Lessons I learned from my exchange student

Jill Urbach - James Krall
Jill Urbach
— image credit: James Krall

Next week, I lose a member of my family.

For the past year, my husband, daughters and I have been a host family for a Norwegian exchange student. Although I wasn’t surprised we decided to embark on such an adventure, I’d be lying if I said we did much pre-planning for the experience.

It was more like finding a stray puppy on the side of the road and deciding to take it home.

“Hey, I read there’s a Norwegian girl who needs a home for the year. Wanna do it?”

“Sure. Let’s ask the kids.”

A few weeks later our family was at SeaTac with a giant sign reading “Welcome to America, Charlotte.”

And so began a year of firsts, not just for Charlotte, but for me. Charlotte’s firsts included curfews, tennis, prom, Halloween, little sisters and four days of the San Juan County Fair.

My firsts included curfews, text messaging, Wet Seal, public high school, rehydrated lamb and fish pudding.

Lamb and fish pudding aside, the biggest adjustment was not living with a Norwegian, but living with a teen-ager. It was challenging at times. I gained a new appreciation for my parents.

It was also fun. I hadn’t shopped for prom dresses in 22 years. Thanks to Charlotte, I got my fix to tide me over until my daughters are old enough for prom.

Foreign-exchange programs are touted as great learning opportunities for the student doing the exchange. If anything is ever said about the benefits to the host family, it is usually along the lines of learning about another country.

I learned so much more.

Before we even got to the island, I learned humility. Walking around with a 17-year-old Scandinavian, no one looks at me.

Next, I learned to pick my battles. My husband and I had to modify our parenting style for a teen-ager instead of just grade-schoolers. Charlotte had to learn new house rules and get used to parents much stricter than her own. It required adjustment for everyone. I also learned that setting boundaries should not end with toddlerhood.

Through Charlotte, I met many of our island teens. While I discovered that some of the teens portrayed in movies and television really are based on reality, usually those media images do teens a disservice; real-life teens can be incredibly open, welcoming and non-judgmental.

Sadly, hanging out with teen-agers taught me that I am old. My favorite ’80s songs have been remade, and fashions I wore in high school are back (thankfully, without the four-inch high bangs).

I learned that you can find the child hidden inside the cynical, newly-adult teen by throwing in a Disney movie.

I learned that one person’s stinky lamb is another’s perfume. I learned that I will never again make two completely different meals for Christmas dinner to satisfy everyone’s cultural tastes. And I can now make a hedgehog out of mashed potatoes and hot dogs. (Yes, I served it for dinner.)

I learned that I can’t text to save my life, cook like Charlotte’s mother or dance Tektonic.

Finally, I learned that Friday Harbor is an excellent place for an exchange student to absorb the American experience, despite its lack of flashy cars, McDonald’s or Brad Pitt. Charlotte would agree.

Thanks to all of you who played a part in Charlotte’s year abroad.

— Purple and Gold will be serving fish pudding at the county fair this summer.

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