Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Exchange Student Notes: Addendum

(We had the pleasure of hosting an International student from China for the past two school years. Sally is her fake American name. Previous editions are here, here, herehere, and here)

I must now admit dear reader that I've come to realize some things, things that generally can only be experienced and though difficult to explain, I'm going to try.

Sally and I are pretty different, but we had something significant in common: we both left home to go to high school. I'll admit that my school was much closer than Sally's (I've made longer trips for a pizza). I became pretty badly homesick, which improved over several months; but it came at a price. Returning to my parents' home after two years of boarding school for my senior year of high school, I never 'came home'. My mom and dad are great and I love my brothers and sisters to death, but I felt like the teeth on my gears no longer fit snugly into household machine; maybe ‘too adult’ to be in a house full of kids. ‘Too adult’ to be told to clean the toilet. ‘Too adult’ to be told to go to bed by a certain time.

I got married fairly young (because I found a great woman, not because I needed an excuse to move). I didn't however become homesick; which, retrospectively, is rather unfortunate.

Parents sometimes warn “just you wait”, and unexpectedly for the past two years I lived a 'mirrored version' of my own experience. Some father in China, apparently desperate for his daughter to get a good education, sent her to live with relative strangers in a country that they were unfamiliar with. Not too long after her arrival I remarked that her dad must be quite worried because I know that I would be, especially since I would never send a daughter of mine away to live with total strangers to attend the local high school (I don't even send my own son there!). However, now that she has lived with us for two full school years, and has graduated with honors and will be attending college next year, the reflection of the experience has given me an understanding of certain simple realities.

I realize that her parents gave to me and my family, two years of their daughters life. Sure they could talk to her, e-mail her, IM her, etc., but it’s not the same. It’s not the same as making brownies together. It’s not the same as helping her with her homework. It’s not the same as eating dinner together, or watching TV together. All of that is to say nothing of the myriad of little things, the ’gears’ if you would, upon which our lives turned. As an example, on her final night in the U.S. I was out on the deck with our dogs when I glanced up at Sally’s window which was open as usual (typically even in the winter). “Who”, I thought, “ would open Sally’s window now?”

Thinking of the things I was missing naturally led to somewhat sorrowful recall of the things that I missed; things I should have done.

I should have spent more time with her helping her with her school work instead of exercising.

I should have gone with her to the mall sometimes instead of leaving it all to Mrs. Sandmich...so that I'd have more video game time.

I should have let her help with the cooking more often instead of working late and rushing a meal.

I should have....

Try as I might, I find myself frustrated to tears that I cannot reach back in time and place some of those experiences into the past. What was completely opaque while it was occurring is now crystal clear as I look back over Sally’s time with us. My memory may be bad, but apparently not when it comes to regret: I can see every time when I should have been there as the caring parent, instead of a disconnected patriarch. It’s always a fine line between being a good parent and being an overbearing nag, and unfortunately in hindsight I find that there was plenty of room left to be a good parent, and not be parental tyrant (or worse, the creepy parent buddy).

In my mind it now all comes together like the rivers merging with a lake. There’s the regret of missed opportunities, there’s the emotional drain of the departure of someone we love who was part of our daily lives, but there’s now also questions, questions which are only apparent from the mirrored experience. Is this how my parents felt, giving up part of the childhood of their oldest? How did Sally’s parents feel about giving the final formative years of their child over to a stranger? Do either of them realize the magnitude of the gift that was given and the fact that it could never be repaid to them? Why were these things not more readily apparent to me? Why are the most important lessons only learned after the fact?

It’s not all gloom of course. My melancholy is tempered by the fact that we played a part in her recent success in life. My coworker also lightly chided me for the fact that it’s not as if she’s gone from our lives. As fate would have it, the only college that sent her an acceptance letter is a state school located about fifty minutes away. We will be helping her move in later this year and it is our hope that our home will serve as a refuge from the campus from time to time. However, I know; I KNOW, it’s not the same. She has grown up. Not completely, but more than enough so that her ‘gear’ will no longer fit quite right ever again.

Graffiti that Sally left on my whiteboard with her real, though romanticized, name. We never called her by her fake name.

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