When I was 12 years old, the whole trajectory of my life changed when my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Yokohama, Japan. Before meeting Mina I had never really given much thought to the way people lived outside of my white, suburban bubble. The only real exposure to the rest of the world came from National Geographic and “missionary week” at church. While fascinating, what these two things taught me was that people who don’t live in America live in funny houses, eat funny food and generally have a lower quality of life than we do. It never occurred to me that someone living in another country might have anything at all in common with me.
Enter Mina. Mina, the 16 year old Japanese girl who played bass guitar in a rock band; Mina, the Japanese girl who was passionate about baseball; Mina, the girl who lived in a house not too different than mine and went to school like I did and had a pet cat like me; Mina, who went to McDonalds after school with her friends and ate the same crappy cheeseburger than I occasionally indulged in.
While Mina’s English skills left much to be desired, we were able to communicate, play games with each other and learn from each other. I learned that Japanese kids like the same things American kids do. They are not all perfect, and they do not all love to study. I learned that our cultures are different in many ways, but our similarities far surpassed our differences. And, most importantly, I learned that my entire worldview had to shift beyond my neighborhood because there was a big world out there for me to discover. Pretty profound for a 12 year old, huh? Well, I may not have realized that I was learning those things at the time, but I do know that my life was never the same after Mina left. I found myself asking more questions about the world and developing a passion for travel (a passion that I would not fulfill for a number of years, but nevertheless was there). My family continued hosting students after Mina, and my husband and have been hosting in our home for years now, too. My love of travel has continued to grow, and every new country I visit, and every foreigner I come in contact with expands my worldview even more.
There are so many moment in my life that have shaped who I am today, but I really believe that hosting Mina was a pivotal moment in my life and I would have become a very different person had I not been exposed to another culture at a young age.
The moral of the story is this: parents, don’t allow your children to grow up in a bubble. Find ways to expose your children to people of different cultural backgrounds. Helping your children realize the fantastic diversity of this world is one of the greatest gifts you can give. Hosting exchange students is a wonderful way to do this if you are able. (For information about hosting a student, click here). But even if you can’t bring other culture directly into your home, there are plenty of ways to expose your children to the world out there. Go to international festivals; go to ethnic restaurants (not the local Mexican joint where the suburban white folks hang out, but a real, authentic ethnic restaurant- like ones where the English menu doesn’t make sense and most of the diners are foreigners); volunteer with the immigrant and refugee community. You may have to get out of your comfort zone, but the benefits are so worth it!