Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Summer of the Exchange Student

Here's something that most people I know don't know about me or my family ...

During the summer of 1984, in between my freshman and my sophomore years in high school, my family served as a host family for an exchange student.

Lots of people who have hosted an exchange student have probably had a great experience, one from which they greatly benefitted and something that they would recommend that someone else do as well.  Not so much in our case.

Corinne, with Mom and Nancy, in more clothes than I ever remember seeing her wear that summer

Our exchange student's name was Corinne.  She was from Nice, France; her father was a surgeon, and her family lived in a house on the French Riviera.

I have no idea how the match between her and my family was made by the exchange program agency.  It's possible they were desperate for placement families, or maybe they just used the exchange student's age and gender to pair the person with the family.  Suffice to say, though, that from Day One it was pretty obvious that the match wasn't a great one.

Corinne was between my sister Jennifer and me in age; one of the rules of the program was that the exchange student be given her own bedroom, and so Jennifer and I agreed to bunk together in my room during the summer and let Corinne have Jennifer's bedroom.  When Corinne got to our house, we excitedly showed her around, and she was silent.  No expression, no comments.  I thought it was a language barrier issue until later that day when she started saying things like, "OK, that's your room?" and "OK, you eat in your kitchen?" with a French accent and a condescending tone.  (Apparently someone had told her that Americans say "OK" a lot, and so she started off many of her sentences with that as a kick-off.) She went to bed really early that first night, which we thought might be because she was jet-lagged from the trip.  A week or so later, though, when she was still retreating to the bedroom pretty early on a nightly basis, we asked her if she was tired, and she said, "No, I'm just boring."  We laughed for a minute, until she clarified that she actually meant "bored."  Well ok, then.

The summertime weather in Corinne's hometown peaked out at about 80 degrees; the inside of our house was that same temperature because Dad was strict about the thermostat setting, and as usual the outside temperature in the entire state of Mississippi that summer was a hot, humid 99 degrees in the shade.  She came from a land of famous painters, sightseeing, and yachting; we had fun making pottery out of mud from our backyard, chopping the heads off water moccasins with a garden hoe, and canoeing in the lake behind our house.  She was used to fancy food and fine wine; in our neck of the woods, the menu consisted of Miller Lite for the adults and sweet tea for the kids to drink and something like beanie-weenies, grilled cheese sandwiches, or spaghetti to eat.

Some of the blaring differences in our lifestyles were actually kind of funny, although probably much more so to us than to her.  Our two dogs, who lived outside, often got ticks on them, especially during the summer months.  We thought nothing of pulling off a big, juicy tick we'd found on one of the dogs; the first time I did that in front of her, she was oddly fascinated - apparently she had never even seen a picture of a tick before.  Here's the really funny kicker to that: a week or so later, we went out to eat at a restaurant with a salad bar, and my dad put sunflower seeds on top of his salad.  When Corinne saw the sunflower seeds, her eyes got really big, and she asked in half amazement/half horror, "You put ticks on your salad?"

"You put ticks on your salad??"

One responsibility that came as part of having Corinne there that fell mostly on my mother's shoulders was policing the practices of grooming and decency of dress, both of which were obviously different in our house than what Corinne was used to.  Mom figured out that the best way to address the problem was to make a blanket announcement to my sisters, Corinne, and me.  My sisters and I had to bite the insides of our cheeks to keep from smiling or laughing whenever Mom said things like, "All girls in the house must shower tonight ... be sure to shave your legs and use soap in the shower and put on deodorant afterwards."  The first time Mom told us to get our swimsuits on to go to the pool at the Tennis Club, Corinne emerged from the bedroom wearing a string bikini that consisted of about one square inch of material in total.  "Girls, let's all wear t-shirts over our swim suits so we don't get sunburned," Mom called out, quick with the reaction.  "OK, I'm used to sun all over," Corinne informed her.  "It's a strict rule at the club," Mom told her and handed her a t-shirt.

My family went to Biloxi, Mississippi, where my dad attended a business convention during the first week in August every year when I was growing up, and we did that year too, with Corinne in tow.  I remember the expression on Corinne's face when she first saw the beach there; I guess the Redneck Riviera didn't quite compare to the French one.  We had a blast, though, like we always did; we swam for probably at least ten hours a day there.  We were thrilled that the hotel where we stayed had a bar in the swimming pool, and Dad let us charge two Shirley Temples each per day to the hotel room.  By that time in the summer, Corinne had for some reason gravitated towards Nancy, who was about five years younger than she was, rather than towards Jennifer or me; Nancy entertained herself during that entire trip by pretending she could speak French and then telling Corinne to answer her back in "real French."  Quite entertaining, for us at least.

Don't get me wrong; we had fun that summer with Corinne there.  It's just that there's wasn't much, if any, of an exchange going on between her and us; pretty much all we learned about her country or her was that we were very different.  I wonder what she said about her experience as an exchange student when she went home; people probably thought she was exaggerating or fabricating when she told them about how we tanned on the roof of our house, drank water straight out of the hose, and ran around barefooted in the backyard all summer.  All in all, I guess it was an educational experience for her, although almost certainly nothing like the way she or her parents had intended for it to be, and for us, at least, it has provided many laughs over the years when we've thought back to the Summer of the Exchange Student.

No comments:

Post a Comment