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.


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.



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?

How bipolar is bipolar?

Just how Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde do I have to get before I can self diagnose as bipolar and self medicate with alternating doses of chocolate and cabernet?

I’m asking because spending a lot of time with a three-year-old (again) and carefully observing our seven-year-old, and adjusting to a foreign exchange student are all making me…um…how do I say this…volatile?

In one moment, our family is a unified ball of bliss, talking about what makes us grateful, in the backyard while slurping down locally made ice cream. In another, I’m silently plotting a scenario in which I lock them outside and call the old-school cartoon truant officer to take them to the pound. (Or is that the dog catcher? I don’t care, really, since this is 2013 in Berkeley and everything I’ve said in this paragraph is so patently offensive to the current culture that I’m going to be taken away in a paddy wagon, anyway. Ooops. There I go again. I don’t care. I’m holding on too tight, Goose. Except that it should be tightly. And I doubt I’ll ever hold on so tightly that I say that I’m holding on too tight. So I’m clearly totally fine, right?)

Our lovely houseguest is trying so hard. She’s curious and attentive. Sometimes. When she interrupts a conversation to ask about Anne Frank I’m too engaged in the answer to notice she totally just interrupted. When she timidly asks if the T-shirt she just bought, emblazoned with an ad for a performance of The Vagina Monologues, means what she thinks it means, I’m too intent on explaining performance as a way of bringing violence out of the dark to remember that she’s just spent more of her money on crap she doesn’t need.

And she’s direct. In my best moments, I’m proud of how adventurous she is, quite aware of her challenging status as a stranger in a foreign house, doing her best to engage but not get in the way.

But when I’m not vigilant, a nasty little creature takes over my brain and wonders why on Earth our sweet temporary family member is so impossible. It’s too cold here every minute of every day, until a heat wave. And then woe is her, it’s so hot. Our food is terrible and awful and we are just crazy to eat the way we do. And then she supposes this homemade cookie is okay. “It’s okay, I guess.” Well then you can hand it over, Missy, because if my cookies aren’t good enough for you to smile and make yummy sounds, why then I’ll eat that one, too. She’s so intrigued by everything and can we please take her everywhere we go, but oh dear that’s too boring and can she take a nap in the middle of a potluck? She’s dying to go running and can I please take her running and when are we going running? But then when I get up at 5:30 a.m. to take her for a jog, after one block she’s dying and did she not mention she’s never been running before?

Sheesh. Teenagers.

Which brings me to the three-year-old. A delightful blogger tweeted a few weeks ago that she’d rather parent a two-year-old for seven years than a fourteen-year-old for one year. I begged her to please tell me she was kidding.

You already know about Three. I don’t need to tell you about Three. All I’m saying is, I feel a bit bipolar courtesy of the insanity that is Three.

Cute. Hitting. Adorable. Screaming. Deliberate. Random. Focused. Crazy. Kind. Mean.

And Seven is his own ball of contrary and erratic. Sweetly offering to set the table, then yelling”NO!” when I ask him to choose the book I’ll read him. Kindly teaching his brother how to find bugs in the backyard one minute then swinging handcuffs at the “stupid jerk who doesn’t play right!” the next.

So if the chicken comes before the egg, I’m bipolar and the kids inherited it from me. Including the exchange student. If the egg comes before the chicken, the three insane people in my house are driving me to the edge.

I’m wondering, I suppose, if roller coaster days are contagious. Or if we’re allergic to summer. Or life. Or something.

Which came first: the hot side that stayed hot or the cool side that stayed cool? And since when am I a McMetaphor?

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.”


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!



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.