International Experience at Home 

By Mary Sortino Petersen 

Signal Staff Writer 

Two weeks ago, we stayed awake one night until after midnight. Quite a feat for me these days. We were awaiting a busload of high school students from Taiwan who had landed at LAX, and we were excited to meet the two students who would be staying with us for two weeks. Exhausted and weary from a fifteen-hour flight, they disembarked the bus that had brought them to Santa Clarita. After awkward introductions and photos, the host families brought their students home for much-needed sleep.  

It’s been over twenty years since we last hosted an international student. At that time, our daughter was in high school studying French and had joined an international student exchange program. We hosted Antoine from France, and he attended high school classes with our daughter and her friends.  

This time we have no children at home to help us navigate the desires and habits of seventeen-year-olds, not to mention the desires and habits of seventeen-year-olds from a different culture.  We’re learning as we go.  

Sometimes we sit together in self-conscious silence, both trying to be polite. They are so gracious that I fear they won’t ask for what they need. I want to engage in conversation with them, but I don’t want to be intrusive with too many bothersome questions.  

The girls, Yen and Cynthia, are charming, if shy. They speak quietly. They eat delicately and slowly. They close doors gently. I realize how rapidly, sometimes erratically, I rush through my hectic day, managing rowdy, rambunctious grandsons. The girls don’t seem to mind the chaos that sometimes drives me crazy. 

Little by little, I am learning about their preferences. I made bok choy and tofu, hoping to appeal to their Taiwanese palate.  They liked it, but to my surprise, they also like hot dogs, bacon and French fries. I made them tea each morning with the mountain tea leaves that Cynthia brought as a gift until they told me that they like to drink coffee too. My cultural stereotypes are showing.  

They had fun eating artichokes for the first time and tasting root beer (which they assumed was beer). They discovered that they love root beer floats.  

We enjoy laughing about English idioms and deciphering personalized license plates. They are practicing English and I am using Google translate. (They have been studying English since kindergarten, so they’re way ahead of me in acquiring a new language.) 

The girls amuse me with texted gifs and heart emojis throughout the day. For the first time this week, I heard them giggling with one another which assured me they are feeling comfortable.  

After so many years of empty nest, it’s nice to have teens in the house again, if only for a few weeks. I know their parents worry about them being so far from home, but I want to reassure them that we are delighted to care for their daughters. It’s been a pleasure to open our home and share knowledge about our culture, and we have been enriched learning about theirs.   

Mary Sortino Petersen is a retired COC English instructor, 30-year SCV resident and two-time breast cancer survivor.

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