Someone asked me recently what it was like having an exchange student. I haven’t written too much about our experience with Larissa because I don’t want to embarrass her or hurt her feelings.
When she came in August, things were naturally a little awkward for all of us. We were all extra nice and she was a little shy. There was a whole bunch to do to get her registered for school, and while she was excited and friendly and helpful, I sometimes found myself getting annoyed with the extra work of not only having another teenager in the house, but the red tape and confusion of the forms and the immunizations.
While her English is excellent, there are always some communication errors, which sometimes make us laugh, and sometimes annoy us. I tried speaking German with her, but her German is really fast teenage German, and my German is 20 year old missionary German. So, if I wanted to talk about God and the Holy Ghost, I could probably manage, but listening to her tell a story about getting 20 dollars in change from a vending machine left me a bit confused.
She’s such an outgoing girl, not afraid to try new things and loves meeting new people. It takes a lot of bravery to come to a random family who you know nothing about in a random state (she did not get to pick Utah) in a new country. She just has always wanted to come to America, and she did whatever she could to make this exchange year happen. I wonder about her mom, and how she can stand to have her 15 year old gone for a whole year. Sure, she can skype with her once a week and send emails, but she has no guarantee that we didn’t just accept her daughter to come live as a nanny or a housekeeper for us (NOT the case, by the way, I’m just saying that in a hypothetical way).
We have tried to do fun things together as a family, and in the fall we went up to Snowbird for a night’s outing. It didn’t turn out like I thought it would because the tram was the only thing running, but we still enjoyed a little “fall” up in the mountains.
It didn’t take long before the boys at school noticed her, and she had a date for homecoming. Even though we don’t allow our children to date before they are 16 (heck, my children have no desire to date at 16. I have to FORCE dates upon them, so we have never encountered this issue before.) We didn’t feel right about enforcing our Mormon dating standard upon her, so we let her go. We didn’t realize that this date would turn into many more dates, and that before she was even 16, she would have a boyfriend.
But he’s a good guy. I have tried to encourage her to go out with groups, do things with other people so it’s not just a single date, etc. Her best friend here, Ashlyn, won’t be 16 for another month or so, and I think it’s hard on her that Larissa can and does date, while she’s not allowed to. Hopefully it won’t hurt the friendship, though.
This friend, Ashlyn, has really been a blessing. She and her group of friends had a bit of shock last summer, when one of the friends took his own life. It rocked their world and she didn’t ever hang out with those friends much, it was too painful and awkward. So when school started, she was feeling quite alone. Larissa knew no one except Megan, and to tell the truth, Megan is more of a ‘sister’ and less of a ‘friend’. I can’t force her to be a friend to her when she’s at school, and Larissa, while super nice and friendly, wasn’t really welcomed into Megan’s small circle of friends. Larissa and Ashlyn found each other right away and it’s been SO NICE for both of them to have a friend. They walk home from school together, go jogging together, shopping together and even went skiing together. I couldn’t have arranged it better if I had tried, and I know these girls are going to be friends even after Larissa goes home. Ashlyn is already planning and saving to go visit her in Germany, and I think it really will happen.
In October, we went to St. George as a family. We had plans to see a show at Tuacahn, go shopping, hiking, and enjoy the sun.
The rain came instead, and we had to adjust our plans, but we still had a fun trip. Everything was new and exciting for her, and it’s fun to see her gasp with excitement when she sees something new, or something that she’s seen on tv or a movie, but not in real life. She will often say, “This looks just like on tv!”. Most of the tv they watch in Germany is the same stuff we watch here, only with German voices dubbed in.
She really wanted to see Las Vegas, so she took a field trip with some other exchange students down to Vegas for a weekend. She was so excited to go there, but when she came back, she told us that some of the other students had been rude and cliquish, and the chaperone wasn’t super responsible, making it an uncomfortable weekend. But she got to go, and she got home safe.
Holidays have been lots of fun. They don’t do Thanksgiving the same as we do in America, so that was a fun experience. Of course, maybe our family celebrates Thanksgiving a little strange, with tons of people and food and then basketball.
We tried to do all the fun things we love about Christmas. We each had advent calendars, we decorated, we had large family parties, concerts, etc. Really, just the things that we would normally do. We didn’t ever go ice skating, but we did go sledding. We wanted to keep her busy so that she wouldn’t get too homesick during the holidays. The kids all bought each other gifts, and it was difficult for her to buy them things, especially Cole, who she doesn’t see all that much. I told her socks were a perfectly acceptable gift, and that’s what she did. She ended up giving me a silver watch that I really like! I think she asked one of the other kids for advice, but you can’t go wrong with watches for this girl.
She’s always willing to help out when asked, and often asks if she can help with dinner or other tasks. She doesn’t eat a lot of meat, and really likes salads. So most days, at dinner, even if she’s not the child assigned to help with dinner, she will offer to make a salad. It’s good for us to have salad each day, and even my non salad lovers in the family are getting used to it. It makes things strange sometimes, though. Like when we go out to dinner, she doesn’t really like fast food, and won’t eat a hamburger or cheeseburger. I think she said she hadn’t had a hamburger in four years. When we were in California, she mentioned that she would really like to drive through In and Out Burger and get a t-shirt that says In and Out California. Ok. So, we made special arrangements on our last day in California to stop at In and Out, and ordered food and a t-shirt for her. But the funny thing is, she doesn’t like hamburgers and fries, and that’s all they have there. No salads, nothing healthy. So, we all ordered cheeseburgers and fries, and got her a cheeseburger and a t-shirt. She took the meat off, gave it to someone else, and had herself a cheese and pickle and tomato sandwich.
We planned our trip to California so that both Larissa and Cole could go. It made things difficult to work around everyone’s schedules, and it was kind of crowded with 8 people, but we did it. She had only ridden one roller coaster in her life, and she’d never been to any Disney Parks. The other kids were excited to show her all their favorite attractions.
Funny thing about Disneyland, though. Most of the rides are themed around some Disney movie. So, as we were going to the Aladin show, she asked, “What is Aladin, actually?” What? Even though she had not seen Indiana Jones, she enjoyed the ride. We later vowed to make her watch a bunch of movies, just to catch her up to speed.
I love her excitement and enthusiasm for things that we might take for granted. On our roadtrip, she wanted to get pictures of each “welcome to” state sign.
She was also very interested in LA and wanted to go there. We told her that we don’t really go to LA, that Disneyland is in Anaheim. But when Ryan had to go to LAX to pick up the kids from the airport, she wanted to go with him. I don’t know if she thought she would see Johnny Depp coming out of the airport at 11:00 pm or what, but he took her with him. Of course, it was foggy and she couldn’t see anything, but she went anyway. On our last day in California, we drove through LA to Hollywood. She wanted a picture of the Hollywood sign.
We didn’t get the best picture, but we tried.
We went to Hollywood Blvd to see the Stars and the handprints and things. She LOVED it. And it was a fun thing that our family wouldn’t have gone out of our way to do on our own.
This week I realized that I haven’t been taking advantage of a native German speaker living in our house and working on my language skills. I told her I wanted to speak German with her for the whole week. The first day was hard. But the second day I realized I could just speak to the family in general in English. Cheating, I know. But it is stretching my brain to have to speak to her in German. Hopefully she will be patient with me.
It is sometimes a strain on the family having a “stranger” here. But I think out of all the strangers to have, we got a pretty good match. Although I can’t say that we treat her exactly as we do our own children (we are still a little bit more polite, more careful), we do try to treat her like one of the family. The kids tease each other, they joke around with her, and even roughhouse together sometimes. I hope we are setting a good example to her, and that someday she may think back with fondness to her experience with our family and have real interest in the Mormons, but if not, that’s ok, too. She goes to church with us, participates in Young Women and all ward functions that we go to. She even plays YW sports with the girls. She participates in family prayer and scripture reading and Family Home Evening with us (when those things happen–not saying we’re 100% here, but we are constantly trying).
I know that our family has been enriched by having her here. I think of her as a part of the family, and I hope that when this year is over, we will still keep in touch and have a lasting relationship with our German daughter.