Living in a small town can be a bit limiting when it comes to cultural experiences. Our family shares this part of the world with about 8,000 other earthlings, most of them are like me in that they are white, Canadian and middle class. We aren’t exposed to the world as might be the case if we lived in a big city like Montreal, New York or London. There you can find large neighborhoods of common groups of nationalities like Chinatown, Little Italy, and a hundred other cultural and ethnic communities. And when you have young children the cost of travel is prohibitive. So how do we find ways of introducing our children to the great wide world and cultural diversity that exists outside of our little town? Netflix! No, not really…
After Heather graduated high school, she seized on the opportunity to travel to Europe for the better part of a year and live with a French family. She went to school at a French high school and refined her French, and met some wonderful people. She made connections with folks that will last her lifetime. Her experience helped to shape her perceptions about the world, and gave her a broader perspective that she continues to share with our kids.
When Zach was just shy of two, we welcomed our first international student, Pedro, into our house. It was a crazy time. We had just moved into our house, we were renovating, and we did not have a working bathroom. You can imagine the conversation.
Heather: “ I think now would be a great time to host an international student.”
Michael: “What a terrific idea honey! Let me tear out this bathroom first!”
Not quite, but it was a chaotic time. I think we got the toilet installed the day Pedro arrived. And despite that first insane step, we never regret the decision. Since Pedro, we have had 7 more students in our home, joining our family. And that is the joy and beauty of the experience; our kids have seven big brothers and sisters that will be a part of their lives for the rest of theirs.
Our students come as part of a school district program that brings kids from all over the world to attend school in Canada. They’re here for one or both semesters, and some return year after year. And for us it usually starts mid-summer when we learn about our student for the upcoming year. At that point, Zachary and Beth-Rose become over-the-top excited and wanting to know everything about the student. Sometimes we have the opportunity to talk or Skype or email with our future family member and their family before they arrive, and we let them know just how excited we all are about their impending arrival. When we meet them at the airport, they are already a part of our family.
We have had students from Brazil, Germany, and China, with the large majority from Brazil. I think there’s something about the Latin cultures that lend themselves to our home and lifestyle. Maybe it’s because they are more emotionally demonstrative. I don’t really know, but we have certainly enjoyed welcoming our Brazilian teens into our family. I know some people who host kids from other countries have a tendency to regard them as “boarders”, but that’s not for us. We want them to become a part of our family. There is little value to opening up your home to someone from another country if you are not going to welcome them into your life, and be welcomed into theirs.
Having international students means never taking for granted our beautiful surroundings. We love sharing our world, and showing off the great places nearby. Weekends we become tourist guides. We explore the local sites with wide-eyed wonder, even if we’ve seen them 20 times before. We appreciate them, and view them through the first time eyes of our new family members.
We encourage them to make Canadian friends. If our students only hang out with others from their own country, they miss out on the benefit of coming to live and learn in a foreign land. They have a harder time learning the language, and they don’t have the experiences that make living in our country so special. And the students that make friends here are more likely to come back for a visit.
Having international students sharing our home and our lives has become an important part of raising our own children. They learn so much about the world through these connections, and gain a deeper understanding for the interconnectedness of the human race. Yes, we do things differently here, but we experience the same emotions, the same ups and downs and face the same challenges as people from other lands.
Without a doubt, the most difficult part of sharing our home and our lives with these teenagers is saying goodbye. Zach and Beth-Rose become despondent when the departure date nears, and we do our best not to dwell on the impending separation. They have made lifelong, unbreakable connections. Saying goodbye is almost unbearable.
That connection is what makes it all worthwhile. We have stayed in touch with our international kids, and we chat pretty regularly. Larissa, our daughter from Germany, was back for a three-week visit last year. Her family also came out and spent a week with us when Larissa’s school year was up. Pedro, our first student, came out for my birthday a year after he had gone home. Some of his family came out and visited with us before he went home as well. And Gabriel, who was with us for 5 months last year, spent Christmas with us last month. He’s back in Canada finishing his grade 12, but in another part of the province. We’ll see him again in a few weeks.
Our family of four has grown so much, thanks to the connections we have made with our international children. They have helped bring the wide world into our little town of 8,000 souls, and shown our own kids that the world is, indeed, a pretty amazing place.