How can we be an excellent foreign exchange host family?
June 18, 2015 7:08 PM   Subscribe

We're in the U.S. and will have an 11th grader from France with us for the upcoming school year. Never hosted before or been exchange students ourselves. We have 2 kids, one of them the same age as the student. We've done the agency's orientation, but what tips do you have for making our young man feel at home and helping him get the most out of his time with us?
posted by lakeroon to Human Relations (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How awesome! I was an exchange student years ago, it was a wonderful experience.

Things that made me feel really welcome:

- They set up my room nicely, with little things that made it easy to settle in like stationery items for my desk, little decorations, things that made it feel welcoming and not totally sparse but at the same time allowed me to add my own touches.

- They explained all the quirks of their house, using appliances, locking up etc and explained their house rules so I didn't feel like a guest who shouldnt' open cupboards or whatever without feeling like I was intruding. (they didn't do this all at once but over the first few weeks as needed)

- They introduced me to the neighbours. That made me feel like I belonged, that I had people I could go to if I needed help and I wasn't someone people were wondering about (that said, bless them but the elderly couple down our street thought I was from Russia, I have no idea how that mix up occurred but I was quite startled to be asked when I was returning to St Petersburg. I'm from Australia)

-Food - lots of openness about my likes and dislikes so we didn't have awkwardness at meal times.

- They let me tag along. I had host siblings too, including a sister a year older than me and that was great but I also needed parent time. If HostMum or HostDad were doing an errand they'd ask if anyone wanted to join them and I often did and was often the only child to do so. If that cramped their style they never let on and I really enjoyed having that one on one time with the grownups rather than just being one of the kids.

-My host sister took me around and explained the school buses, using public transport generally, how bus passes worked etc, all things she was super familiar with but her parents less so.

- I think they did some ground work with the school because the vice principal was super welcoming and put me in a class that really suited my personality and level and made sure I had a mix of people to go to (e.g. our homeroom teacher, a few students were buddied up with me and he introduced me to the librarian who was very kind and sought out english language books for me). They had plans in place for things I couldn't participate in, such as when my class went and did work experience for 2 weeks.

Is your other child older or younger than the exchange student? Don't be surprised or concerned if your student prefers the company of the sibling who isn't closest in age. I actually had nothing in common with the host sister a year older than me but I got on great with the mother and the three little kids. I think the times I felt most awkward was when I was encouraged to hang out with her friends who were into heavy metal, smoking and generally terrifying to my shy nerdy bookwormy self. But I'd play board games with the 4/6/8 year olds for hours, they taught me crafts and gardening, we'd rollerskate in the street - and I was perfectly happy.

Feel free to memail me if you have any questions!
posted by kitten magic at 7:49 PM on June 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

Oh I meant to add, I was 15 years old and went to Germany for the full school year.
posted by kitten magic at 7:51 PM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: -If it's possible to get him set up with some sort of smartphone, do it. Add him to your family plan if you have one so he doesn't need to worry about something your own children don't.

- A Kindle set up to deal with Especially if you live somewhere with few bookshops that would stock titles in French.

- If your family has membership to a pool or gym, add him so he can go on his own if he likes.

- If he's worried about falling behind in school in France, investigate if your local school has a deal with community colleges where HS students can audit/take classes for free/not much money; your exchange student may want to participate in more detailed classes on European history, say, or French literature, than he'd get at a high school.

- Ask about his family's norms about alcohol and drugs and be sure you are on the same page there. I am sure he knows about the US' differing laws, but he may have an assumption that what happens at home is not an issue, or that restaurants serve minors because they aren't just bars. He also may be shocked that the red Solo cups from films are real - my foreign freinds were! - and that binge drinking is the problem it is.

- In France he may not have learned to drive yet, so if he can enroll in a driver's education program or even get his license while in the US, he may really appreciate this when home, when he might be able to swap his US license for a French one. This page explains a bit more about this.

- If your state allows it, get him a state ID he can carry around instead of a passport, which would be a real hassle to replace. Teens lose stuff.

- If your family can financially/organizationally swing it, make school breaks without organized time into trips that interest him, not just see-the-wonders-of-America slogs. He might want to see the Grand Canyon - or go to Comic-Con instead!

- Assume the best when there's a miscommunication - few people his age will have been immersed in a second/third language 24/7 for more than a week or so unless his family travels loads, with locals. This trip will be a quantum leap in his English ability, regardless of how good it already is. You don't need to adjust how you speak or write to him, but he may take a bit to get used to your region's accent and verbal tics. :)
posted by mdonley at 9:20 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Assume the best when there's a miscommunication - few people his age will have been immersed in a second/third language 24/7 for more than a week or so unless his family travels loads, with locals.

But also keep in mind that in countries outside the US, learning a second or third language is pretty normal.

My brother did full French immersion in elementary school and had an exchange with a French student in Grade 10 or so.

The biggest culture shock for the French kid when he came here was eating at a buffet. "What do you mean, I can have as much of anything I want?"
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 9:29 PM on June 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

All are GREAT suggestions! I've lived in foreign countries, and my happily seven years long husband is from a foreign country and now lives in mine... All of the little stuff you take for granted is supremely DIFFERENT.

After SEVEN YEARS it was just discovered this evening my husband has not known how to open a can of juice with a Church Key.

I don't even know. I'm dumbfounded.

Your student is likely less life experienced than my 36 year old husband - expect basic weird things are totally unknown. Show patience in your short time together. At least this disparity won't last a lifetime:))
posted by jbenben at 1:03 AM on June 19, 2015

Best answer: How wonderful! I was an exchange student in the US (Ohio) when I was 16 and I believe it contributed greatly to who I am today.

I second everything kitten magic has said, it is all very good advice. I think in general, the best thing you can do is to integrate the kid into your normal life and don't treat him any different than your other kids. My host family became family to me and I call me hostparents Mom and Dad now. If it works out that way, it is a real blessing for everyone.

There where however some difficult times and I just want to encourage you to stick the rough patches out and just generally communicate a lot. The discussions which were carried from an entirely different perspective than my real parents' (Think Baptist, Republican, working class vs. Atheists, Liberals, conservative enrepreneur *yikes*) were exactly what enriched me and gace me points for reflection way beyond what a regular 16 year old would do.

The most important thing was that my parents gave me the feeling of almost unconditional love right from day 1. Yes, we fought and there were tears with the laughter but not one second did I feel I wasnt welcome in their home or that I was risking being sent home. THAT feeling gave me the strength and courage to truly immerse myself.

I wish you a wonderful time and as kitten magic, I offer you to message me if you want advice some time down the road. Good luck!
posted by Fallbala at 1:05 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Fallbala makes a really good point about giving the student unconditional love. I too had wonderful host parents who gave me that love and security. High school international exchanges are an interesting dynamic because on one hand you're doing something so adventurous and everyone praises your bravery; on the other, you're still barely out of childhood and slowly learning to be a young adult and you're amazingly far from your family and friends at a time they are still very important to your development. Of the students in my cohort, the kids whose exchanges didnt go well tended to be ones who didnt bond with their host families. With some the student made no effort but one girl I knew got treated like she was just a lodger and was very lonely even though she had friends at school.

It's a wonderful experience and you're so thoughtful preparing like this.
posted by kitten magic at 6:23 AM on June 19, 2015

Best answer: I didn't have as excellent an experience as the others, though I wouldn't trade the experience I had for anything.

By far the biggest source of issues was that my host family had a ton of expectations about what I was going to be like and what my existing life experience was, and I didn't know what I didn't know so I did a whole lot of things under the flag of "I guess this is what I do now."

An example: they had no idea I'd never even seen public transportation before and never asked, but I had heard of it and understood the principle, so when I was handed a bus schedule (we weren't allowed to drive for liability reasons, even though I had my license) I sat down and studied it and promptly started getting myself places. But less than two weeks later I fucked up on a Sunday evening (which offered complicatedly limited services) and missed the last reasonable bus home and my host mom flipped and accused me of doing it on purpose to stay out later. And I was all "okay, I guess that's how this is now too." I don't think I ever told them, I just took it, and all her subsequent hissy fits.

I never got the benefit of the doubt if I misunderstood something or just flat out had no idea how something worked, and when I bothered to defend myself I always got "well you seemed to understand" and my private feelings were that this was not my fault. A lot of stuff I probably could have used an apology for got dumped in this weird "you seem so Swedish, I thought you'd know" bucket. I felt like it was my job to adapt and fit in, so I ate shit if that was what was necessary to fit in, but sometimes I couldn't pull it off and inevitably this was treated as a violation of some sort. I was actually an incredibly naive and sheltered 16-year-old, and I faked the hell out of my apparent maturity, but it should have been okay for me to be stupid sometimes.

They gave me a nice place to live (way nicer than most of the other students in our program), and stood up for me in a couple of situations where I really needed local adults on my team, but I never understood why they had an exchange student aside from as a status symbol. I don't even know what to think about why a family with a 16-year-old only-child son would host a 16-year-old girl (also an only child, and not previously terribly privy to the home life of 16-year-old boys), but it was weird from day 1 and didn't get better as we got to know each other and found out how different we were.

My Swedish school was AMAZINGLY accommodating, in ways that I don't think US schools even can be if they wanted to, and the students who came to my US high school were treated 100% like regular students (even though in most cases they were taking a year off from school and getting no credit, so it was completely a social exercise) and punished and threatened for not knowing all the intricate rules about conduct and lateness and dress code and ugh it was shit for them. Talk to the school, and stay in touch with the school, to mitigate that crap as best you can.

In my experience, most of the coordinators in exchange programs are volunteers, maybe marginally compensated or not at all. That means that they operate about on the level of HOAs, dog rescue groups, and charity organizations. Watch out for unstable people and org politics. My regional coordinator went from seeming nice to seeming kind of odd to some sort of months-long psychotic event that involved weekly phone calls of verbal abuse and what turned out to be a very creepy spying and social engineering campaign against several of us until my host mom found out and got that nipped in the bud. So, you know, keep an eye on that kind of thing. Most of my fellow exchange students in other regions had their regional coordinators just sort of lose interest and become unreachable.

Overall, it can be a fraught boundary situation that's going to be both cultural and personal, and you can't always expect teenagers to know how to communicate those things well. Help however you can, be really clear with not just your expectations but your desires and making sure everyone gets the nuances of those wants and needs. Know that they're going to screw up some - sometimes on purpose and sometimes accidentally, but you need to keep a good faith approach as best you can.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:35 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of people have covered the do's; I'll talk about a few don'ts. (Creds: my family hosted a German exchange student for 3 months when I was a senior in high school; I was an exchange student in France with five families (2-4 months each) during my gap year, and then again with a couple more families at later stints, for 4-month periods. Some of these families were awesome and I still keep in touch almost twenty years later, some I couldn't wait to get out of.)

Don't stew in silence about his internet/phone/TV/common resources usage. If you think it's inappropriate, gently tell him, and explain your reasoning why. If he needs to be reminded, remind them gently. You're not his parents, you're the cool aunt/uncle.

Don't host him as a status symbol or because you feel you need to. I'm sure you're not, but the one family that was just the worst was obviously hosting me because the father was the Rotary Club treasurer and he thought he needed to do his part to keep up appearances.

Don't plan family outings and then not tell him about them, and then get mad at him when he makes his own plans.

Don't host him if you are having marital or family issues. This didn't happen to me, but a friend of mine was living with a couple in the leadup to their divorce. She finally had to ask to get moved, because home life was so tense.

Don't interfere on his privacy, but do let him know if you expect him to keep hisroom clean or tidied according to a certain schedule.

Don't speak French to him, or provide a whole lot of French media. He will be able to find that on his own, and his job is to learn English as quickly as possible.

Don't treat him too much like a guest. He is there to be part of your family life. One of my host mothers asked me one day, "Sorry to bother you, but could you iron your own clothes just for today?" I realized just how much I was taking for granted, and that moment looms large in my becoming a grown-ass woman.

I'm happy to memail or talk more about these things. All of my stints as an exchange student or a visitor in France have played a huge role in my becoming who I am today, which is an international educator specializing in France.
posted by Liesl at 8:07 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

And I can't resist this one "do": Do talk to your kids beforehand about what the experience is going to be like for them, and check in with them along the way. Lay out how family rules may be different for the exchange student than they are for your kids, because of xyz. Remind them that they don't have to be best friends with him, but they do have to treat him with respect and a great amount of flexibility and empathy. Encourage them to ask questions of him, even if they sound stupid, and prepare them that your exchange student will be likely experiencing a culture shock wave of emotions. Encourage them to include him in social plans, and to introduce him to their friends at school. They will play a special role in helping him to adjust socially, and they need to understand how important it is.

This is an excellent learning experience for them, and will help them when they are confronted with living with people who have different habits in close living quarters (college roommate, anybody?).
posted by Liesl at 8:27 AM on June 19, 2015

Best answer: One thing that our family always did was offer a very real interest in learning from the various exchange students that we hosted in our home. We did not think of it as us doing the student a favor, but a mutually agreeable relationship.

So we were super excited to take some day trips and make sure they saw the best of what our area had to offer. My mom would often take them to pick out something for their room - maybe a new pillow or hanging light or something small like that. Make them feel special but also able to settle into their room and routine.

But we also asked questions as they got used to us and opened up: what is your daily routine? What's something you're surprised that you miss from home? What's a tradition that parents do with or for their kids that we might not know about? And after they'd been with us for a few months, asked if they'd like to show us how to cook a meal they enjoy from home. We'd make a big deal of going to the Japanese market with them, and they'd act as tour guide with all of the foods and household items. Then we'd come home and the student would show us how to prepare, cook and serve the food. They were usually really excited to show off their own culture to us, and reverse the learning experience.

Another thing we did was take group photos (with the student) and make a little book to send home to their parents. Now you could just do it on Facebook or email, but depending on where the student is from, the parents might enjoy taking a physical album to show the grandparents, cousins, hair dresser, whatever. Nowadays you might even ask the student if their own family would want to Skype with you for a few minutes.

One thing I'd try to cover in advance is that they can come to you with any problems: being sick, or unsure of how to navigate something, or how to handle a situation. They are in 11th grade and may seem like they are arrogant and know how to do it all, but there WILL come a time when they don't know what to do, and having a practice of checking in with them frequently will make that much easier on everyone. There were multiple cases of possible pregnancy scares with exchange students in our high school, another one had a boyfriend who was trying to get her to forge her foreign ID to use to buy alcohol, etc. Kids get into shenanigans and they don't always know how to get out of them safely. Assume that will be the case and set up your interactions together to have an open and friendly relationship.

Make sure you check in with your kids along the way. As a kid and teenager, I was often the one spearheading the exchange students coming to live with us, so I was definitely on board, but I know other exchange students who had miserable experiences with the kids in their host families. Make yourselves a team for welcoming and getting to know this new young person staying with you.

The others have good suggestions above: be super patient, super kind, super understanding and super clear. Go into this just with the idea that it's going to be awesome and rocky, but will form lifelong memories for everyone involved. Be as kind as you can and it'll all be fine!
posted by barnone at 8:35 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

My son was an exchange student in Hungary and this:
"don't treat him any different than your other kids"
He did the regular chores his host brothers did. He went shopping with the host mom, went out to the country with host dad, went to family celebrations, village fetes, etc.. His school was pretty accommodating, considering how difficult Hungarian is, and gave him extra help with the language. He went from a big US city to a fairly small town, and that was more of an challenge than anything else.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:36 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wow Lyn Never, your experience sounds intense! I would have flipped out if I'd been met with all that.

I lived with a family in France for a year (1999), but it was my sophomore year of college so I wasn't a minor and had at least some expectation going in that I would be doing my own thing some of the time. I freaking loved it. My host family was very tolerant and patient, but also excited to show me their lives and festivities and families and home. Those things helped so much, especially in the beginning when we were all sort of figuring each other out and learning the ropes. My favorite gestures of theirs came in those early days, when they were very clearly setting the tone of my stay with them. The first day they picked me up from the train station, brought me home, had a backyard dinner for everyone in the family to meet me (some of the older siblings no longer lived at home, so their families came, and some of the young son's friends, too, since he still lived at home and they were over all the time, too). They didn't really put me on the spot and make me give a speech--they did the opposite and sort of presented everything about them right up front (names, ages, relationships to others, what they did for a living, etc.) and then we ate delicious food and had punch and wine and chatted in the back yard until like midnight! So I'd say something along those lines might help this young kid: take the pressure off him for the first night and don't expect him to be super eager to have the spotlight.

My host family's life was very cozy, but not overly structured. My second night with them was a Thursday night, which was a traditional night for one or more of the older siblings to come over and everyone would watch a movie. We watched "Le monde selon Garp" dubbed in French but with English subtitles, and on that day was born my hobby of watching English language movies dubbed in French but subtitled in English. I still do this today, and it became our little exchange student more-or-less weekly tradition. It was fun for both sides: I got to rest my language acquisition brain by having the written English reference, and as I got better with the language I got to giggle aloud and explain mistranslations, or interesting idiomatic translations, or ask about complicated phrases that I didn't understand in French, and the whole family would get in on it. But it was also a little bit of home comfort, seeing and hearing familiar things in movies I generally already knew. So maybe think about doing something like that from time to time?

It's also nice if you get to take him places. My family lived in Orléans (which I love dearly), but had family we visited in Versailles, Le Mans, Sancerre, Monts, Tours, Azay-le-Rideau, ... you get the idea. It was an intimate way to expose me to the reality that France is not the France/Paris of popular culture. It's something very different. And kids coming to the U.S. without a doubt will have illusions that you can respond to in your own way (which is hopefully gentle, like road trips, and not harsh, like lectures).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:09 AM on June 19, 2015

Best answer: Loads of great suggestions above. I'm a Brit who was an exchange student in a US high school when I was 18 - I'd finished my own high school and went for a semester before starting Uni in the UK. So as someone else has said, it was a 'social' rather than academic exchange. No language difficulties but that was sometimes misleading because it made it easy to underestimate the size of the cultural differences. Anyway, my thoughts -

* Yes to a nice room. I got a brand new desk bought for me, and they were laid back about me taking down some of the pink frilly stuff they had on the walls and replacing it with pictures of the bands I was into.

* I had to adjust to the relative lack of independence in my exchange home. I didn't drive, and that was the only way to get anywhere. In the UK I was used to taking the train for an hour into London on my own and spending the day there. Suddenly finding myself unable to do anything under my own steam was strange. So depending on the age of your exchange student, be prepared for the fact they might be used to more independence than your own kids. My family did manage to lend me a bike, which meant I could attempt to go downtown on my own occasionally, but it was only mildly successful - suburban Utah's not really set up for cycling, with its huge parking lots outside every store, hot summer weather, etc..! But I appreciate that they tried.

* I'm totally smiling with happy recognition at the poster above who said to be prepared for your exchange student to be better friends with siblings of different ages. The 13 and 15 year old in my family tolerated me at best, but the six-year-old and me were great buddies. I'd never had a little brother and loved helping him with his homework, reading, being silly together etc. He was the one who gave me a huge, arms-right-around-the-waist hug on the day I felt really homesick :) He was also kind of good at explaining stuff to me, because the whole world was pretty new to him, too.

* Religion. Can be tricky. Obviously I was in Utah so there was the whole Mormon thing, but I have a friend who did a similar programme and was sent to Oklahoma and she had the same experience ie. we were used to living in an almost totally secular world. Nobody I knew in the UK went to church, and so moving into a world where it was a HUGE deal was overwhelming. As per our instructions, I asked my family if they wanted me to go to church with them, they said yes, and I spent three hours every Sunday at the church. It was probably for the best - it was a big part of their lives, and the community, and was kind of interesting. But it was also the biggest source of tension (I once came home to a letter on my bed from my host mom airing grievances including the fact she felt I had 'never expressed the slightest interest' in their religion.. whereas I felt that, having spent hours every week at the church with them, I had gone above and beyond in terms of expressing interest...). It's difficult because a. If it matters to you, it REALLY matters and b. There's potential for the difference between you and your host kid's experiences and expectations to be huge. There's no easy answer but be patient and try not to take differences personally.

* External support. Apart from the letter incident above, I was reasonably lucky with my family and didn't have any huge fallings-out. One of my exchange friends wasn't so lucky, and fell out big-style with hers. We were provided with an exchange counsellor who we were supposed to ask for help in these situations, but she was a friend of the host family, so it wasn't ideal. Bear in mind that it can be useful for your exchange student to have an adult totally outside the family that they trust, for those times when you get right on each others' nerves/you've told them off and they feel aggrieved/just for the very slight chance that you really don't get on and they need someone outside the home to help them negotiate what happens next.

* Travel - yes! My host family were great at this. They had a huge SUV and all six of us kids would jump in the back with sleeping bags and go visit the National Parks of Utah and around. I feel really lucky to have done that with an American family - seeing the Grand Canyon, Arches and all the rest with a gang of local kids who were also seeing them for the first time was pretty awesome.
posted by penguin pie at 9:33 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

In France he may not have learned to drive yet, so if he can enroll in a driver's education program or even get his license while in the US, he may really appreciate this when home, when he might be able to swap his US license for a French one. This page explains a bit more about this.

Ummm, maybe? Check with the sponsoring organization but we've had three exchange students in the past 6 yrs. and NO RECREATIONAL DRUGS, NO DRIVING, NO ALCOHOL were always presented to us as the absolutely unbreakable rules and the ones most likely to have someone sent back to their family immediately. None would have allowed the student to drive and one would have sent him home if there were even photos of him behind a steering wheel or with a beer bottle on Facebook.

All of ours found American schools lacking and so we worked to find areas of expertise such as choir, acting, arts, sports that they could feel challenged by.

We made a special effort to do the touristy things that we otherwise would never do and also made sure they attended any events the sponsoring org held. And also that they made it to any dream event such as an American football/basketball/baseball/soccer game, completely over the top operas, amusement parks, landmarks, etc.

Otherwise, lots of great advice -we greatly enjoyed all three of our students and still communicate regularly with them.
posted by beaning at 10:31 AM on June 19, 2015

As a former exchange student (Germany 05-06, I was 15-16) and host sibling (Germany and Finland), I second a lot of the suggestions above. One thing that I remember my family finding amusing was the way that our first exchange student (who was actually there while I was in Germany) expressed massive relief upon finding out that my family is liberal and didn't support most of Bush's policies. This is perhaps less of an issue now than it was then, but be ready for those moments of relief when they discover your house isn't filled with guns or whatever.

Also, your student will be lucky and here during election season! If they're interested, give them lots of opportunities to learn about the political process and be willing to answer questions. Take them to the polling place with you when you vote in the primary! Take them to see candidates speak near you, et cetera.
posted by naturalog at 10:46 PM on June 19, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you all for these thoughtful responses! I feel more confident about hosting having heard about your experiences.
posted by lakeroon at 5:59 AM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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