They arrived a month ago as tired, tentative world travelers, picked up off a bus at midnight, so far away from home.
They left last week as adopted family members, with many hugs, a few tears and heartfelt hopes to stay in touch.
I can enthusiastically say that our first year participating in the EF Educational Homestay programs was nothing less than a total success. Four weeks ago, we welcomed two teen girls into our household for a near-monthlong immersion into English language education and American culture.
Ann, a tall, sandy-blond 13-year-old, came from Krasnodar, Russia, a city of more than 700,000 near the Black Sea. Kitty, an initially quiet, affectionate 14-year-old, arrived in rural San Luis Obispo County from the metropolis of Hong Kong. They were two among a group of more than 100 students from five countries who were dispersed among families from the North County and San Luis Obispo.
They spent their time in California taking English classes at Cal Poly, touring San Francisco and Los Angeles and hanging out with their host families. The program culminated last Sunday with a party at Atascadero Lake Park, where the five country groups sang, danced and gave personalized thank-yous to all those who’d help make their experience a memorable one.
During our time with the girls, we took them to the Mid-State Fair for some pure Americana, Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals, Hearst State Beach to make a sand sculpture, and the Morro Bay jetty for rock-hopping and crustacean-hunting.
They also visited Avila Beach, hit the Ravine in Paso Robles, went shopping at the Pismo Outlets and checked out Farmers Market in SLO.
But it was the off time at home that proved most rewarding, as sharing a living space fosters comfort and trust among strangers perhaps better than anything else.
What did we learn? Language barriers can be tough, but they can also melt away into choruses of laughter with the right activity. Like jumping on a trampoline. Or playing with cats. And everyone can learn “Marco Polo” in seconds on a hot summer day.
Ann likes apple juice and the gorgonzola crackers from Trader Joe’s, so much so that we bought her her own box twice and sent another home with her on the plane. In Russia, she said she eats borscht for breakfast, but I’m not sure if she wasn’t kidding about that.
She’s a classic teenager when it comes to waking up in the morning, and we often had to dispatch the kids multiple times to get her going. She likes American superheroes and animated characters and spent a small fortune on souvenirs like hats, T-shirts, pins, key chains and figurines. Trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios provided a wealth of shopping opportunities for her collection and gifts for family.
She’s got an electric smile. When something is “so-so,” it’s “50-50.” And she does a funny impression of a fake Russian accent, the kind you’d hear from the bad guy who’s about to get kicked out of a plane in a Harrison Ford movie.
Though shy at first, Kitty was willing to try most anything once she was comfortable with us. She experimented with surfing and body boarding and is a fearless crab catcher, once plucking a 2-inch-wide specimen from a crevice only to receive a surprisingly strong pinch.
She loves ice cream and cookie dough, and despite her petite size, is a hearty eater, regularly going for seconds of our various pasta dishes.
Happy and easy-going, she would greet us first thing each day with a cheerful “good morning!” She was eager to share her photos from their two excursions, flipping through many selfies of her at popular tourist locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Near the end of the visit, we made sure to connect our Facebook accounts, and despite fears that her access to international friends might be blocked by censors, I’m happy to report that she messaged us when she made it home safe and we can now keep in touch thanks to the services of Mark Zuckerberg.
It took Ann more than a day of travel to make it home, but she also checked in with a social media note, safely wrapping up our exchange experience.
Looking forward, we will definitely participate again and have already signed up for next year. This local group, led by a team of tireless organizers, has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids, planning a smartly conceived schedule that keeps them busy and gives host families plenty of bonding time and support if needed.
It is a truly priceless experience to be able to share our customs with young people from half a world away. It is equally priceless to get a chance to learn from them and hopefully build the kind of friendships that make the globe a smaller, friendlier place than it often seems to be on the pages of a newspaper.
To Ann and Kitty, our time together came to an end too quickly, and we already miss you. But it is comforting to be able to say we have a friend in Russia and another in Hong Kong. We will keep in touch and hopefully see you again someday.
For those interested in hosting a student next year or for more information on the EF Educational Homestay programs, visit www.ef.edu.