drive or project to which they would contribute. They gave her several examples, including a story about a woman in a similar situation who organized a party for the cancer ward of her hospital. The charitable foundation contributed to that party.

Rosí simply didn’t grok.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “I have to do something and then they will give money? So how do I get money to do an event or a project if they don’t give it to me? Why would I do something so they will give me money, if I can just ask for the money and get it for him? That’s ridiculous.”

We talked at length about ideas she could develop that would provide the trigger the foundation wanted: a way to contribute but not completely fund something. A project that would show her, Rosí’s commitment, so they could help fund her efforts, but so they weren’t just giving cash to one person.

She seemed flabbergasted. And livid. She had a worthy cause and she wanted funding, and she didn’t plan to do anything. Asking for money toward a worthy cause was doing enough.

I asked our mutual fund if I’d explained it well. I was baffled by our foreign exchange guest’s response.

But our friend explained succinctly. Where Rosí lives, there is substantial need. Someone identifies the need, raises funds, and arrives with cash. In short, Rosí watches charitable funds being delivered, not being gathered. She sees problems addressed, not to the process of identifying and measuring the problem and designing a potential solution.

I’ve marveled since high school at what it means to think of your body as something that breaks itself on you. Or the world view that develops from thinking you don’t so much own your name as receive it from others. What’s it like to think that charity is something that arrives, not something you really, really ought to do because you empathize but can’t actually fathom?

I thought about how we approach charity in this country. Throw money at someone’s idea for fixing something that’s wrong. So many words in that sentence sound problematic, don’t they? Who determines what’s wrong? Who chooses the fix? Why do we fund other people’s ideas rather than generating our own? And why throw money at need rather than spending time or educating in the interest of change or…

I thought of the op-ed by Peter Buffett, who argues that we’re going about charity all wrong. I thought of conversations I’ve had with clients, predominantly low-profit and B corp organizations who want to change the world, and the barriers that include trying hard not to just slap an American solution onto a decidedly non-American challenge.

Shouldn’t we go about charity differently? Are we swooping in with dollars and dropping them off and flying off again to our next project? Are we engaging the people for whom we’re doing charitable work to ask what they define as the problem and how they envision solutions?

I have absolutely no answers right now, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. When the need in the world seems overwhelming and we want to facilitate the solution, how do we identify need and how do we design solution?

And should we just keep writing checks to help? Is it helping? I’m not being cynical; I’m completely sincere. What is the best use of our passion for help and change and fairness and equality and rights and…should we choose one issue and focus? Should we research and become part of the charitable organizations’ resource pool? Should we close our mouths and listen to the underlying questions, hear the answers to those questions?

That’s where I’m starting right now. Closing my mouth and listening to your ideas.

Foreign Exchange: the straw that broke the camel’s back

Culture clash 2013!

Our foreign exchange student is a big fan of all things chemical. She prefers bread with long ingredient lists, loves pasta from a can, adores adding bouillon cubes to her cooking, and can’t go for more than an hour without using some sort of fragrance-infused toiletries.

Her shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, toothpaste, perfume, body lotion, face lotion, candles, nail polish, styling products, and soap sit in a row atop her dresser downstairs and seep phthalates into our house. The bottles just sit there, even when closed, and reek.

It doesn’t help that, after more than a decade of completely fragrance-free products, I can smell perfume a mile away. Nor does it help that those fragrances, inherently toxic, give me a headache and nauseate me.

I’ve gotten to a point in my hyper-Berkeley-ish-ness that I want to rescue people who reek of perfume. It’s not nice to be holier-than-thou, but I can’t help it. I want to hand the chemically-addicted an article on the neurotoxins found in fragrance and beg them to change their ways.

I’m not dreadful, though, so I say nothing. Not about my mom’s hairspray or my neighbor’s sunscreen or my father-in-law’s cologne. And not this summer when I have to close the bathroom door and run the fan for hours after our Dominican visitor takes a shower.

But today I’m so furious I can’t stand it.

Rosí asked me how to use the washing machine, and proudly did her own clothes yesterday.

But she left a trial vial of some hideous cologne in her pocket, and its contents leaked into the washer. And dryer.

So now my family’s clothes, towels, and napkins freaking reek of cheap cologne. I’ve washed four times, with baking soda, with vinegar, and with non-toxic eco-friendly soap.

The whole house stinks. When I walk into certain rooms I want to throw up. Every time I enter the house I wonder if a group of misguided teens has shellacked themselves with Axe body spray and wandered the rooms of my house just to torture me.

It’s not all about me, of course. When I handed Rosí the near empty vial from the dryer and told her that her perfume had been through the wash, she seemed devastated.

“Oh, no! I’ll have to get more.”

If anyone would like to host a foreign exchange student for a week, please come now. No, seriously. Now. Because there might be an international incident soon.

Really soon.

 

 

Foreign exchange: the waning days

As we come into our last week hosting a foreign exchange student, I find myself wanting more. It’s hard not to be disappointed that the arrangement didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

I wanted to show our guest all the best of our area. But she usually turned down offers to take her with us. So I took my boys to museums and mountains, events and the coast. And Rosí stayed home, watching movies and talking to friends and family on Skype. She slept the weekend sleep of the single and newly adult.

Ah, I remember that sleep. In the month after college and before work started. I would wake from daytime naps terrified that I should be reading something for a class. I still recall the visceral relief at remembering: I didn’t fall asleep by accident while poring over a book. I fell asleep on the couch watching vapid television. Because I could.

Mmmmmmm. Vapid.

Part of Rosí’s reticence to do what I thought would be an ideal cultural exchange is that she values downtime. By values I mean protects and treasures, and by downtime I mean days of doing exactly nothing. She told me that she believes the weekend should be for rest. She cleans and organizes her room late Friday night and genuinely wants to do zero Saturday and Sunday. I think if she could set up an i.v. for caloric needs she would.

I don’t know where you live or what happens there, but the people I know cram their weekends full. Weekdays here are dominated by work, school, and obligations that leave most of us weekday-isolated, solitary, and tasked. So the weekend is our time to see people and go places we can’t normally be. Day trips, gatherings, errands, events; we spend every waking hour on the weekend doing something. Part of that is the reality of having children. People with kids don’t sleep in. And people with two young boys generally can’t just stay home and chill. If we’re not out of the house by 8:00 a.m., there are monumental fights. Because the boys are bored. So we go hiking. Or scootering to a fabulous bakery. Or driving to see friends an hour away.

We’re not scheduled to death, but we’re not staying home, either. We relax by actively seek and find fun. But that’s not relaxing to Rosí.

Our mutual friend once planned a weekend of travel with our Dominican visitor, who said, “Do you do something every weekend?” She seemed exhausted just looking at the list of weekend activities.

We go. We do.

And Rosi just doesn’t want to.

So my sense that the exchange, which is almost over, has been in vain is the result from measuring with my own gauge. If I’d been in another country for three months, I would have spent every waking hour trying something new, talking to locals, reading, and exploring. Her goals are clearly different. Perhaps she’s found the whole summer worthwhile.

Her English is certainly better. She’s had her share of experiences. She has purchased gifts for friends and family. She has gotten her money’s worth out of Skype and her international cell phone plan.

Asking if that is enough is none of my business, really. This isn’t my journey. This is hers.

And shame on me for thinking this should be fun for my family, educational for all of us, and useful in some way. Expecting an experience to be productive is using my lens to evaluate someone else’s situation. And I really have no right to that evaluation, right?

Foreign Exchange…progress

The thought of an international event in which our family learns from someone else and they learn from us sounded fabulous. Language and culture and lifestyle and food experiments without even leaving our own home? Sign us up!It hasn’t quite happened that way.

In the first week Rosí and I had a few intense discussions about poverty and universities and family and priorities and feminism and cancer. And we watched each other in horror as one of us ate egg and ketchup sandwiches and the other faked burgers out of cauliflower and lentils. We squirmed under the new living arrangement, both of us used to living with another adult and two children, and now juxtaposed in a space with four voices to contend with rather than three.

Then we settled a bit. We agreed to disagree. We found a way to respect each other and allow idiosyncracies to go unremarked.

But now I’m totally winning.

When she ran out of white bread, I bought her whole wheat. And she hated it. But a month later Spouse did the same thing. And she ate it. And now she’s having grilled cheese on bread labeled “sprouted multi-grain” the first ingredient of which is “organic high protein sprouted wheat berries.”

Win.

Yesterday she laughed until tears came out of her eyes when Spouse asked her if she’d every tried making mashed potatoes with the skin still on. She’s told me often that her favorite mashed potatoes are those Mamí makes from the box. But today, she mashed her potatoes with the skins still on the potato.

Double win.

The nuanced point that Spouse has gotten her to change her ways on both these carbohydrate fronts is not lost on me. But I will pretend I’m at least partially responsible, because I got the girl to eat a salad.

No, seriously. King me. I totally win.

Our visitor told me a story about how every year for Christmas her mother makes herself a salad. The rest of the year she knows none of the house’s residents will eat greenery. Of any type. Last night, Rosí ate half of the salad I put in front of her. Baby lettuces and raw spinach and Italian dressing. Ate it. Without gagging or laughing or rolling her eyes.

My dear readers, our teenager is now my favorite kid. Because she’s the only one doing what Spouse tells her to do. Mostly Spouse. But also kind of me.

I did it! I did it! I made a whole international exchange of cultures about forcing fiber into another person! Yay me!

 

Schadenfreude

It’s not nice to laugh at other people, I tell the boys. And I believe it. Mostly.

But our dear Rosí, the foreign exchange student who’s here this summer, just told me a story about what happened while we were camping last weekend.

She thought she found chocolate. She was so excited. Very little of our food appeals to her and she was thrilled to find something she recognized.

She tried the plump bean of chocolate. That was actually licorice.

And she now thinks that maybe she won’t eat ever again.

I tried not to laugh, but couldn’t help it. I think mistaking black licorice for chocolate might have been the cruelest thing that happened to her the whole trip.

And potentially the most hilarious.

She got me back, though.

By 6:00 a.m., my children are shrieking with laughter. Every day. There is no morning too early for poop jokes, namecalling, and silliness.

And by 6:07 they’re shrieking in murderous rages at each other. What begins in joy ends in tears. At warp speed and quite loudly.

So Rosí has nicknamed my youngest El Gallo.

The rooster.

Because he crows loudly. Early. And often.

Guess the joke’s on me.

Just in case, though, I’m putting licorice in every cupboard of the kitchen.

Because I’m mean. And running on a constant adrenaline-plus-lack-of-sleep high.

And mean.

Foreign Exchange, week six in review

We’re halfway done with this adventure hosting a foreign exchange student. She has settled into work and home, and we’re getting used to having her here.

Her English is phenomenal. My Spanish hasn’t improved much because she doesn’t want me to speak Spanish while she’s here. One of the reasons I thought hosting a guest from overseas would be great for our family was that I thought we’d have an in-home language tutor.

Oh, well.

I also thought I’d do a phenomenal job cooking more simply, more creatively, and more enthusiastically while showing someone new how excited we are about food. Nope. Because she dislikes so many of the American flavor profiles (and Mexican and Chinese and Italian and French flavors, too) I’ve also slowed on the efforts to cook new and exciting dishes to woo her taste buds over to our whole-grain, carefully seasoned, locally grown way of life.

But the other night she seemed thrilled with a pasta dish I cooked. Overjoyed, I asked her if she liked it.

“Yes,” she said. “But I bought something to add to it.”

“Great,” I smiled, genuinely excited. “Tell me what it is so I can maybe cook it again for you!”

She pulled the can out of the recycling. Ch*f B@yardi beef ravioli. I tried valiantly not to gag, but failed. She said, “Don’t you eat that?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

Well, you asked, lady. I was going to keep my mouth shut. “Because it’s full of chemicals. It’s not food like something that’s grown.”

“I know,” she purred. “That’s why I like it.”

I still can’t imagine how different life must be for her in this country.

And really, how much different life must be for her in this house. The more I see myself reflected in her eyes, the weirder I know I am.

She told me she found a spider in her closet. I shrugged. She told me that she hates them and is scared of them. So I went to her closet and saw the daddy longlegs in a web by her shirts. I took a piece of paper, asked the critter to climb on, and took it outside. I wished it luck finding bugs and reassured it that life outdoors is better.

She almost passed out from my freakishness.

She all but shrieked, “You don’t kill it?”

‘No,” I said, and put the paper back on my desk. She eyed it with horror. As though spider essence had escaped onto its fibers during the arachnid’s short stay.

“Why don’t you kill it?!”

“I don’t kill things.”

This baffled her.

“I don’t eat meat, I don’t kill spiders, I don’t smash bugs.”

She shook her head and gave up. I am a lost cause.

And she seemed quite sheepish when she asked me a week later, after eldest got lice, if I was willing to kill the bugs I found on his head.

“Oh, God yes! I have to kill them or they’ll come back.”

She seemed relieved.

Maybe she’ll forgive me for under-salting, under-sweetening, under-processing food. And for rescuing spiders.

As long as I’m willing to kill lice, I’m okay in her book.

To prove it, later that night she asked for my opinion about how to start a charitable organization when she gets home. She wants to find a shelter-based solution for the many homeless dogs in her neighborhood and we talked about ways to fund that endeavor.

How exciting that she’s settling in her and still thinking about how she’ll get back into life back home.

The beginning of this experience excited me with possibilities. When I realized how outsized my expectations were, I grew quite uncomfortable with this process. And now that we’re all hitting our stride, this long run is feeling pretty good. It’s still work. It’s most likely going to be uncomfortable again soon. But for now, hosting a foreign exchange student is going quite well for us.

Have I convinced any of you readers to consider doing this next summer?

 

Sibling rivalry: the foreign exchange edition

Before Butter was born, I read a lot about preparing children for a sibling. I read about how to handle conflict between siblings, how to channel competition into cooperation, and how to find family tranquility.

I forgot to do that before our foreign exchange student arrived.

My boys helped prepare her room and drew her pictures to decorate her walls. They helped me shop for groceries she might like. And Peanut, our seven-year-old made a list of places we should take her. All very sweet.

But since she arrived, Butter is completely unimpressed.

Okay, that’s an understatement. He despises her.

When our temporary daughter talks to him, he shouts at her. “Don’t talk to me!”

I remind him that we talk nicely. That if you don’t want to answer, you can say, “I don’t want to talk.” But screaming at our friend “don’t talk to me, stupid Rosí!” is a one-way ticket to alone time.

She is flabbergasted by his rudeness. She has asked him to be nice, and she has told him she doesn’t like yelling. In fact, at one point she told him he couldn’t come in her room. She explained that, “Mommy talks nicely so she can come in my room. Daddy talks nicely so he can come in my room. Peanut talks nicely so he can come in my room. If you want to talk nicely, you can come in my room. But when you yell? You cannot come in my room. Goodbye.”

It didn’t work. He walked out of her room and slammed the door.

I’ve explained to him that he’s my son and I love him. That she’s a guest and we have to talk nicely. That I’m not her mom…I’m his mom.

But he knows that she’s the new baby in the family, taking time and attention from mom.

In her kind attempts to tidy the house, she moves his treasures and puts his shoes in the wrong place.

In her need to understand or clarify or get directions, she is taking from him what he believes is rightfully his.

And she came in full adult form, so he didn’t get his chance to poke and pinch her and test her pain tolerance as an infant.

She interrupts him when he talks, not hearing his thinking pauses in part because she’s unused to the rhythms of a three-year-old.

When he needs something, she often needs something, too. Sometimes she has to wait, and sometimes he has to wait.

She often calls me Mommy.

Worst of all, for him, she often doesn’t understand what he says. She gently tells him, “I don’t understand what you said,” hoping that he’ll repeat himself. Or miraculously become more articulate than his three years will allow.

He bellows, “I said ‘don’t talk to me,’ stupid Rosí!”

¡Ay, dios mío!

As our Dominican guest told me this week, my children are making me an old woman.

Hot cocoa

There are few things that unify the world like chocolate.

During our first week together I offered our foreign exchange student a cup of cocoa.

And that event has become a microcosm of our relationship.

First she marveled that we call it cocoa. She calls it hot chocolate. Fair enough, I explained, since many people do. I like distinguishing it from edible chocolate. Drinkable chocolate sounds funny. So hot cocoa or just cocoa.

I try to buy only fair trade chocolate. Because I feel it’s important to fight child-slave labor by refusing to buy conventionally sourced chocolate. But after trying all the fair trade cocoas out there, I’ve decided my favorite is the brand this taste test decried as cloyingly sweet and overly vanilla-ed. Organic, but not fair trade.

Too sweet, most tasters at the newspaper said. But our dear friend from the Dominican Republic almost spat out her first sip. She said, horrified, “you didn’t put any sugar in this!” then fixed it to her liking, with three soup spoons full of sugar and a little extra milk.

The next night, she asked me to make her another cup of cocoa.

As I mentioned earlier this week, we’ve been working on getting her more independent. So I pointed to the kettle, explained how it works. I made sure she knows how to turn on the stove. And I told her the water would be ready soon and left her with a packet of a less sweet, fair trade cocoa.

She managed just fine. She found a cup and a spoon. And she knew very well where the sugar was.

Four weeks? Shut the front door!

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.

Equality

Last week over breakfast, our foreign exchange student announced that, on BART, she saw her first gay person.

I snickered a bit privately, since she’s seen way, way, way more than that. But I wanted to hear her story.

She said that, in her country, being gay is bad. That two women kissing on the train is not okay.

I braced myself for what came next and held my breath because the kids were listening. We have a friend who is transgendered and my children think such humans are just another kind of friend to have. In fact, the youngest doesn’t know and assumes, as he should, that our friend is a man because he’s a man. Of course, Butter’s three and thinks most of the trucks on Bob the Builder are female. So he’s clearly not attuned to conventional gender clues yet. But I didn’t know for the first few months of my friendship, either, and learned about Adam’s apples the interesting way.

We haven’t talked to our kids about what it means to be gay or lesbian, in part because gender is something children notice early, but discussing homosexuality involves ideas about attraction and marriage and being more than friends, which are by nature more mature than my children are. They know every family is different, and that some families have kids but some don’t; some have two adults in the family, some don’t; and that the families with two parents might consist of a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. They know that we really like that different types of people bring different ideas and the more ideas you hear, the better you can choose what you believe.

So when Rosí announced that in her country bring gay is bad, I was prepared to stop her so we could continue later. Her opinions and experiences are valid, but they’re not always appropriate for small children.

“Yes,” she continued. “In my country this is very bad. But I think killing is bad. This? Kiss? Do you say ‘kiss’ in this way? [Yes, but you can say ‘kissing’, too.] This is love, right? And love is good. So I don’t like what they do, and I don’t think it’s right. But it’s not wrong.”

I have to say, I was impressed. I asked my eldest if he understood what we were talking about.

“Do you know the word ‘gay’?” I asked. “You know the families we know with two dads or two moms? The word for having a partner who is the same gender as you is ‘gay’.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“So she’s saying that, in her country, people believe wanting to be a family with someone who’s the same is bad. But she thinks hurting is bad, and that loving is good. What do you think?”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “Kissing is only bad if the other person says ‘stop’.”

Well, damn, readers. He just covered equality and respect in one answer.

These are good, open-minded kids I have. The two I raised and the one who just arrived three weeks ago. May they always kiss people who say “yes.”

[I haven’t talked with our guest yet about the Supreme Court decisions of last week. But when the boys and I heard on the radio, on the way to school, that the justices said the federal government can’t invalidate a legal marriage by withholding spousal benefits, and that the people in California who don’t like gay marriage have no legal standing on which to contest it, I sobbed as I explained to my children how important it is for a country to say that all people are legally the same. Of course we’re not the same. But legally, all people have the same rights. I told them how important it is to know that not liking something is not the same as being hurt by it. And that not understanding something is a reason to find out more, not to pass laws. It’s never too early to train the next generation of legislators, executives, and justices.]

Oh, no. You did not.

One pound of sugar a week.

Eight ounces of salt a week.

Five hours of Skype a day.

Three exclamations pronouncing American weirdness each day.

All of these I take in stride from our new housemate. Even though those numbers only represent the few hours she’s here at home. Heaven knows how much sugar and salt her employer is having to buy this summer.

But when our adopted friend from the Dominican Republic found the best parts of Say Anything outrageously funny, I had to draw the line.

Some cultural differences are simply unacceptable.

Now I refuse to show her Office Space. I don’t think she deserves it.

Instead I’m letting her watch The Wedding Planner. It’s the closest thing to torture I think I.C.E. will allow in our situation.

Issues little and big

Week Two with a foreign exchange student was challenging. We’re settling into patterns, some good and some not so good. Our new friend is still excited to be here and is still marveling at things we take for granted, such as cars stopping at stop signs.

I’m still marveling at Spouse’s willingness to let me walk smack into a situation that does not suit me at all. I know full well that I’m dumb enough kind enough to offer our home to a stranger based on the recommendation of a good friend and the reassurance that it would be an amazing opportunity. But you’d think he would have, perhaps, guided me another way.

Well we have ourselves an opportunity and a half, right here in our house all summer.

And we only get out of it what we put in. So after reminding our guest for the fourth or fifth time that she really, really has to lock the doors, especially when she leaves the house, after giving in and letting her have all the white-bread-and-ketchup sandwiches she wants, and after deciding not to tell her about water conservation and drought in California, we found an evening on which to really connect.

As usual, I made a relatively plain meal. Well-seasoned lentils, israeli couscous with feta and olives, watermelon, and raw bell pepper. And she found it horrible, even after adding what I think might have been a quarter cup of salt. She went to her room to try on one after another of her outfits and to ask if they looked okay. In the lull after the nightly fashion show I read a blog post from my friend about how cancer is eating away his perspective and how he’s fighting to be present with his family.

So when Rosí came into the kitchen, instead of working, as I needed to, I joined her. And told her I have a friend who’s fighting cancer and has been for three years. She, in turn, told me about her grandfather, whose prostate cancer was misdiagnosed repeatedly even as her mother kept saying, “This is not right. Get another doctor.” The grandfather died two years later. We talked about cancer and about death. About how there are quite a few bad ways to go. She talked about HIV and the relative who died from complications from HIV-related conditions.

I mentioned that there was some hope with HIV as treatments are improving.

“Not in my country.” She told me that in the Dominican Republic the treatments were making almost no difference because successful HIV treatment requires, as she said, “paying attention and being willing to care about health.” That, she said, was not the way in her country.

She talked of the high cost of HIV medications. And of most life-saving medications. She talked of pervasive alcoholism in the DR. [World Health Organization stats suggest that her perspective is skewed by her town.] She said that in her neighborhood, many children walked the streets without shoes, without school, and without enough food because their parents drank what little money they had.

“So does it seem hopeless,” I asked, “with, as you say, many people using alcohol, and many people taking advantage of honest people by stealing and cheating?”

“No. You can never lose hope. My mother does not have a lot,” she said. “But she always made sure we have food and we go to school. No money for clothes? Maybe. But money for food. And she does it honestly. She doesn’t have a formal job but she does everything she can to earn money honestly. If we’re sick? Go to school. Not if we’re really ill, of course. But if we don’t feel well? Too bad. Go to school.”

“She knows what’s important.”

“Yes.”

I asked if it was hard to be honest and struggle when some give up and either drink or steal. It seems that is the struggle in many of the poorest parts of our country, as well.

“There is no choice,” she said. “There is no excuse for being dishonest. There is no reason. If you try hard, there is enough for food and school. Not for extras. But for food and school.”

As expected, I felt terrible about how we spend our money. I tell the kids we use money for food and shelter and heat and school and not for extras, but they have enough toys to say otherwise. And we have treats and new books and expensive coffee. I knew that guilt would come during our summer as American hosts.

But Rosí’s reminder about what’s really important brought me out of my deep sadness about my friend. People everywhere are struggling. Really struggling. He’s fighting with everything he has to make sure his family is loved. Rosí’s mom is sacrificing to ensure that her children have the necessities. They’re doing…we’re all doing…what it really takes to be good people.

Make sure kids are fed and educated. And loved.
Make sure family and friends know they’re important.
Lead by example an honest, hard-working, and purpose-filled life.
And give to others everything you can.

Well, then.

Take that, summer inconvenience.

 

 

Things get real in the second week.

My children are testing my superpowers this week.

My three-year-old wants to start ballet and baseball. On an all girls’ baseball not softball team, he says. And when does he get to be a girl, he asks.

“When do you think?” I counter. Bad for improv, good for parenting.

“Next month,” he says.

Good. His transition talk is scheduled for July. The oldest got the transition talk when he was Three, as well. Asked if he could take off his penis and get a vulva. I told him to talk with a physician when he is eighteen. Knows he’s supported, won’t bring it up again for fifteen years.

One down, two to go.

My foreign exchange student wants a tattoo. She asked me what I think. I told her if she talks to her mother and they both understand tattoos are forever and that they have several negative connotations in her home culture, then it’s her choice. I will let her stew and then tell her how much a good tattoo really costs.

Boom. Two down, one to go.

But the last one’s sick, poor little monkey. He’s the frustrated recipient of a 102 degree fever in addition to his unrelated broken arm. He tried unsuccessfully today to nap. Tossed and turned and whimpered. Until he asked me to squeeze into the couch with him. I did. He passed right out. And fewer than ten minutes in, rolled over and cuddled me in his sleep. Two hour nap.

Sometimes it’s good to be the mom. To a sweet little furnace, his transgendered toddler brother, and his tattooed sister.

 

Hosting Highlights Week One

Our guest from the Dominican Republic is teaching us as much as we’re teaching her. Today, after telling me how underwhelmed she is by not recognizing any of the food and not liking what she’s tried, she told me she’ll miss our country.

I asked her why, since she’s only been here a week, she would miss the vastly different culture.

“Because it’s comfortable,” she said. “Is that the right word?”

I tried to hide my surprise, since she seems decidedly uncomfortable with our 50 degree mornings and bouillon-free cooking. I asked her what she found comfortable about Berkeley.

“Because people here follow the rules. When I walk on the street I’m not worried about motorcycles driving over me or cars accelerating to hit me if I try to cross the street. Here I can walk and enjoy and look.”

That’s a pretty big cultural difference. I don’t even know what to do with that, really, except let it wash over me. Taking for granted being safe on the sidewalk (though I don’t, actually, since I lived in Santa Monica when the farmer’s market accident happened and since a friend was hit by a car right in front of the school as he picked his kids up for the day) is a rather large reason we are, in fact, comfortable here.

Rosí also told me she thinks it’s funny that my husband handles the laundry and most of the dishes. I asked what she meant.

“In my country, men do not clean. That is the woman’s job. Not very many men help.”

I told her something that might be common here, but is certainly foreign to her. “But I don’t think what he’s doing is helping. The house is not my job. It’s the whole family’s job. Everyone who lives here needs clean clothes and dishes and good food.”

To my surprise, she agreed. “This is exactly how I feel!” Well, then. I guess I only have to work on the whole grain bread and you’ll be as Berkeley as anyone else.

There are less heady matters, too. She taught me the Spanish for peanut butter. I taught her the curbside  difference between reuse and recycle. And that it’s “a few minutes” or “a little while” not “a light minute.”

We’ve taken Rosí hiking and berry picking, to a museum and several grocery stores. And long the way we’re polishing her English a bit.

She told me that she needs to eat more to gain weight. She says that she’s unhappy being thin, but that her whole family has this problem. In fact, “The fattest person in my family is my mother. She’s about as fat as you.”

Um, we need to work on the phrasing a bit. But as long as we’re being honest…

We’ll see as the weeks wear on whether I’m willing to ask her questions that puzzle me. For example, each time she meets a man in my life, she asks if he is in the military. There have been five different men about whom she asks about military status. I don’t understand this. Perhaps she came into this arrangement thinking that some man I know is in the military; or maybe she thinks a high percentage of American men are military personnel? I feel as though I should walk her to the Navy recruiting office and introduce her to a petty officer or two. Just to be able to answer “yes, he’s in the military. And so is she. Because women here do that, too.”