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?

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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.

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.

 

 

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.”

But enough about me

I took care of the three major sticking points in our foreign exchange tangle today. We had a talk about expectations, I made a list of chores for Rosí to do daily and another list of weekly tasks. These satisfied some nagging itches I had about being responsible for another child during Rosí’s visit.

And I made her roasted feta. Saltiest mild cheese I know, with which I killed the salt and dairy need in my guest long enough to hear her talk.

Differences. She marveled that Americans don’t cook with salt, as she picked gingerly through the dinner I made.

IMAG3317

Noodle birds’ nest with roasted feta and poached egg, spinach salad, and pluot. Kids’ portion, in case she didn’t like it.

I watched her shudder at the taste of the plain pasta. The friend who got us into this mess was dining with us said, “You know, the cheese is very salty. Take a little of the cheese and the egg and the spaghetti and eat them together. All in one bite.” Rosí tried it and was quite pleased. She told us about how her mother prepared food by making everything together. Not pasta with sauce on it. Not foods layered on top of each other. Sauce with noodles cooked into it.

And once she settled into eating something we could finally agree on, we hit a few moments of the stride I was hoping we’d find during this encounter.

She explained how she mops at her house every day, because with the windows and doors always open, there is a lot of dust. She told me how much pride people take in their homes and how clean the Dominican Republic is. I believe her, since she scrubbed and mopped my front porch. I’ve swept a porch in my day. I’ve hosed off a porch. I have never scrubbed and mopped a porch. But in her third day here, Rosí did.

She told me how the ripped twenty-dollar bill in her possession would be worthless in the Dominican Republic. “If you come to my country and someone tries to give you this, tell them, ‘Please change this for me.’ Because there are many stealing people in my country and this money, this break? This is not worth any money. Never take this.”

I remembered our conversations the first day about how people in her country rarely pay their electricity and water bills. Because whether you pay or not, there is sometimes electricity and water. And sometimes not. How people only park inside at night because if left on the street, a car would be stripped for parts. Or stolen entirely. She is shocked that people leave their bicycles on the porch in my neighborhood. “Doesn’t someone steal that?” she asked, shocked. “In some places, yes,” I answered. “Here, not usually. Sometimes. But not a lot.”

Today I have begun to wonder what it feels like to not trust. I’m already skittish and try to be aware of my surroundings. To not tempt those who are looking for opportunities to lie, cheat, or steal. But I’m looking for an unusual occurrence. A rarity.

But what must it be like to know that your utility company will take your money and not give you electricity and water? Or that you are paying and your neighbors aren’t? How can you trust your neighbors if you know you’re paying for their utilities because they refuse? How can you bring yourself to pay a company that doesn’t deliver services?

How do you approach transactions if you have to inspect every bill, parse every word, and look over your shoulder?

I’m intrigued. Really. She can’t sample fruit in the store without the riot police descending. She can’t take anything at face value or leave possessions out in the open.

But she made sure, when giving me that twenty-dollar bill, that it was okay. She wasn’t hiding it. She was curious and she didn’t want to stiff me on the groceries. Is part of the pride of cleanliness in the D.R. also a pride in honesty? There may be some stealing persons, but there are many, many proud and honest people?

I mentioned in my post before Rosí arrived how worried I was that we had too many things. That we had accumulated too much that we simply didn’t need. Or that would have better served us as money in the bank.

Is my focus on her stories about theft rooted in an American sense of ownership and property? We seem to value property pretty highly…legally it’s right up there with life and liberty. Or is this a difference not in perspective but of privilege? I rent in relatively affluent suburb of a relatively wealthy part of the country. We are not rich by any definition I know. But I know a very limited number of people from a very limited range of circumstances. Is part of our new mutual reality with Rosí a juxtaposition of wealth that doesn’t know its own wealth and poverty that doesn’t know its own poverty? Am I a horrible bastard for even thinking that way and asking the question? Am I a horrible bastard for not thinking this sooner?

I’m not sure someone has to be a horrible bastard in this scenario. But I do know, that with a lot of feta and some spaghetti birds’ nests, we might begin to scratch the surface of these questions.

And then reality hit

Hosting Adventure Part One, Days Two through Four

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”  –Benjamin Franklin*

*The Internet is almost always wrong about quote attributions, as is popular culture. But I haven’t the time or the interest for investigating. Take the Franklin attribution with a huge grain of salt, would you? Someone said that dreadful thing about guests. In my experience, which seems a bit kinder to guests, it happens around day two, not three, and it’s more that they’re blindingly annoying, not smelly. But I didn’t invent bifocals or lightning rods. Allegedly.

The first thing I learned in the past few days to always keep in mind that I’m an introvert by nature and should never engage in an endeavor wherein I will be with other people for the entire day. Or, for instance, for four days in a row without break. Or, for a more ludicrous instance, seventy-eight days. Or so.

This is not, of course, entirely about our lovely international visitor. She has a full-time job and leaves the house nine hours a day. My children have no jobs but still leave the house a few days a week for a few hours. And Spouse has a full-time job that has him traveling 14 out of 15 days this month.

And therein lies a bit of a problem. I had the lack of foresight to allow the universe overlay a new housemate with a houseguest with an absent Spouse with the last week of school. Silly me. Note to self: work harder to plan things out of your control. If not able, self flagellate, then try again.

So remembering that I should never agree to be an extrovert isn’t really learning something.  But I have learned that things we take for granted in our daily lives can be quite shocking to foreigners. I received a text on day two that Rosí, visiting this summer from the Dominican Republic, is terrified of elevators. Never been on one. Didn’t like it one little bit. I did not see that coming. I guessed about the washing machine and the dishwasher.

I did anticipate that she would be confused by the fact that my husband does our dishes and laundry, and that my father cooks all the meals at his house. She told Dad that she would never get married because she can’t cook well. He told her to find a man who cooks. Or to find a man who likes bad cooking. I told her she doesn’t need a man.

Guess which one of those suggestions will be useful to a young woman back in the DR.

Exactly. None of them.

As much as I prepared myself for differences from one culture to another, I thought the primary differences would lie across the Dominican vs. Californian divide. But after a few days of this arrangement, I’m beginning to believe that our largest chasm is that between 40 and 20. Between mother and unattached university student.

Let’s just say I apologized to my visiting father at least a dozen times for my…um…shall we say world view?…when I was 20. I don’t now, as a professional straddling two careers while staying home to raise my boys, shop for leisure. I don’t do anything to my nails. I don’t care about my hair. I have worn the same clothes since I settled into this size a year after my son was born (often for several days at a time without interruption.) And I don’t think this young lady has any interest in the things I find fascinating. So we’re evenly baffled by each other’s priorities.

Rosí and I are going to have a talk tonight because I think one of her primary sources of discomfort is that she doesn’t know if she can ask for things to be changed. She is very direct, which is a cultural norm for her country, but she also seems shy about being impolite. So she tries a food and says without cushion or caveat that she doesn’t like it, but later tells one of us that it needed salt. Goodness, woman, just ask if you can have some salt; don’t starve. She had a cup of tea at work that she described as being dreadful. But later when I made her tea, she said it was just as bad. Until I told her to put more sugar in it. That made her happy. But did she not know to ask for sugar? Did she think it would be rude? I have to tell her that asking to add something to food is okay.

Update: never mind. On her request, I made spaghetti. I freely admit to using jarred sauce. She asked if I forgot the salt, went to the cupboard, got the giant sea salt bottle, and added at least a teaspoon, if not more to her bowl of pasta. Um, she’s not shy. She just really hates anything without Wile-E.-Coyote-allum levels of salt. Fair enough. She just likes potatoes with salt and pasta with salt and crackers with salt. And cheese.

I think I might be in love.

Hosting Adventure Part One

Part One, Day One:

Our international house guest has been in my care for twelve hours. She’s what I hoped for: a delightful, funny, adorable creature who is teaching me a lot about her culture, her country, and the perspective of an Internet-generation adult.

Proto-adult, really. She’s twenty. I had forgotten how important things like clothing and leg-hair removal mattered at twenty.

Our new friend is gracious. She’s been thanking us for everything at each turn. And as I prepared dinner, without being asked, she wordlessly went through the house tidying. As I made lunches for the boys for tomorrow, feeling a bit frustrated that I’ve added another child to might daily chore list, I asked if she wanted to make her own lunch or if I should do it. She furrowed her brow and said, “It would be easier if you do it. But starting tomorrow you must give me responsibilities for the house. I feel as though you’re my mother, and I don’t like doing nothing.”

Díos, mío, how I’ve wanted to hear that from my children. And now, only one day old, this most recent newborn has uttered the words I’ve wanted to hear for years. “Give me something to do that will help you; it’s unfair that you do so much for me.” The other two keep demanding that I help them dig up the garden and pour the dirt all over the pathway to “make a new road.” Here’s a third child who wants to learn how to use the washing machine so she can do all our laundry.

And as impressive as washing machine is, there are many more items we take for granted that have shocked her. She really doesn’t understand “heater.” She can’t stop examining the hardwood floors and the fireplace. She’s poked around the latter three times, as though it might go away if she doesn’t check in. She told me that if someone put wood on their floor in the Dominican Republic, people would think he was crazy. She asked what she was hearing when I turned on the clothes dryer. As I explained, her eyes grew bigger. Slightly bigger than when my three-year old threw a plate at a cafe. She explained in three words and one gesture that in her country, he would have a handprint on his face.

But the biggest jaw drop of the day was when I explained, in detail, what an automated dishwasher does. Her eyes simply wouldn’t blink as she breathed, “magic.”

It is. Think about it.

When we selected some blackberries in the store and sampled them after they were in the cart but before we paid, she was shocked. She looked around as though the grocery police would grab her and throw her from the store. I’m pretty sure she checked her pocket for her passport before she bit the blackberry.

She returned the favor by shocking the heck out of me. If you pay your electric bill and your water bill in the Dominican Republic, you sometimes get electricity. You sometimes get water. But not often, really, and not predictably.

And if you don’t park in the garage at night, your car, or bits of it, will be stolen.

I’m sure we won’t always be able to impress each other. There are some things that are bound to be issues. Hosting a foreign exchange student for three moths will not be as easy as it has been the first half day. And I have only seen glimpses. We’re Berkeley vegetarians. She’s a Dominican carnivore. We eat as much local, whole, unprocessed, organic food as we can. She prefers soda and juice to water or fruit. She told me tonight that, when I make her cheese, mayonnaise, and ketchup sandwich (oh, wow, I just gagged a little), for one day it’s okay to use whole grain bread. But otherwise, that’s for people on diets and she’d prefer heavily processed bread. The delightfully squishy kind where the nutrients are stripped then painted back on. My words not hers. Except the diet part. Seeds and grains are for diets.

Tongue still bleeding from the self-silencing.

She gets significant respect for trying, though. I’ve had her try veggie chorizo, hummus, and a smoothie. On her first day. Hummus is good, she said. But not for sandwiches. Veggie chorizo? “Spicy? Is that the name for this feeling? I don’t like spicy, I guess. I changed my decision.”

So now that I’m better informed than I was during last night’s panic, I can tell you that this university student, with aspirations of a masters degree from a university outside her country, has an impressively open mind. After I explained why we have four different ways of disposing of kitchen waste, she wondered aloud why more cities don’t compost and recycle. She didn’t bat an eye when I told her that Spouse is the guy who does dishes and laundry. She might even win over the little guy, who is quite choosy indeed.

We had a busy first day. There was a lot of hanging up clothes and trying on clothes and hanging them back up, then trying them again.  She brought a lovely assortment of sleeveless blouses and dresses. So I found in my closet several lightweight suit jackets (that fit, thankfully) so she can make it to work without freezing to death.

Because I would hate to lose my new, cooperative, conscientious child to hypothermia.

Adventure Eve

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!