nw mama: embracing culture shock at home

Culture. Shock.

Are you ready for it?

nwmama-lauraI don’t think.. rather, I KNOW I had no clue what I signed up for when my husband and I decided to host international students. I was not ready for the “culture shock” that would affect not only my students coming to the United States from the other side of the world, but how it would impact my own family as well. So far, it has caused my world views to be expanded beyond the borders of this country I live in, to be open to other traditions and practicalities, to realize some things are the same about us no matter our geographical location and patience. Loads of patience.

I have come to understand that most of the “culture shock” my family has encountered begins with food. What we eat, HOW we eat, what is polite, what is rude, what is downright silly (both American and foreign).. all centered around the kitchen and dinner table. I have also come to realize that I have not viewed food as the precious commodity that it is, and what it represents, until having experienced different cultures under my roof and in my “space.”

International Students and FoodThe majority of my students have come from Asia, and one student from Latin America. Food is precious. What they eat, when they eat it (holidays, celebrations, sickness, mourning, etc) and how they eat is meaningful. There is often deep-rooted tradition in the way a meal is prepared.

Our fruits and vegetables are relatively cheap. Our meat and fish are expensive. Our desserts are extremely sweet.

Two of my students didn’t understand why I don’t serve a surf & turf “smorgasbord” each night. I explained that meat and fish are very expensive and eaten in moderation. In their homes a variety of meat and vegetable dishes are served each night with rice.

Most of my students drink pop like they’ll never get to taste it again (it’s expensive in their countries). One girl carried a 24 pack of coke, along with her backpack full of books, home from the bus stop – about 1/3 mile. Uphill. She rationed it out so she could have 1-2 per week before she returned home. Another student loved Mountain Dew, but had only ever tasted the original. She was not aware of all the other flavors, so she embarked on a mission to determine her favorite.

Our current student buys 2 quarts of fresh strawberries every week while she is here because they are so expensive in her homeland. She said she wants to eat them every day while she is here! Strawberry season is almost here in Washington, so she’ll be able to pick fresh berries before she returns home.

And of course, coffee. Most of my students have been tea drinkers. A few I have turned into coffee lovers <smile>. Regardless, going to the original Starbucks is something that each student has had on their bucket list.

Apart from food, some things are just inherently the the same, no matter a person’s geographical location. A teenage girl’s rebellion as she experiences “freedom” for the first time. Broken hearts when “love” doesn’t last over time and distance. The need for understanding and independence. Wanting to belong. Home-sickness. The struggle between adolescence and adulthood.

I have learned to be flexible, but strong. To bend when it’s apparent that there is a difference in culture that is causing frustration. To try to learn and understand what those differences are, and navigate through them. To be strong when it’s a matter of my family and my home, or just downright teenager <smile>. I chalk those moments up to practice for the not so distant future with my own girls!

In the end, seeing your country though the eyes of someone who has lived half a world away is an experience like none other. Most of my experiences hosting students, so far, have been very positive, and my family looks forward to continuing on in the years ahead. Many of these strong, young women have become like family to us, and I am proud to say that our international circle of family and friends continues to grow!

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