At different intervals throughout my childhood I had the unique opportunity to have five additional big brothers. Since my nearest sibling was seven years older than me, these “guest” brothers played important roles in my life. More than four decades later, I remember all their names and where they were from. The constant flow of IVEPers that rotated through our small church in southern Kansas always created a certain sense of excitement for me! Now, my own daughters have had the opportunity to form lasting relationships with their own big sisters: Barbara Franzen from Brazil and now Nouchee Lor from Laos.
Nouchee has expanded our family’s world in many ways. The impact on my daughters is obvious but I was surprised how much I would gain. Within her first couple weeks in our home, I realized quickly what an interesting year this could be. I was home tending to a sick daughter, with what turned into pneumonia. While on the phone with the doctor deciding how to transport her, Nouchee brought me an egg to rub on her body. I was utterly confused. What was she trying to do? Several hours later and with less anxiety, I realized exactly what she was doing -- helping us in the best way she knew how.
I was so intrigued by that gesture that I needed to know more about Nouchee and her home. I plowed through the book, “The spirit catches you and you fall down,” and the entire Netflix series on the Vietnam War. How could I not have known that Laos was the most bombed country per capita in the world and what did it have to do with the Vietnam War? So many gaps to fill in my understanding of geography, history and culture. Perhaps the best way to fill those gaps is with actual people, not books or documentaries. Hosting someone for a year is a perfect opportunity for that!
One of the easiest ways to integrate someone into your family is with food, fun and music. Our kitchen has always been one of diverse foods but Nouchee has taken it to a new level. She is a very versatile cook and loves to expose us to some of her favorite dishes. Since she loves to cook, we attempted to establish Tuesday night as Nouchee’s night. Each meal involved rice or rice noodles as a base and her optional concoction of some of the hottest peppers I’ve eaten. Some meals are big hits with us while others that are soaked in fish sauce might be what we call ‘interesting.’ I think Nouchee finds our Swiss cheese interesting also!
Since Nouchee’s fluency in English is still developing, I believe it’s been a great learning opportunity for our three daughters, from grades 2 through 6, and Nouchee. At one point, they were creating weekly lesson plans to help Nouchee with things like spelling and sentence construction. They were learning organizational and teaching skills while Nouchee was developing skills in a fun and emotionally safe place.
One simple game we have enjoyed as a family is Boggle. It’s a game of finding words in a jumble of letters. It’s a fun and useful game for families with kids still developing vocabulary and spelling skills but we have found it to be ideal educational entertainment with our international guests! Some of our best belly laughs this year have been when all efforts of language collapse and we have had to resort to theatrics and all sorts of facial and body contortions to communicate an idea or one simple word! Uno and Five Crowns are also big hits in the evening and weekends.
Music is indeed a universal language. Even as I write this, Nouchee is chopping vegetables and teaching one of my daughters a Christian song in Laotian. One of the easiest ways to share music is with a simple sung prayer before an evening meal. Barbara had taught us one from Brazil that we still easily sing. Like Barbara, Nouchee is also a wonderful singer and enjoys making up catchy spontaneous songs that are a joy to hear in our house, especially when it involves everyone. Likewise, every day when my wife drives everyone to school in the morning, they sing from memory all four verses of “I owe the Lord a morning song.” Now Nouchee knows an important song in the life of our family.
Having a guest for 10 to 12 months is a manageable span of time and a good amount to learn how to live together. It sometimes forces introspection into why our family does the things it does, which at times can be a necessary exercise. My wife and I both participated in similar programs; I went to Amsterdam, Holland, while she went to India. We both have maintained relationships with our host families and friends and have even returned to visit them. Technology has allowed us to have occasional live time video sessions with Barbara.
Nouchee may be from Laos, but much of her identity is still from her ethnic identity of being Hmong. Unlike most ethnicities in North America that can be traced to a country of origin, the Hmong have no political homeland or ancestral home. They have been forced to roam for thousands of years. There seems to be a certain spiritual strength that comes with that nomadic heritage. It is also an apt parallel to a Christian’s understanding of a worldwide church-- one that sees no political boundaries due to a love that knows no borders. The IVEP program is a valuable and meaningful part of that reminder.