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Tim Durnin: Preparing to Host an Exchange Student from China

Inconsequential consumerism is just the beginning of what will hopefully end with a profound appreciation of a larger world

My family and I have decided to host an exchange student for the coming year — a young girl from China, Vera — who will be starting high school with my oldest daughter in the fall. We have the distinct advantage of my wife teaching at the same school. They will both be close at hand.

Our guest is scheduled to arrive Aug. 10, so our family figured it was time to get started on the preparations for her arrival. This is no small task for a family with 17 years of bad habits to break and for which we need to learn to compensate. On most days our house is less than neatly organized, and we realize our casual comfort is going to have to yield to a more structured and orderly existence. And so the work has begun.

Our first job was to buy a new — and by new I mean larger and different — dining table. Our current model is just too small. I found one on Craigslist, a weathered 42-inch-by-80-inch dark wood table complete with five almost matching chairs. A gentleman by the name of Tony was kind enough to let the whole lot go for $75. You have to love Craigslist.

I schlepped the table and chairs home and we rearranged the furniture to accommodate what is, in its new setting, a rather intrusive piece. But it works. It sends a message of “wants to be refined” in the middle of its “needs to be refined” surroundings. However, against the dark wood, the bright yellow and blue checkered tablecloth my daughters picked out provides adequate camouflage for anything that might be mistaken for taste.

Then we were off to buy towels, linen, pillows and a comforter. Fortunately, the bedroom will present itself more kindly than the dining room — or the rest of the house, for that matter. This is a function of intention as our student will be utilizing the guest room and bath, which are always above standard for the sake of appearances. I actually want to move in there myself some days.

Our most significant obstacle is one of space — not having enough of it. We simply have too much stuff to fit in the space we occupy. A few years ago I figured out that the things we had in storage were not worth the money we were spending to store them. We moved out. After a few days of pushing and stuffing, the contents of our storage fit neatly in the garage.

Now it’s time to face the daunting task of going through it all, giving away what we can and throwing the rest away. Failing in this, Vera will be storing her clothes in the only space currently available — under the bed. If nothing else comes from this adventure, clearing out the garage and guest room closet will be reward enough.

But we are sure the rewards will be plentiful. We are excited. Going out shopping for Vera has the same feel as shopping for a new baby — only without the looming sleepless nights and prospect of changing diapers. My daughters were giddy trying to imagine what she will like, what we can buy to make her feel more at home. But our shopping excursion was more a collective guess and most certain to be off the mark when Vera arrives.

But we’re trying. We are trying because the prospect of engaging another culture so close at hand is not only appealing but vital. We want our children to understand that the world is bigger than the culture in which they are being raised and that there are invaluable lessons to be learned.

Our encounter may begin with the inconsequential consumerism that sparks a level of excitement and anticipation. My hope is that it will end with a profound appreciation of a larger world and respect for a nation’s history unfolding very differently than our own. That may be putting too much on a 14-year-old girl from China, but I know the possibility of progress rests with courageous young people who dare to engage a world desperate for fresh ideas and new paradigms.

I haven’t met her yet, but Vera is already one of my heroes.

— Tim Durnin is an independent consultant for nonprofit organizations, schools and small business. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read his previous columns.

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