Our family has been hosting an exchange student from India for about five months. A friend and member of a local Rotary club asked if we would be interested in opening our home to an exchange student and we really couldn’t say no. (Beware of taking phone calls from Rotarians—they are very persuasive, ha-ha!) Khushi arrived in mid-August, during our version of a heat wave. She was bundled up in a sweater and jeans, apparently freezing in 92° weather. She was given a tour of the house and introduced to our cadre of cats. She was shown her room and then brought outside to meet the goats. Moving from a city of almost 5 million people to a goat farm outside of Herkimer, New York, had to be an enormous culture shock. Khushi was wide-eyed, excited and a little bit emotional, but took it all in stride. Thus began our adventure with a very sweet, very enthusiastic visitor from a very different part of the world.
Both my husband and I had studied abroad when we were young, so hosting an exchange student seemed a nice way to “pay forward” that wonderful gesture of opening your home to a complete stranger. And as farmers, we never seem to travel farther than Verona, so the opportunity was a great way to open our own daughters’ eyes to a big, wide world. We also wanted them to understand that no matter where you are from, we are all much more alike than you can ever imagine.
What I hadn’t counted on was seeing our world through Khushi’s eyes and how it would provide me and my family a much-needed reminder of how amazing the Mohawk Valley truly is. Where she comes from, the landscape is flat and not very green. Her reactions driving down Vickerman Hill, walking the trail at Trenton Falls, or riding the scenic chairlift on McCauley Mountain, were absolutely heartwarming. Before moving here, Khushi had never seen snow or leaves change color in fall. As the hillsides surrounding our farm went from lush green to gorgeous golds, oranges and reds, her innocent reaction to seeing these things for the very first time—things we all take completely for granted—was something I want everyone in the Mohawk Valley to hear: We live in an amazing place.
The same climate that we all grumble about has had Khushi in rapt awe since she got off the plane. Crunching snow beneath her feet, seeing vehicles drive on lake ice, “steam” rising from the West Canada Creek on a frigid morning and painting the surrounding trees a glistening white…it is all new to her. The very first time she saw her breath in cold air—like a puff of smoke from a cigarette—she quite literally jumped back at the sight. “What in the world was that?!?” was her immediate reaction. You’d think she had never seen anything cooler in her life. And you know what? It is! We just forget that sometimes.
Of course hosting a guest in one’s home for an extended period isn’t always perfect sailing. One of my greatest hurdles as host mom has been Khushi’s vegetarian diet—no meat, no chicken, no fish. I had truly no clue how hard it would be, in essence, to convert my family and myself to a vegetarian diet. First, I had not anticipated how much I depend on meat as the “star protein.” When I normally think of what to have for supper, I always start with the meat (pork chops or chicken thighs, for example), then throw in a vegetable and maybe a starch. To think of a wholly vegetarian meal was nearly impossible: I did not know where to start. Second, I had not realized how much I was upsetting our family’s nutritional apple cart by simply “subtracting meat” from our diet. A vegetarian diet, to be properly balanced, is a heck of a lot more than just “missing meat.” My family and I began fantasizing about glistening hams, juicy burgers, and gnawing meat off of rib bones. Ads for all-you-can-eat prime rib began to sound downright cruel. I had clearly underestimated the nutritional value of meat and its importance in our diets…an invaluable reminder for a farmer that raises meat for a living.
I also learned that it is supremely difficult for an exchange student in today’s world to truly immerse themselves in another culture. Given the ease with which we can all text, Facebook and Skype family and friends anywhere in the world, there’s precious little time to live in the moment or even have the opportunity to miss home. It’s what teenagers do, no matter what language they speak or religion they practice. When I studied abroad 25+ years ago, all I had was the post office and a very expensive calling plan. Talking on the phone was almost painful: the delay between speaking and being heard seemed an eternity. Talk about cutting the cord! But the sink-or-swim approach worked. Spending hours every day on Facebook and Instagram…well, you don’t need to buy a plane ticket or leave home to do that.
The Rotary exchange program seeks to place their students with several host families over their year-long stay in the US, so Khushi has moved on to live with another family. It was a bittersweet day in our lives. My youngest, Margaret, fought back tears as she hugged Khushi in a death-like grip. My husband, Peter, was sad to see her go, but he is a practical man and is equally happy to not have to close the bathroom door anymore. As for me, I believe change is good. Moving ever forward and challenging ourselves to grow is, after all, what life is all about. Sometimes it takes seeing our world through someone else’s eyes to wake us up a bit and appreciate all that we have. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing Khushi’s reaction to spring in the Mohawk Valley…it is going to blow her away!