Thursday, March 31, 2011


I was somewhat disappointed when Penny got here and promptly informed me that she hates reading, as reading is a great passion of mine.  I was determined to make the kid read something, and it has taken me 7+ months, but I found a book she wanted to read…


Yes, people, we are reading The Hunger Games.  WOO HOO!

On The Road Again!

This past weekend the stars aligned and we decided we’d be able to take a quick trip down to Savannah, Georgia to visit some friends.  Mike and I had doctor’s appointments Friday morning, so we decided to make a long weekend of it.  We picked Penny up at school and headed south!

The ride down was fairly torturous.  Due to an accident involving the door hinge and antenna wire, our satellite radio was out of commission.  Everyone was sleeping, which was making me quite tired.  We didn’t even make it out of Virginia before we stopped for lunch.  By South Carolina, I had to pull over at the Welcome Center and take a 15 minute nap.  We finally hit Savannah after 10 hours, something of a negative record for me, as I can usually make it in 8, or at least I could pre-toddler!  When we arrived, our friends Russell and Amy had run to the grocery store, so we had dinner at McDonald’s and when they got back, we headed over to their house.

P1100020 Our plan for Saturday was to go to a local restaurant and then head to Tybee Island.  When I was (much) younger, my parents took my sister and I to Savannah on our way to Florida.  We stopped at the Juliette Low house, since we were heavily involved in Girl Scouts, and then my parents found a restaurant called The Pirate House.  I have been several times, but my dreams of Savannah have always included bringing my child(ren) to the Pirate House.  My friend had a negative experience there back in the day, so he was hesitant, but I talked him into it and so it was our first stop.  Given Penny’s love of Pirates of the Caribbean, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to be a hit with her, and I was correct.  When the people at the desk gave Leah a pirate hat, Penny nearly died without one till I asked them for another.  Penny posed with pirates, pirate statues, took pictures of the menu and food, kept wandering around the restaurant just to look at things, she was a little kid again.  For my part, I was just trying not to cry—it brought back a lot of memories, all of them good—and was just a special day for me.

P1000555 P1000544 P1000549 Afterwards, we headed back to Russell and Amy’s place so Leah could have her nap.  The next part of our plan was that the girls would head over to Tybee Island while the men stayed home and did whatever it is men do (anyone who tells me that men aren’t prone to sitting around gabbing like, well, a couple of old women are full of it).  I had shown Penny some websites of Tybee Island and she promptly declared that we were going to climb the lighthouse.  So that was our first stop.

P1100033 And then we got there, and she had a look at it.  And it was much taller than she anticipated.  And she suddenly changed her mind.  But I had kind of talked myself into doing it.  I’d been practicing stairs and really had worked myself up, so I told her, “Forget it, we’re going!”  We left Leah with Amy and headed over.  Did Penny ever heave a sigh of relief to discover that we were exactly 5 minutes late to buy the last tickets of the day!  I was SO disappointed, but since Penny is afraid of heights, she was happy not to be going up there.  We returned to the car, told Amy not to pay for parking, took a few pictures on the ground and decided to head for the beach.  (PS, did I ever mention what a beautiful country we live in!?  I love the East Coast!)

Amy directed us to the Tybee Island pier, and we found a good parking spot there.  As we walked down to the beach, a couple of guys, not realizing her mother was behind her, tried hitting on Penny, but she kept her cool, said hello, and walked on by.  I put the stink-eye on them immediately. 

It was kind of a sketchy day to be on the beach.  It was sprinkling rain on and off, and while it was warmish, it wasn’t close to hot.  But it was the beach, and for my money, that’s all I gave a darn about!

P1100034Leah found a pail and shovel that someone else had obligingly left behind and was promptly busy digging in the sand.  I wanted to say I was in the ocean, so I walked in up to my ankles, but darn the Atlantic is cold this time of year!  Penny decided it was time to take some jumping pictures, so I turned on the sports setting and she started jumping around like a kangaroo till we got just the right picture.

P1100042To me, this photo is the absolute essence of our girl—her joy for life and exuberance  when she lets herself relax and have fun and forget about everyone and everything else except being herself and having a good time. 

When the rain really kicked up, we headed up to the pier and Penny grabbed a few more photos.  She is stereotypically Asian when it comes to taking pictures—if there are pictures to be taken, she will take them, and hilariously she takes pictures of herself constantly.  She doesn’t understand why I don’t want more pictures of myself, but I hate pictures!  I submit to them for her sake. :)

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P1100061 After walking to the end of the pier and back, the rain was really kicking in, and Penny hates rain as much as she hates the sun, so it was time to roll on back to the car.  Our dinner plans were to go to the Crab Shack, “Where the Elite Eat in their Bare Feet”.  I’ve been wanting to go there since I saw it on a Food Network show and Amy knew right where it was, so we headed over there and found a big line.  They offered anyone who was willing to chance it immediate seating in the outdoor area, so we decided to chance it.  We got a great table, right in front of the water and under a big tree.

P1000581It was a bit cold, so I ordered myself soup and then Penny and I both decided to try the shrimp salad, which was DIVINE.   I have been looking for a good shrimp salad for a zillion years and it was the best I’d ever had, hands down.  Leah got a “dog dog” and Amy got a low country boil.  It was amazing.  They had an alligator pit nearby with little gators, so we had a look at those, and a webcam, so we called the guys and they looked at us waving to them on line, which was fun, too.

On the way home, we stopped by WalMart to grab a few items, and on our way out, Amy told us that Paula Deen’s husband was parked nearby.  It was the closest we’d gotten to celebrity in Penny’s stay, so we took a picture of the car and hilariously pondered gently rear-ending him, although we ultimately decided my insurance company didn’t need more money.

P1100073(He’s in the car with the bright tail lights)

We headed home and broke out a game of SkipBo, which we taught Russell, while Amy made us all cupcakes—chocolate with peanut butter icing.  YUM!!!!!  There was a Back to the Future marathon on TV and  it was a nice and relaxing evening.

P1100074 P1000608Until about 11:30, when Leah woke up and all heck broke loose…  Penny tried to convince her to sleep with her on the couch.  No dice.  We tried putting her in her crib and ignoring her.  Nope.  Finally, I wound up taking her for a drive all over Savannah till 1AM, hoping it would put her out, but nope, nothing.  At 1:15AM, I rolled back to the house, poked Mike, told him to deal with it, and curled up in a recliner.  When she finally went to sleep, I climbed back into bed and passed out till 9:00.  Which put us behind schedule for going and hopping on a trolley tour.

Poor Amy!  I told her we’d be up and ready by 8:00 to head back to town for the tour, and she slept through Leah’s episode, so she was up and dressed, and we all slept in!  We finally roused ourselves and were ready to roll by 11:00.  We had planned to go to Love’s Seafood for lunch, so we didn’t want a lot to eat, but we were all hungry nonetheless, so we girls stopped off at Sonic (the men decided to stay behind at the house instead of going on the trolley) and grabbed sandwiches and headed to town.

We took the Old Town Trolley Tour of Savannah.  Penny is not much on history, and the guy was a little bit difficult to understand anyway, so I think she mainly tuned out, enjoying the ride in the sun and fresh air, and taking pictures and just looking around.  Towards the end she actually got out her iPod and put that on, but there were only about 30 seconds of the tour left, so I didn’t have to kill her.

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Afterwards, Leah had pretty much exhausted herself by running up and down the aisles of the trolley screaming and waving to passersby (thankfully the tour wasn’t too busy, because I was just way too tired to deal with her and everyone was extremely nice about it).  We headed back to Russell and Amy’s and broke out a deck of cards for some fierce Skip Bo competition while Leah took a nap.  A severe storm system moved into the area with huge thunderstorms and high winds, tornado warnings, hail, the works.  When it finally calmed down, we decided to head over to dinner at Love’s, and of course, disaster struck. 

As we were driving, I went through a puddle and the car decided to give up on accelerating and we had to pull over.  I turned it on and off twice until it was willing to at least go, but the check engine light came on, and anyone who knows anything about me knows that the car is the second thing I am most neurotic about (going to the dentist is the first).  So I started panicking.  Russell and Amy hadn’t noticed we weren’t behind them any more, so they were long gone, but fortunately it was a straight line and we found them pretty quickly.  The dinner talk was dominated by car talk and my panic.  But it was still a lovely restaurant—apparently some of Forrest Gump was filmed there—and Leah made friends with all the other patrons who had braved the rainy night to come out.

P1000610 When we got back, I called my dad and had a good cry and then somehow the topic of Steel Magnolias came up and soon Amy and I were practically weeping over what an awesome movie it was.  So since Amy had the DVD, we decided to get it out and show it to Penny, and I was crying in the first 30 minutes.  By the end, Amy and I were both teary messes and Penny was gamely trying not to cry.  It was pretty great.  Hilariously, Amy’s DVD had Thai subtitles, so we put them on for Penny, but she said they were very confusing and not very good.  But now we all know what “eat shit and die” looks like in Thai! 

The next morning, we were up and out by 9:00.  My dad convinced me I’d be fine to drive the car back home, and so we set out, even though the check engine light was still on.  My goal was to hit South of the Border in time for lunch, and we made it by 12:30.  Hooray!  South of the Border is one of those things all tourists on the roads of the East Coast MUST see.  Penny was not leaving the United States without a trip there.  I’m sad that it’s become so rundown—I was actually a little bit frightened when I used the bathroom as there were some shady looking characters hanging out in there.  But we enjoyed our lunch, and I got Penny a pressed penny souvenir and we got some fun pictures of Penny and Leah with Pedro.

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Then it was officially time to go home.  And don’t you think I was the only one who stayed awake!?  Everyone was out cold before we hit the highway, which made it easier to roll without having to stop for potty breaks and the like.

P1100112 P1100107  P1100108

We made it to just south of Richmond before we stopped for a quick potty break and gas, and then we were home!!!!

It was a wonderful trip, a beautiful part of the country to show Penny, and she has now been to every single state on the east coast from New York south.  In April with our New England trip, she’ll make it to the rest except for Maine and New Hampshire, and I’m pondering hitting those so she can say she went to all the states on the East Coast except for Vermont.  We’ll have to see what we have time for!  Because time is the one thing we are running out of!!!!  Yikes!!!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Some Unusual Firsts?

This has been baby week!  Two of my friends gave birth this week, one had a girl and one had a boy.  My friend Lisa gave birth to little Frederick yesterday afternoon, and invited us to come by the hospital last night, since she knew Penny was sick with excitement over the prospect of holding a newborn.  In fact, when we arrived at the hospital, Fred was just 6 hours hold.  Penny could barely stand up, she was literally shaking with excitement. 

But she was also excited for another reason:  she had never been inside an American hospital before!  She took pictures of the place, and was just amazed at how nice the facility was—she said it looked like a hotel inside.  We were at Spotsylvania Medical Center, which I think just opened a year ago, and I must admit, it is a beautiful facility. 

When we finally got to hold Fred, I handed him to Penny and she had tears in her eyes.  It was a very moving moment for her, and I think that she was profoundly impressed by the “circle of life”, if I can be cliché for a moment.  And I have to say, it was an amazing moment for me too!

Secondly, yesterday we stopped at the mailbox for a moment so I could put in a postcard to mail.  Penny asked what I was doing, and I said that I was leaving a letter for the mailman.  She asked if he was going to pick it up and mail it?  I said yes he was, and she told me that this is never the case in Thailand.  You always have to mail your letters at the post office.  I showed her the flag on the side of the box and explained how if it’s up, that means the mailman knows he has to stop and pick up your outgoing mail whether or not he has mail for you or not.  As we drove down our street afterwards, it turned out a bunch of our neighbors were mailing letters and she exclaimed “Ooooh!” each time she saw a red flag in the air.

Just another example of something we take for granted that is unusual seen through foreign eyes!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What’s Next For This Host Family?

The new applications for next year’s students are starting to flow in, and the current students are starting to look towards the end of their exchange.  As a family, we can now see that the time is growing short until we bid Penny “adieu” and look towards the future.

We will definitely not be hosting next year, as I have mentioned.  AFS does not recommend hosting two years in a row, and we definitely feel the need for a break.  Our exchange year has been an incredible time of growth for our entire family, and all of us will finish out the year changed in many ways.  It has been both easier and harder than we could ever have imagined.  There have been times I’ve laughed until I cried (yesterday, watching Leah fly down the aisles of the local grocery store, Penny giving chase with a basket of Ritz crackers flying behind her, both of them perilously close to losing their sandals as they laughed and ran through the store, startled customers in their wake) and cried until I’ve laughed (listening to Penny’s constant refrain of “I want to see my friends!” while ignoring the friends she could have had for 7 months has been grating to say the least).

Next year will be a dynamic year for our family, however, as I start to pursue my next master’s degree, Leah gets ready to start the next phase of her life (preschool maybe?), and Mike continues plowing ahead at work!  As for Penny, she will return home and start her third senior year of high school (she was in the midst of her senior year in Thailand when she left to come to the US, is doing a senior year here in the US, and then has to go back to Thailand and start her senior year over).  She will start applying to colleges.  She is taking the TOEFL this weekend and will take an SAT prep class and the SAT’s, as she hopes to come back to the US to go to college.  We have kind of mixed feelings about this, given her reluctance/resistance to fully participate in most aspects of American life (read: anything outside our family), but it is her choice and her future, and we are going to let her do the deciding with the help of her family in Thailand (see?  I can let go and not be in control! haha)

However, all that being said, we decided that we still want to be involved in AFS.  I spoke to the head of our area team a week or two ago and given what she said and what the requirements were, we decided to become an aunt and uncle family.  This would allow us to spend time with another student next year without the commitment of hosting and without any paperwork.  An aunt and uncle family takes a student on occasional outings, like helping them do Christmas shopping for their host families, maybe a weekend away if the family needs a break, that kind of thing.  So we figured that was great and that would be that!

Last night I got a call from Penny’s liaison, April.  April interviewed us for hosting Penny and has been involved in a lot of our activities.  She is a 2 time previous host mom (Sweden and Thailand), and is hosting again next year (Italy).  She got straight to the point:  “I need a liaison.” 

Being a liaison is more of an official volunteer position.  There is a training requirement, as well as requirements for monthly contact with the student and the family both, and some paperwork that has to be turned in so that the State Department knows that we are on top of things.  There is the opportunity to go and take the student out for a day or an overnight, and also to intervene if there are problems between a student and their family. 

So I have agreed to be a liaison next year.  From speaking with one of the host moms whose placement fell through this year, I know that a good liaison can make all the difference in a great year for a family and a student.  So I’m excited, and perhaps a bit apprehensive, about taking on this role, but mostly excited!  I’m glad I’ll be able to continue to interact with a student this year, maybe learn a little something about Italy, and keep my toes dipped in the AFS pond while we decide if we want to host again the following school year.  We’ve definitely been talking about it and thinking about which countries we’d be interested in, and we’ve also been talking about doing foster care as well, so in a year’s time, we will re-evaluate where we stand and where we want to take our family!

You can be a volunteer too!  Just go to and click on “Volunteer” to sign up!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thoughts on a Major Cultural Difference

We are coming back to time to change the clocks back.  Penny keeps asking us if it’s time to change the clocks yet?  We keep saying not yet, but thankfully this weekend is the time.  She wants to see more sunlight, which I don’t entirely understand since she flatly refuses to sit in the sun at all. 

Last summer we tried taking her to swim at the community pool, but it was sunny so she sat under a tent.  She didn’t join the group at her birthday party after a while because it was sunny and so she moved to sit in the only shady spot in our yard, away from all her guests.  Recently, on sunny days, we watch her walking down the street with her coat held in front of her face, effectively making her blind.  All in an effort to stave off the sun.  She explains that in Thailand it is most desirable to have white skin.  She truly believes she can lighten her skin in a variety of questionable ways.  One of the most entertaining was watching a video of her and her friends on the beach in Thailand rubbing sand into their skin with a passion, convinced it would make them lighter! 

I am not sure if it is Penny and her friends or all of Thailand, but there is an obsession with physical beauty and perfection that makes us uncomfortable.  Penny wanders through our house with toothpaste dabbed all over her face to clear her complexion.  She refuses to paint her nails, convinced that they will turn yellow and fall off (mine have now been painted for 2 weeks with no apparently ill effect, but she declines to take any kind of chances with what she terms “chemicals”). 

And shockingly, Penny has endured what we would term rather stringent verbal abuse from her friends at home because she is not considered beautiful.  Almost since day 1, Penny has been killing herself to get skinny—eating very little, working out like crazy—since all her friends at home comment in both English and Thai on her pictures about how fat she is.  Before she came here, one of her friends informed her that her “laugh is as ugly as her face”.  Another informed her that of course she has no friends in America, she is too ugly for people to like.  I’ve consulted with other host families of Thai students who don’t have these issues with their kids, but Penny informs me that this is because their students are quite beautiful and she is quite ugly. 

In our family, this type of thing is beyond what we have been prepared to deal with.  As you all know, Penny’s host dad/my husband is totally blind. Physical appearance never enters into his consciousness.  As I was a person who was picked on mercilessly as a child for my appearance, I find it very, very painful to listen to these stories and try to put them down to “Thai teenage culture” or “Asian culture”.  We have tried a variety of ideas, including long discussions as a family about tolerating these types of things from our peers (particularly when Penny has a double standard about her American classmates—if they so much as look at her in a way she deems unfriendly, she sweeps home in tears for hours!), completely ignoring her behaviors, refusing to comment on anyone’s personal appearance even when Penny demands to know which Hollywood stars we think are the most beautiful, providing her with information about healthy living that is not extreme, telling her daily what a good and beautiful person she is on the inside and the outside, and refusing to comment on what she eats or what she looks like at all.

Penny is now starting to see the end point of her exchange and is excited to return home.  She is not as excited about seeing her family as she is about seeing her friends.  I have to admit, I struggle with this.  It is very difficult to hear her go on and on about having only three months until she can see these people again who we view as “mean” to say the least.  The other night we were discussing it again (Penny has been obsessed with missing her friends and seeing them again since she got here, and it caused some major issues for us in the beginning of the exchange when she would sneak behind our backs to contact them for as long and as often as possible), and I said to her, “You know, Penny, you always had an end date in mind for going back there.  But you may never again see any of the people you have become close with here.  And you are wasting the time you have with them on missing out on people you know you are going to see very soon.” 

She did not want to hear this.  We have talked about getting everything she can from her exchange year.  Penny worked extremely hard to get where she is.  She wanted to earn a scholarship from her mother’s job, and she wound up taking the tests and doing the interviews 3 times before winning a scholarship to come here.  But quite literally every minute she has been here, she has expressed her biggest desire is to just go home and see her friends.

There are kids in her school, kids right here on our street who want to be her friend, who she freely admits have never said a bad word to her, have only been friendly and open and polite and helpful.  As a host family, our number one stressor has been her refusal to work at spending time with these kids and enjoying their time together.  While we don’t let her, she would far rather spend 6 or 7 hours a day on Facebook and messenger with her friends in Thailand who send negative messages her way all the time.

Penny swears that she now wants to return to the US to go to college.  Her younger brother will come to the US next year to attend a private boarding school in Kentucky.  We have talked about having her brother here for the holidays, and I can tell that Penny is somewhat jealous of the fact that her brother will spend time her with us (she’s told us not to buy him Christmas presents!).  We find it very confusing that there are two sides to Penny—one that can’t wait to get out of the United States and another that is dying to stay. 

I can only imagine how confused she must be as well.