My family is hosting a foreign exchange student from China this year. Vera arrived four days earlier than scheduled with her mother in tow — two unexpected but ultimately welcome surprises. My mother was scheduled to be visiting us at the same time, so we hustled and shuffled and squeezed to make it all work. It did.
We met them at the Camarillo Outlet Mall, where Vera and her mother, Judy, were escaping the heat in the comfort of the Coach store. They were resting, recent purchases in their laps, as I tentatively approached. I looked at them quizzically and said, “Vera?” She looked at me, surprised that I knew her name. Her mind made the necessary connections and she was all smiles as I introduced her and her mother to my wife and daughters.
They had traveled from Los Angeles, where Vera had been staying with the family who hosted her last summer for an ESL program. She must be well connected as her host mother, Angie, is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s personal secretary. Angie was a delight and a few tears were shed as they parted. Thus, our adventure began.
My first confession is that all of my notions about how this might transpire were quickly and permanently shattered. The anticipated weeks of tentative steps to get to know Vera, the expected and understood microscopic scrutiny by her mother, and the cultural assumptions and warnings all melted away in the time it took us to drive home.
Vera’s mother speaks little English and Vera, while learning, still struggles with translation. In spite of this, we quickly established a rapport and our education — and theirs — began in earnest. We learned that Judy is a highly respected neo-natal surgeon in Zhengzhou in the Henan Province. She learned that her daughter would not be living in a crowded and densely populated city but, with no small sense of relief, in a relatively rural setting that provides both peace and beauty. She already loves the Central Coast.
Angie offered some important insight into the importance of giving gifts. Upon their arrival, we were prepared with See’s Candies, clothing and other assorted offerings. We were showered with an unbelievable assortment of tea, jewelry and other thoughtful and beautifully presented gifts. Evening tea has become a ritual that rightfully deserves its own column.
By the second day, my wife and children were greeting Vera and Judy with hugs. That same day, Judy, on her own accord, ventured into our kitchen to prepare a meal. With the talented hands of a surgeon she is as skilled with a Cutco knife as she must be with a scalpel. She would shame most chefs with her agility and skill.
Judy made 120 pork and shrimp dumplings. Eleven people devoured the entire batch in less than 30 minutes. They were exceptional. The dumplings were followed with spring rolls for breakfast on Saturday, fried rice, short ribs and soup for lunch on Sunday. Our culinary repertoire is expanding rapidly.
We took the entire crew to see Legally Blonde at PCPA Theaterfest in Solvang. It is a fine production. In spite of my fears about potentially offensive content, Vera and her mother were captivated and the evening further solidified a growing bond.
We are no longer strangers. In fact, the past several days have brought us closer than I could have ever imagined. There is an elegant simplicity in our interactions and a deep understanding of and respect for our respective cultures. I am both made small and growing.
Our home is filled with laughter and joy. We have discovered an entirely new perspective in our encounter thus far and are now wishing Vera’s mother could join her for the year. You have to love someone who names their dog Benben, which, I am told, translates into “stupid but lovely.”
I have been trying to conjure up an English equivalent for Benben, but I have not been able to find it. It would be a wonderful addition to my vocabulary. Looking for a word to describe my own preconceived notions about this new journey, stupid but lovely — or at least stupid but well intentioned — would be an apt description.
My stupidity and good intentions have evolved into appreciation, respect and hope. When six people from opposite sides of the world and completely different cultures connect so readily and easily, what else can result?
Our journey has begun happily and hopefully. I am looking forward to chronicling our progress, setbacks and discoveries as we move further along this new path. The first steps have certainly foreshadowed good fortune and anticipation for the steps to come. And so we begin.