Like any family, an exchange family is prone to disagreements and getting on each other’s nerves from time to time. Our family is no different. I wanted to blog about this because all of us feel a need to present our families in the most glowing terms possible, and to encourage others to host and portray what a wonderful experience we are having. All of that is true. I would say without hesitation that my family is pretty darned awesome. Our hosting experience has been better than I hoped for in my wildest dreams. I hope that my friends and family all consider hosting a student and enjoying this experience for themselves!
But there does come a point when the laughter and hugs and “way to go”s and joy and love gives way a bit to some frustration and occasionally an argument. That’s what happened in our family today.
The AFS Host Family Handbook contains a chart of the Cultural Adjustment Cycle, which tells how both the student and family may be feeling at certain milestones in the exchange year. It begins at Stage 1 with the selection and arrival, and all the excitement that go with being matched with your student and picking them up at their orientation point and bringing them home. This leads to culture shock, which the student is experiencing because absolutely everything around them is new. This gives way to Stage 2, when there is surface adjustment, but leads into mental isolation, which I think is where Penny is at the moment. She is starting to feel more at ease at school, feeling a bit better about understanding English, has a few friends, and is enjoying living with our family. However, she does complain about a lack of good friends like she enjoys back home. Her friends right now are still rather tentative friends and they are all still getting to know one another. Meanwhile, for the host family, AFS suggests that small misunderstandings may become more irritating, since we might all expect that Penny has adjusted to being here.
I think a good part of that is what happened today. Penny called from school to say she needed a ride home. I was taking a nap, as my in-laws were visiting, which affords me time to relax a little bit as they love to take care of the little one. Consequently, Michael answered the phone. He came upstairs and told me that Penny needed a ride home and as it was 3:30, I got up and got ready. I tried calling Penny, but her cell phone went straight to voice mail, so I went over to the school.
And I sat there until 4:45. I paged her over the school’s PA system, but she never showed up. My own cell phone’s battery had died (it has great battery life, so I never think to check it), so I was not able to call home and find out whether Penny was home or not, and no one at the school would allow me to use a phone. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a pay phone these days?! Finally I found one at a local gas station and called home, and sure enough, Penny had gotten a ride from a friend. She had not wanted to bother her friend and ask to borrow their phone to call us and let us know she had a ride.
Now, for those of you who know us, or you may have inferred from reading this blog, Michael is totally blind. This means that I am solely responsible in the house for all the driving, and driving is one of my major pet peeves. Oh, maybe if we lived in a rural setting where driving somewhere 5 miles away would be easily attainable in 5 minutes, I wouldn’t mind it so much. But we live in the greater Washington DC metro area, an area well known for its traffic. Many is the time I have gotten stuck somewhere and it has taken me 20 minutes to go a half mile.
And the fact of the matter is, I can never say to my husband, “Hey, why don’t you go pick up milk at the grocery store?” or “I don’t feel like taking you to your doctor’s appointment, you take the car” or “Would you mind mailing this package on your way to work?” Because I am the ride to the store, to the doctor, to the post office, to work, and to anywhere else we want to go. I know you single folks feel my pain in a way, but if you are married, imagine never, ever being able to ask your spouse to run an errand and every time your spouse needs an errand run, you have to do it. Now add a toddler. I get to sit through 3 times the doctor’s appointments. I get to do all the shopping for the family and if one of us forgets something, I get to go pick it up (as happened recently when the Mister forgot he needed toothpaste). I do the shopping for family gifts and the shipping and the packing and I sign every card and either cook every meal or drive us to get dinner or take out or sign the delivery slips when our delivered dinners arrive. Blindness is a pervasive disability, and even though Mike is an amazingly accomplished man and he could very easily sign the delivery slip, most people are extremely uncomfortable among people who are blind, particularly if they have no ongoing contact with that person. This is one of the things that has made Penny such an extraordinary addition to our household: she jumped right in with both feet and never treated “The Chief” any differently than she treated any other adults she has met on her adventure thus far.
So the fact that I drove across town for no reason whatsoever Really. Pissed. Me. Off. I had worked up a full head of steam by the time I got back, and when I walked in the door, there was Penny, ready to great me with a chipper, “Hello!” and a laugh. To which, I must say, I did not respond well. I said as calmly as I could that I did not want to talk with her just then and needed to go somewhere and calm down.
Because, you see, this is how I deal with anger. As a kid, I was always sent to my room to cool off.
However, Penny was devastated that I would not speak with her. She went up to her room and refused to come out. Michael’s parents were leaving and wanted to say goodbye since Penny declined to go out to dinner with us, so I went out to the car so she could feel comfortable saying goodbye to them. She burst into tears while hugging them and said she was not staying here and goodbye forever (the kid has clearly inherited my flair for the dramatic!). Mike’s mom came out to the car and was very upset by the whole thing. We went to dinner and I talked with her about how exchange students typically adjust and promised that as soon as we got home, we would all sit down and chat.
On the way home, Michael and I chatted about how we wanted things to turn out and when we got home, he went upstairs and got her to come down. She was still crying, but I think she wanted it over as much as we did. We had a very long chat and even in working out our problems, I felt as if I learned so much.
We talked about the different ways families handle conflict. In Penny’s family, there is lots of yelling and in some cases, even laughter, and then it’s over. In our house, the only people who argue are me and Michael, since Leah is still too little. Our signature style is that we get grumpy with each other, and I retreat to cool off. I am aware of the fact that when I get angry, I tend to say things I don’t mean. Because I tend to have my feelings hurt rather easily, I don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, and I want to only say things that I know won’t linger, as I definitely retain garbage other people say to me. Plus, my dad doesn’t like dealing with emotional women, so we always got sent to our rooms to settle down, as I said before in this post.
As we talked over what had happened, I admitted that my cell phone was dead too, so communication was definitely hampered. I told Penny I appreciated her attempt at making life easier by getting a ride, but that from now on if she called needing a ride and couldn’t get ahold of me personally to change plans, she should stay put and wait for me to come and get her. She said she was sure she would get home before I had to leave, and she really was trying to save me a trip. But she has agreed to wait at her school or wherever she is and not leave if she doesn’t talk directly to me.
One of the things that she said was that she was devastated because she is having a hard time understanding things at school and has a real lack of good friends, and the thing she loves the most is her host family and she was afraid that she had messed that up and she was so upset about it. We explained that we love her and consider her a permanent part of the family, and that one little incident like this is not going to change that. She ‘fessed up that she was so upset she had called her family in Thailand and woken them up—her father, mother, and sister all got on the phone with her. We told her it was fine and no problem, we understood that since we had gone out it had brought her some comfort and maybe helped her get in the mindframe to be prepared to talk with us. Her father’s advice was to find something to do, so she had made us a sign:
I told Penny that in my estimation, a family argument was bound to happen. No one gets along 100% of the time and as is often the case early in an exchange, miscommunication is the source of a lot of it, which I think is what happened in this situation. I explained to her that a disagreement didn’t mean we don’t love her or don’t want her around any more, it’s just a way of human relationships expanding and that now we all understand each other a little bit better.
We ended our frank discussion with big hugs and laughter and a few more tears and even Michael told me a few things about myself that I hadn’t considered and I had to agree with (whenever he and I argue, I never tell him I’m sorry). We made plans for the upcoming long weekend and then Penny went up to bed. It is sometimes a challenge being an adult, especially when you don’t want to be the one to say, “C’mon and let’s make this better and oh yeah, I’ll admit my mistakes too.” But it’s so worth it in the end. And while we didn’t yell at each other, our “make up” session did inspire more than a few laughs. Our family bond is even tighter now. Love our girl!