Thursday, October 7, 2010

International Man of Mystery

Sometime back in August, we saw an announcement that a new language school at Truman was looking for families to host students in their intensive English program. Basically, they were advertising that they needed people to house, feed, and drive to school various international students who were coming for their four-week program, the first session of which started in September. This seemed like a good opportunity to introduce our kids to the idea that not everyone looks and talks like them. And we figured that we have an extra room, eat regular meals, and drive past the university at least once a day already, so we filled out an application. Soon after, we got a call telling us that we'd probably get a student sometime in mid-late September, and that details would be discussed at that time.

So imagine our surprise when, a few days before Labor Day, someone from the program called to tell us that our student would be arriving in three days. The day after that, the program representative came to meet us and have us sign some forms. During this meeting, it came up that the student we'd be hosting actually didn't speak or write much English at all and would probably need a semester's-worth (minimum) of 4-week sessions before he was ready to move on to university level. It also came up that he was from a conservative Saudi Arabian family, and that maybe it would be better if Kyle did most of the talking and we maybe should make some hearty side dishes if we're planning pork for dinner anytime soon. So now imagine our super-duper surprise.

When the day came and Faisal did arrive, though, I was pleasantly surprised at how young and nervous and altogether not-intimidating he looked with his big, messy hair, braces, and shiny designer tennis shoes. We really had an easy time getting along right from the start, despite the significant language barrier. All the things I had been nervous about seemed to be non-issues: he has sisters Daniel and Eva's ages and therefore does not find living with two small kids' noise that shocking; he actually came with a good knowledge of the English alphabet and a helpful translation program on his iPhone; and he seems to have fairly Western ideas about gender roles and no real problem interacting with me at all.

A month has passed now, and really the most surprising thing of all has been how quickly a person can just feel like a part of our family. Kyle and Faisal sit in the family room contentedly not-talking, each with his headphones and laptop. Eva is very enamored with Faisal, and wants to know where he is at all times. He is determined to help Daniel improve his soccer skills, and Daniel just eats up the extra attention. And I have a fellow connoisseur of fine caffeinated Coke and coffee products in the house.

The hardest part of the adjustment for me has not been anything relating to language or culture, but to the shock of suddenly having an 18-year old in our house. I worry about him when he's out late with other students, about whether he has enough cash and a safe ride home. I consider whether all the half-eaten chips and Coke in his room will attract ants, and wonder how one guy can so dirty up a bathroom in a week. We have to pry him away from all the instant messages (and Skype, and facebook, and email, and YouTube, and downloaded movies) for dinner. Kyle went to bed with a pillow over his ears tonight to be able to sleep through the late-night cell phone conversations.

It would be impossible for me to recount all the fun and funny things that have happened to us this month, but there are a few I carry around in my head. Like Faisal's frustrated attempts to get us to tell him the name of that actor he likes from the movie Speed and Anger (actually called The Fast and The Furious here in America). Or nights at dinner where we trade food vocabulary, and Faisal laughs at our attempts to pronounce Arabic words. It has been fun to introduce someone to new foods, new words, and new experiences. We are looking forward to celebrating the heck out of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas this year.

None of us knows how long it will take Faisal to complete the program and get to college-level proficiency with his English (not even him). But in the end I think we're all okay with that. I'm sure Faisal misses his real family (surely not even several phone and Skype conversations a day substitute for the real thing), but he seems pretty chipper and happy-go-lucky so far. So for now we're the Sterups- that family with the four blond people and the Arab guy.


  1. Wow! Erika, I cannot imagine a more welcoming home than yours for an international student. I can't believe that I am so self-absorbed that I have not found out this information before now. In any event, it sounds like an interesting and fun experience for the family. I look forward to the day that we have a house with an extra bedroom to share with special guests, too!

  2. What a great opportunity. Did it end up being just the four weeks?

  3. Wait, do I know you, SimonRufus? It will not be just the four weeks, actually. We're thinking maybe a nine months or a year?