Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How A Couple of 30 Year Old's Hosted an Exchange Student For a School Year

Ok, I'm not 30, so what. I knew someone would call me on it so I'm getting it out of the way first thing. My husband is 30 and I'm 32... Now that just doesn't make for a good title, does it?

Today my husband gave me the day off to blog... I've never done this- taken an entire day to write. It's intense. I am currently doing the most bloggiest blogger thing ever and sitting in a Starbucks writing on my laptop, listening in on conversations I shouldn't be and doing some "research" on Pinterest to get me out of my "writer's block".

I'm writing today because Jiang Fang Mo (or just Mo to us) our Chinese exchange student leaves tomorrow morning to return back to China after having been with us for the last 8 months. I figured it is a story worthy of sharing, so... why not share it?

I could gloss over his stay with an all encompassing, "It's been great! A real learning experience!" but I am never that vague and no one cares about perfect now do they? There's been ups and downs trying to figure out how to be the parent to a teen and so this post is dedicated to a few of the stories about how two 30 (somethings) decided to host an exchange student for a school year.

I've blogged once before about how we stumbled upon Mo... but it was short, I was a new blogger... and no one read it, let's be honest. So for the sake of time, I'm going to quickly recap how he came to live with us...

My husband and I knew someone who worked for CHI (Culteral Homestay International) and she asked us last Summer (2012) about hosting a student for the upcoming school year. We thought about it and decided we didn't have the room in our 1,100 sf home or the money to make it happen, as this is a 100% volunteer program where the student stays with you for free.

October rolled around and 2 kids, Mo (our student) as well as another student from Korea were pulled from the same host home due to some weird conditions- we'll leave it at that. We felt like God was calling us to go ahead and take them for a week or 2 while CHI found a new home for them. We put Cormac in Birdie's room on a blanket-made mattress at the foot of her crib and gave the boys Cormac's bunk beds... and then we patiently waited to hear from CHI about a home for our two orphan teens from other lands...

A month went by and a family arose who would take one of the boys. At that time we chose to keep Mo with us because it just felt right. We moved Birdie in to Cormac's room and put Mo in her old room- her yellow and pink, pennant hanging, bird house adorned nursery...

Mo was a good fit for our family and felt very comfortable helping out with the kids as he had a 4 year old sister back home in China. While Mo was very comfortable, our son Cormac- age 3 at the time wasn't as welcoming as we'd hoped he'd be. He hated giving up his alpha role and constantly asked me, "When is Mo leaving? I don't want him here anymore and I want Birdie back in her room!" It was a hard transition for him, one that produced tears at times. How do you explain to a 3 year old that they're getting a much older brother who doesn't speak English as good as they do? I wanted Cormac to love the idea of an older brother... and he didn't, for 3 months he didn't...

Birdie was a different story. She was 15 months when he came to live with us and immediately bonded with him. She has woken up every morning since and called to his room, "MO! Mozshie!! Mozshie Baby!" being his personal alarm clock before school.

When it was decided Mo would live with us permanently I was overwhelmed with ambitious thoughts of showing him California... from LA to San Luis Obispo, I was eager to take him places and show him what I could. To be honest, the reality of those ambitions was a harsh wake up call to the fact that we really didn't have extra money or time to do a lot of that stuff... gas money is expensive and I had 2 children of my own to take care of. Two children who's schedules are quite different than that of a high schooler. Mo needed to be taken to school at 8:00 am- the time the kids usually woke up and had breakfast. He needed to be picked up at 3:00 pm, the middle of nap time for Birdie. If this arrangement was going to work with us, we had to give Mo some responsibilities other exchange students didn't have. The first one was riding his bike to and from school daily. He obliged without hesitation. He knew we would do what we could and tell him when we couldn't. He asked me to be honest with him if he was doing something that annoyed me... I loved that. In a small house, this was an important communicating tool.... one I was hoping my husband would offer up as well?

Another thing I eagerly anticipated was explaining things to Mo- taking the time to teach him things. I thought it sounded fun and was looking forward to giving him the ins and outs of American culture, ways to say things and ways to not say things. It was a novel thought but after the first week explaining things to him became nothing short of mind numbing. It was harder than I ever imagined. For the 1st 3 months our conversations were choppy and frustrating. I can now say it was like trying to explain the trinity to a 4 year old. Nearly impossible. I would say something and he'd stare at me blankly and I'd flat out give up. I felt at times like I was talking to a nodding and smiling wall. He wanted to understand... he just didn't. All the while I tried to imagine myself back in China (where I've been) and how hard it was for me to understand a thing... which would lead me to feel defeated with ever getting through to him- even with simple things like putting away the dishes properly. There were times I'd throw up my hands and say, "Wait for Shawn to be home and explain it!" or "Google it Mo!"

One time specifically he asked me about a Geometry problem. My goodness... I couldn't even have explained it to an American if I wanted to. I called my brother, thank God he is smart with words.
There were days I felt like Mo needed more than I could give him- more guidance, more learning, more attention, better cooking... and I was spread thin... There were days I questioned if he was in the right house. I thought about other families we knew who could care for him so much better.

In November we talked to him about Homecoming. I took him shopping which was again, harder than I imagined. His tiny frame did not fit American clothing. We went back and forth from the kids department to the young men's, hoping for a size 28 pants that would fit in length. He didn't seem very interested in the dance until we finally got him an outfit that fit. He looked handsome and in my mind, now we just needed to find him a group of friends to go with. He kept reassuring Shawn and I that he'd go to the dance with his "Boy-friend". Laughter ensued. "Boy- that is friend?!" he said in a sure tone. I get it, it's confusing. It still gave us a good laugh. We had lots of funny word confusions, I will spare him the most embarrassing ones- because unique IS a hard word to say... absolutely.

I did some definite mom-type stuff that Homecoming dance (very reminiscent of my own mother...hmmm...interesting how that happens) and went behind Mo's back and set up a group for him to go with. I had them call and "invite him"- you know, on their own, wink wink. I acted totally surprised... "Wow, really? How fun Mo!"  I figured everyone should experience an American Homecoming dance.... I mean he was here to do things like dances. He came home that night and said the dance was, "Weird" and that, "People frog danced" (freaked). He wasn't impressed. I felt sad for him, like the dance had somehow made him homesick. That night he seemed very aware of the fact that he spoke broken English and went with friends that he wasn't quite friends with... yet anyway.

In the coming month we talked to him about, "Getting out there and making friends!" We would tell him he HAD to find something to do on Friday night or we were dropping him off with kids we knew. Did I mention Shawn runs a Youth Group? We did it too- just dropped him with a group of friendly kids for an impromptu (as in totally planned) movie night. Staying at home speaking Chinese on the phone was not what the program was about and it wasn't going to fly with us... and Shawn teaching him how to Ding Dong Ditch- in our own neighborhood- on a Friday night... ya that was not going to fly with me, more than once anyway.

Which leads me to the pranks. They were so easy... he was fresh meat.  I'm guilty of participating, so so guilty. Our favorite was the the ol' knocking on his door and jumping at him in masks and wigs... only to illicit screams like something from a 10 year old girl... we hoped he'd get sick of us and be desperate for friends... and it worked like a charm.

By March, Mo was a new man. He walked different, he spoke different, we took him to get new "cooler" Ray Ban glasses... he all around more comfortable in his skin. He was making friends daily and needed no ideas from us for a weekend social life. But as the friends rolled in, the grades rolled out. The kid is smart, every Asian stereo type? True. He could look at my computer and fix it. He once broke his iphone, ordered a part on ebay and had it fixed 2 days later. However suddenly his report card wasn't showing his smarts... And we were dealt our first real parenting dilemma. His English was coming along amazingly well, I was able to carry on every day conversations with him and let him go somewhere like Best Buy without me, knowing he could ask questions and get the answers he needed. And the English was coming along because of the friends... but the friends and social life were putting a killer on his study time. Hmmm... interesting how that happens, no wonder I was such an average student (but popular- hello!)

We told Mo that if he didn't bring his grades up in 2 weeks, before midterm- he'd have to get a tutor. Never tell a smart Asian kid they might need a tutor. He looked at us seriously and said, "I do the tutoring, I don't get tutored!" And that was that. The A's rolled back in...

The more the months went by, the more popular Mo got... He had more than one group of friends that he'd alternate with: movies, Red Robin, sushi, game nights... the kid had come out of his shell in a huge way. He was suddenly referring to Shawn and I as, "Dude!" and "Bro!" and using slang like, "Fail- man!" more often than I'd like to admit. I mean, we're 30 (ish)... and trying to parent him- we still use slang, can you blame him? As his comfort level went up, so did his teen-angst... we had to start reminding him daily of his chores and responsibilities... as we tried desperately to keep his local celebrity in check.

Prom came and Mo scored a super adorable date. We had his hair cut in a trendier style per his request (and our encouragement) and he was really honing in on his own fashion sense. He had ideas about what his Prom "look" should be. It was far from the, "What do I wear?" he came to me with for Homecoming. Our baby was growing in to a man! He was becoming so Americanized, there were days I forgot he was Chinese. His waist size was even growing...  a true sign he was becoming an American!

He came home from prom literally yelling, "Best night ever! I love America and I love to dance!" We almost didn't know how to channel his new energy... thank God Studio 54 wasn't around anymore or he'd have hopped on a plane to NY.

Around May it was hard to even believe Mo used to have a hard time conversing with us. Sometimes I'd have to tell him to slow down he was talking so fast. He ate fast (and ate a LOT), he talked fast (and talked a LOT)... he did everything fast, except get ready to leave for things... then he went slow... incredibly sloooow...

Then the car accident came. In mid-May Mo was riding his bike home from school and hit a car. In that order. He hit the car. All that matters is he was OK- wearing a helmet thank God. Besides a bruised ego, some cuts on his ankle, 2 staples in the head and a body full of road rash, he was OK. He spent a day in the hospital and the phone calls came in on my phone like I was his momager. I was yielding calls from friends, church, school- you name it- they were calling. Our house was like a shrine for Mo's recovery. High school kids came over daily, bringing him snacks and company. There is nothing like a good accident to even further a boy's popularity. We kept him out of school for almost a week and let him recover. The recovery was hard because he needed a Momma to be at his beck and call... and as much as I tried I have 2 small kids and a business to run... I really relied on those friends he'd made to be at our house lifting his spirits and getting him every. little. request. Thank God he made those friends.

This whole experience has been unreal. Something we didn't sign up for and yet are so glad we committed to. It tested our marriage at times- (like when we disagreed over Senior Ditch Day)... and yet in the end, it brought Shawn and I closer and gave us a kid who may not be biologically ours, but is loved like he is (even if he did wake up 30 minutes before graduation on Graduation Day- if he were mine, I'd have slapped him upside the head). It brought my kids the Chinese brother they didn't want and now will have the hardest time living without.

I'm finishing this post up from home this evening and tears have invaded the O'Brien family. It's just as sad as I thought it would be. Cormac gets that Mo's leaving- he cannot hold back his sadness. Birdie is crying sympathy tears for Cormac... and I cry because they cry- and because our oldest "son" goes home and we will genuinely miss him. These next 2 weeks will be hard on us all... as Birdie goes back in to her room- I'm sure she will be confused and calling for her "Mozshie Baby"... and as Cormac comes to terms with the fact that his sword fighting buddy is now back home playing dolls with his sister.

Shawn is going to miss Mo like crazy as he was cut out to have a teen boy living here always, I'm almost sure of it... and I never thought I'd miss the overpowering scent of A&F cologne... and now, who knows... I kind of miss it already...

It will be so hard on us all and yet I don't regret a minute of it.

                             Good Bye Mo, your American family will miss you dearly "bro".
                                                        Kenna, Shawn, Cormac and Birdie

A week after we met him...
The poor boys didn't quite know what their first Halloween would involve...
But they agreed to be a part of our Circus!

Homecoming... looked like a fun group to me?!
Mo's first Miss Party Mom party- December 2012
I tried to warn him often that normal Americans do not care as much about holiday outfits as I do...
Showing him how to chop down the ol' Christmas tree...
Re-purposing Birdie's "Baby's 1st Christmas" stocking...
Christmas Morning... Mo's first ever Christmas
And his first Easter...
I think he made some friends?

and some more friends...

After the accident he was mainly sad about his A&F clothing being cut off of him... the only thing I was happy about...

 Oh and his Going Away Party with all of his different groups of friends... here he is with one group.
Getting our CHI completion certificate... (One of our kids always has to be picking their nose...)

 Graduation Day: he made it, literally- in the nick of time... Senioritis at it's best.... (and thank you Cormac, for always proving my point...)

 Of course he made the paper... us O'Briens are kind of known for doing that...

We'll miss you like crazy Mozy Baby, it's been a joy.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this Kenna. What a blessing you were in Mo's life. Your whole family. He will never forget you. Just so you know after a few weeks things will get better.. The tears will be less frequent. I know I cried a lot after my first student left. I even kept a bottle of his cologne. =)

    1. Thanks Gina, without you none of this would have happened. God is so crazy like that.

  2. Super sweet... and the mystery of the family photo shoot revealed ;)
    You write so well, and speak so plainly and honestly. It really is a gift.
    We're about to take in our 13 year old niece and I've been really dwelling on the realities vs. the novelty of housing someone else's teen child... I'm really truly bracing myself and having to release my selfish grasp on my comfort like maybe 60 times a day...thanks for bein so real with your story :)

    1. Thanks for such a great comment. I am sure you'll do fine with your niece... the fact that you're willing, that's half the battle right there in my opinion- just saying yes... Best of luck to you.

  3. Geez, I just cried reading this. You are an amazing writer and I'm so glad God brought your family and Mo together! I see a trip to China in your future, forget the Bahamas.

    1. Thanks for feeding Mo home cooked meals more often than we did. "It takes a village" (and a neighbor)

  4. Not quite sure how I "stumbled" upon your blog - oh friend of a friend, but I loved every last word. Your story, your writing, your style is so refreshing. What an amazing experience for your family! Kudos to you for taking it on and making the absolute most of a memorable year. He is lucky to have had you!!! (-Victory)

    1. Thanks Victory, I love your compliments- very encouraging to me- a non-writer who's writing. This past year was quite the experience for sure... one we wouldn't trade for the world.

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  6. I was an exchange student last year, and i had the best family luck could have given me, and as a former exchange student i thank you! It's families like yours that make our experience the best in the world! It really brought me to tears!

    1. Thank you! I am so happy to hear about your wonderful experience!

  7. Great blog. My husband and I are 40 somethings and our Chinese exchange student goes home in a week.


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