“Mum, I need to get some trainers.” Me: “What are trainers?” And so begins another conversation that Kevin and I have in which I have no idea what she is talking about even though we are both speaking English. However, we persevere, laugh, explain and learn.
My husband and I have hosted many international students and guests over the last 20 years from four countries and two continents. When I think of the many wonderful experiences we have had and the friendships made, it makes me smile. I also remember the numerous cultural missteps we have committed, and I am embarrassed. It is easy to make inaccurate assumptions about cultural cues, humor, social interactions and traditions. Much of we have learned over the years has been by trial and error. Therefore, I highly recommend a book called Foreign to Familiar that MCC shared with us recently. It is an excellent tool to greater understanding of cultural differences.
Dan and I have learned there are several things that are universal in good international relationships — smiles, asking about their country and family and taking time to really listen and learn. Also, introducing our guests to new experiences is another good cultural glue. My husband helped Kevin (our current IVEPer) catch her first fish (he didn’t make her kiss it!), she’s gone kayaking and taken a ride through the woods on an ATV. We have introduced her to a local group of young internationals who meet every Friday night at the home of a Japanese friend of ours to share a meal and life experiences. Kevin has shared her story with this group. She’s gone trick-or-treating with our grandkids. She has experienced how we observe Thanksgiving and birthdays. We have had many discussions of faith. She has gotten involved with our church. We have tried to explain what to expect in each situation. To say, we are visiting family for Thanksgiving is quite clear in our minds but may not have context for someone from another country.
To be honest, Kevin is an extrovert who thrives on new experiences. Therefore, introducing her to new things has been easy. Not every one of our international guests have been that outgoing. That is OK. Talking about what their expectations are is more necessary in those situations. Having discernment in what to push and what activities to excuse them from is needed. This is especially true if their primary language is not English. I have been told many times that just communicating in another language all day is exhausting. Keeping that in mind when planning evening activities is important.
As empty nesters, Dan and I need to be more intentional in discovering what events and activities are available in our area that may be of interest to our guest if not to us. Socially interacting with other young people is important in any culture. Thankfully, with social media it is rather easy to find local events and many of them are low cost or free! It is also nice to make connections with young people at your church or community. Challenge those American young people to go the extra mile to make an international connection themselves.
The bottom line is that talking openly, not making assumptions, pursuing a conversation if something seems off and making yourself available are helpful habits in creating a wonderful cultural experience for both the IVEPer and your family.
And, oh by the way, trainers are sneakers!
Header photo caption: L to R: Sheila Eckman, Kevin Candia (Uganda), and Dan Eckman attending Christmas program at Grace Community Church in Willow Street, Pennsylvania. Photo/Sheila Eckman