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Open Your Home And Hearts To A Foreign Exchange Student

OAKHURST – One summer two years ago our family took a “big chance,” and at the urging of our friend Sheila Adams, hosted two Chinese teenage girls in our home for two weeks. It was a phenomenal experience for our family and now, we’re getting ready to do it again.

Many mountain area residents know Sheila Adams from her work with nonprofit arts group Vision Academy. Adams is also the Teacher Coordinator for Sierra Home Stay (SHS), a cultural exchange organization she founded with Lori Howard. This is their 6th year working home stays with China.SHS is expecting between 35-50 Chinese kids to arrive in San Francisco and take a charter bus into Oakhurst, with a currently scheduled date of July 18. I remember that when “our” girls arrived, it was after midnight in the Vons parking lot and they were tired, hungry, very sweet and very excited. Adams says they are signing up and making arrangements for host families right now.

“We’re looking for host people who are interested in being a host family for two weeks for one or two teenage school kids from China who are coming to America to taste American culture,” explains Adams.

Hongzi Learned To Make A Beautiful Book - photo by Kellie Flanagan“What we have found in past experience is that Chinese parents are very interested in sending the kids to America to get a taste of American lifestyle because they want their kids to go to America for the high school or college experience. Eight of our students from previous groups have come back to America to finish high school or start college education.”

Host families are asked to provide visiting kids with a private furnished room, along with meals and transportation.

“We emphasize that this is not a camp, but since it’s a very short summer break, in China they consider it a camp, since they get to go away from home and be with a different family,” says Adams. “We have daily classes where we talk about differences in Chinese culture and American ways.

The kids, in turn, are expected to live as American families do.

ClaraBrileyChinese Dinner By Hongzi - Photo by Kellie Flanagan“We tell them, ‘you are now part of the American family, so if mom is about to go out and do some gardening, go out and weed the garden with her,'” promises Adams. She reminds them to do the dishes or to cook, to “be an American kid for these two weeks.”

“Most of these kids go to a boarding school and they don’t see too much of their families. It’s quite a culture shock for them because all of a sudden we’ve got moms and dads that are hugging kids and at first they go ‘eek’ and by the time they leave, they are hugging back.”

Our family can personally attest to that. We hosted two girls, Rene and Hongzi (some kids choose to “Americanize” their names and some prefer not), 15-year-olds who were utterly delightful in just about every way. While it was strange at first to have visitors who were essentially strangers, we all adjusted well and after two weeks we were very sad to see them leave. The feeling was mutual and there were hugs and tears all around.

“The host families basically become mom and dad to these kids for two weeks,” says Adams. “It is totally voluntary. We are not able to pay the host families, it’s just a cultural exchange on a volunteer basis, though a small stipend is offered to the host families in the form of a gift card.”

The program is popular with both the visiting students and host families, and Adams reports that 90% of participating American families have, like us, volunteered to host Chinese students a second time, at least. Seven families are on their sixth go-round, so there is plenty of support should a new host family need it.

Most host families have kids of their own, in which case, the children are welcome to join in every aspect of the Chinese students’ experience. Adams says it enhances the program when they do.

Rene and Holly Play Guitar - Photo by KellieFlanagan“On our daily classes we encourage the American children to come to the class meetings because we get a much better exchange of ideas that way. The Chinese students relate so much better to kids their own age and sometimes we have Chinese students who don’t speak English too well, but through sign language and facial expressions they really communicate with the American kids.”

Our daughter and her mountain area friends really enjoyed having the girls stay with us, especially since one of our visitors — a Chinese girl named Holly who was staying nearby — played guitar and knew seemingly every song sung by American country star Taylor Swift, along with lots of Justin Bieber.

“They love to sing, they have iPods and such, and they are plugged in electronically almost constantly,” admits Adams. Like American kids sometimes, “We have to tell them unplug,” she says. Meanwhile, “they love to sing American songs and of course our teenagers join right in so it’s great fun.”

Holly was eventually re-named “Hollywood” and is hoping to attend one of two precious spots she says are available to Chinese students at Columbia University in New York the year she graduates.

There are a few days that families get together for hikes, a day at Bass Lake, and an important closing ceremony where the Chinese kids perform in gratitude to the host families.

“We also take an all day trip each week. This year we hope to spend at least half a day on the Sugar Pine Railroad and ride the logging train, have a BBQ and pan for gold. The next week we will go into Yosemite Valley and see waterfalls and go on a little hike. Again, the American families are invited to be part of those activities. If you are interested and want more information call me!”

Rene Holly Play Guitar Clara Friends Dance - Photo by Kellie FlanaganThe kids we had stay with us came bearing gifts from their families, personal items hand-chose by their parents. We treasure these gifts: a small porcelain baby that rocks and brings good luck from Hongzi, and from Rene, four tiny sculptures created in the hometown of her ancestors. Recently Hongzi sent us an heavily annotated American cookbook about Chinese food, with lots of warnings about the right ways to cook. Hongzi had made us the best fried rice we’d ever had. Hollywood sends us songs she’s recorded.

What was the best gift we got from “our” Chinese girls? The one we hope to get again this summer: the chance to look inside someone’s life, make a friend out of a stranger, and to open up and share our lives and homes. The homemade fried rice was insanely delicious, too.

Sheila Adams can be reached at 559/642-4329

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Sierra News Online

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