It was Miaofan Chen's first trip away from her native China. At lunch with us in Denver, she looked so bemused that I had to ask: "Is this the first time you've had a hamburger?''
"No," said the 15-year-old. "It's the first time I've had such a BIG hamburger."
That encounter with supersized American portions was one of many observations that students from abroad have shared with us. Miaofan, from Hefei in eastern China, was the latest of a half-dozen young people from around the world who've called our guest room home. Needless to say, we learn as much from them as they do from us.
Our interest in hosting international visitors comes from our own experiences abroad. My husband, daughter and I returned to the U.S. in 2012 following my two decades as an Associated Press correspondent on three continents. People welcomed us in their hometowns around the world. Even now when we vacation, we meet strangers who offer menu recommendations in Brazil or Slovenia, or who help us navigate subways in Moscow or Tokyo. Hosting foreign students lets us pay those debts forward.
Seeing U.S. through their eyes
It's also a way to connect with the world from our front door and see our country through another's eyes.
An Iraqi student who stayed with us for two weeks was surprised to see people in wheelchairs going to work or school in Denver. Not that her own country, wracked by decades of war, doesn't have people disabled by injury or disease. But in Baghdad, she said, they're hidden away. She helped me see that I'd taken for granted the progress here for Americans with disabilities.
The State Department-backed Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program and local partner WorldDenver kept this Iraqi teen busy meeting with local development groups. Other organizations have taken our visitors to basketball games, to mountain retreats and downtown for scavenger hunts. Often our visitors go to school with our daughter.
But I sometimes think our main contribution as hosts is giving them time to rest and reflect. We share meals and show off Denver, including my favorite view of the Rockies, which happens to be from soccer fields near my house.
Guests help make pancakes on Sunday mornings. We've sent a French student to work out with our daughter's swim team and a Brazilian to her piano practice. Miaofan went ice skating with us, and handled her first time on the ice with as much aplomb as she'd shown eating a hamburger the size of her face.
English, food and logistics
All our guests knew English well enough for daily interactions. Any young person willing to embark on these trips has the pluck and flexibility to meet us more than halfway when it comes to navigating cultural differences.
But these are teenagers. The one place where courage has failed a guest or two has been at the table. I once Googled “hunger strike” to reassure myself that a particularly picky eater could survive the week on only blueberries and coconut water. And pancakes.
Hosting opportunities have been easy for us to arrange through our daughter's public magnet school, the Denver Center for International Studies. Students there can study Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese (my daughter's choice), Lakota or Spanish and have rich opportunities to experience the world through classes, clubs, travel and hosting.
A school staff member helps connect organizations with host families. We just check her calendar to see whether we can fit in a visitor. Organizers have accommodated our preferences for girls around our daughter's age and for one guest at a time.
So far, we've opted to host stays of just a few weeks to fit our busy schedules. Also, if my pancakes fail, at least the guest won't be hungry for long.