Old memories and new memories

Hosting an IVEP participant

From left: Eric Bendfeldt, Mary Bendfeldt and Hulda Sharon watch an NCAA college football game at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Growing up in a family that regularly hosted international students, I had always assumed that I would do the same. Remarkably, it has taken us until we are almost 60 to be hosts! I want to share some reflections on what is familiar and what is new in this experience of hosting Hulda Sharon from Indonesia.

Eric and I went to Tanzania to work for MCC when we were 24 and 23, about the same age as Sharon. I will never forget how jarring it was when we landed on a new continent for three years, which eventually turned into seven. Jet lag alone seemed like a hurdle! Food was not the same, daily customs were not the same, and of course the language was not the same. This was difficult as someone who has always sought out commonalities when relating in a new place, but we learned quickly that Tanzanian hospitality and warmth cannot be beat. When Sharon graciously joined our home, she did not seem disconcerted by much at all, but we were aware of our own young adult memories and wanted to be sure that she felt comfortable and welcome. 

Eric Bendfeldt, Hulda Sharon and Mary Bendfeldt celebrate Christmas together. Eric and Mary are wearing Indonesian batik gifted by Sharon.
From left: Eric Bendfeldt, Hulda Sharon and Mary Bendfeldt celebrate Christmas together. Eric and Mary are wearing Indonesian batik gifted by Sharon. Photo/Hannah B Pearl

Villages are not all the same. Sharon is from a larger city in Indonesia. As it came closer to her arrival, I became more nervous about stories from other international friends who think that Harrisonburg is not a very exciting place. And to think that we live in Mount Clinton, which is in rural Virginia. I remember vividly how friendly our Tanzanian village, Burere, was. It occurred to me that a village here is isolated compared to other villages all over the world. It takes a ride in a car to join any activities, and that means finding an activity and getting a ride there.  

Sharon has been a trooper in this way, joining activities at our small, mostly older congregation, attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes with a friend from James Madison University (JMU), registering folks for a farm-to-table conference and always ready for adventure, even if she has to wait for one to come along! In addition to local activities, we are so thankful that Sharon can attend her home church virtually, something we never dreamed of 30 years ago in Tanzania!

A love of sport is great for bonding. No one would call me a sports enthusiast; however, my mom (at almost 85) and husband love nothing better than watching a good game. Sharon also loves to watch sports and even try them out. She has been golfing with Eric, attended a nailbiter football game at JMU and also went to another nailbiter to watch the University of Virginia women’s basketball team lose the game at the very last second. I am trying to join in with this passion of theirs, but it has been so much fun to watch the excitement on Sharon’s face at these games. Who would have thought? Certainly not me. This was a plot twist I didn’t anticipate at all. I might yet learn what all of this is about!

Love of food is also great for bonding. Now this is something I can totally relate to. We were not certain which foods Sharon would enjoy or even tolerate. Remember how slow I was adjusting to Tanzanian food, which I eventually loved? Sharon immediately embraced our eclectic taste in food, not batting an eye at adjusting to brown rice and taking a real shine to maple syrup. Sharon has taught me how to make fried eggplant (which is delicious), pan fried tofu (also delicious despite being the “wrong” kind of tofu), and chicken and corn egg drop soup – which by now you have already guessed is delicious! But let’s get back to the wrong kind of tofu. I have learned that in a culture where tofu is a constant, it is important to have the right variety for a specific recipe. My taste isn’t quite that refined yet. I just assumed that firm tofu was the frying kind, but not in Indonesia. Which reminds me, you may want to try out Indonesian hot sauce!

Winter is cold. Sharon has been amazing adjusting to the fluctuating temperatures in the Shenandoah Valley, even working outside for long hours at her placement at a farm. I think I was at least as relieved as she was when it was time for winter job placement until spring comes! Nonetheless, a heat pump is not cozy heat, and Sharon has often felt cold in our house. I would recommend that families buy an electric blanket in situations like this. She has been very appreciative of hers, but it is still not warm. It took a while for Sharon to realize she could bundle up, and really had to dress warmly to feel comfortable inside because the heat was never going to feel warm enough. I’m sure this is not easy. We remember what it was like to not have any control over the inside temperature when the sun beat down on a metal roof in Tanzania. It may be the opposite problem but also the same.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Sharon is not the same young adult I was, but our own experiences inform how we relate to our guest. Are we perfect? Not at all. When I told my adult daughter that I never realized how controlling I am in my own kitchen, she laughed out loud. Clearly, I needed this experience to shine the light on how exacting I can be! We are all learning to have breakfast and lunch packed by 7:30 without stepping on each other both literally and figuratively. We are aware that weekends are about being out and about for a young adult, when I think that cleaning the house in peace is the perfect Saturday. We had forgotten that a young person needs to perfect their look before they take a picture or leave the house.  

Sharon is a gift to us. I can only hope that we can be a gift to her the way our Tanzanian host family continues to be a gift to us so many years later! 

Editor’s note: Mary Bendfeldt and her family, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, are currently hosting IVEPer Hulda Sharon, who is from Indonesia. Top photo: From left: Eric Bendfeldt, Mary Bendfeldt and Hulda Sharon watch an NCAA college football game at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Photo/Sinead Sargeant