The Cultural Exchange Student

littlebelgianwriter By littlebelgianwriter, 5th Aug 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Personal Experiences

During the summer of 1982 my family served as a guest family to an American cultural exchange student. It turned out to be quite an experience. I wonder what became of the girl.

The Cultural Exchange Student

Sometimes I wonder what became of the cultural exchange student that stayed at my parents’ house during the summer of 1982. 1982 is also the year that I graduated from high school and was looking forward to attending university.
Prior to the summer of 1982 I had stayed abroad with guest families in France and the UK in order to improve my English and French proficiency. Since I had enjoyed those experiences I somehow wanted to return the favour and asked my parents whether we could act as a guest family ourselves instead of going abroad for the holiday.
My parents agreed and my mother instantly contacted the organization that had provided me with the French and UK guest families I had stayed with. Since their program only worked for Belgian students wanting to improve their English or French and not the other way round, my mother was told to contact Youth For Understanding in order to get further information. Subsequently we acquired substantial information about what their cultural exchange program was about. It was a bit different from the language exchange trips that I had made with an organization linked to my high school. The student that we would be hosting would not be staying with our family to learn our language. He/ she would be in Belgium on a cultural exchange program. He/ she would be proficient in English or French and would stay with us for 6 weeks.

A Lot of Questions

We were asked all sorts of questions before we were approved as a guest family. What activities could we provide? Would we be at home during the day in order to be able to care for the teenager? What languages did we speak? What were our house rules? What kind of person would we like to host? All those questions seemed to be perfectly normal to us at the time.
In fact neither I or my parents had any preference as to what kind of a person we would be hosting; boy or girl, nationality, religion, French or English as an intermediate language it did not really matter to us. We just liked the idea of having someone to stay at our home that summer. After having filled out the extensive questionnaire and being interviewed by YFU we got the message that we were accepted of as a guest family. Apparently the activities we had planned to undertake with the student were approved of. Moreover our spoken English and French were judged as being more than sufficient.

Our Guest

Shortly after being approved of we got notified that we would be hosting a 16 – year old American girl from Dartmouth/ Cambridge – Massachusetts. We were told that it would be the first time for the girl to leave the United States. She was described as a quiet girl who had not traveled much. Before she stayed at our home we exchanged a few letters and she had attended a course about Belgium and its customs.
I remember the girl arriving at our home. She was very friendly indeed and at first she seemed to settle in fine. I showed her around Antwerp and since she had turned 16 prior to staying with us I took her to one of the fashionable pubs well known for specializing in Belgian beer. It was only then and there that I learned (I remember being shocked at the time) that she would not have been able to drink beer in the US. Now I would have known better but at the time I assumed that 16 would have been the legal age to drink beer all over the world!

Her Stay

Anyway, I remember the first 2 weeks passing smoothly. Since there is a lot to be seen in Antwerp we had no trouble lining up activities for our guest.
During the third week she stayed with us, I started to notice some changes in her behaviour. She seemed to be reluctant to eat, she suddenly seemed to become a bit droopy. My mother figured she might have become homesick after all. Before we could ask her something, the girl asked whether she could visit another exchange student from the US staying with a family in Charleroi. Since this was something that already had been communicated with us prior to her asking, we obviously told her it was not an issue. In fact we even thought it might do her some good. We were provided with the address of the Charleroi family and vice versa in case we would need to contact each other.
So off she went to Charleroi. We hoped she would enjoy the outing and that she would have a wonderful day in Charleroi. While the girl was away my mother did wonder why she would eat less and less every day. It was a bit worrisome to me as well. Was she homesick? Was she turning anorexic? We did consider contacting YFU about this, but at the time we said we would not do so before she had returned from her outing and we had had the chance to talk things over with her.
Then came the time that she would have been due at our home. She did not turn up at the time we would have expected. At first we did not worry. We figured that she probably would have missed a train. We waited until the hour the next train would have arrived. She still had not turned up by then. We contacted the family she had stayed with for the day. She had been long gone there. At that point my mother contacted YFU. She told the full story to our contact person and also expressed her concerns about the girl eating poorly. We were told to wait a little longer because it could well be that the girl would turn up later.

In The End

In fact, the girl did turn up out of the blue the following morning. My mother contacted YFS instantly. The girl seemed to be genuinely amazed by my parents’ concerns. At the other hand she had had somewhat of a harrowing experience. When returning to Antwerp, she took a train in the opposite direction. In other words, she had found herself heading for France instead of Antwerp, Belgium. To make matters worse, she found out that no none on the train actually spoke much English. My mother did feel for her, but at the same time my mother failed to hide how worried she had been for the girl she had treated pretty much the same as she treated me, her own daughter. My mother asked why she had not tried to call us. She explained she would never have been cross at someone for stepping on the wrong train, however that she had been deeply worried and now was a little bit cross for not notifying us.
I remember at that point things got a bit out of hand. The girl suddenly started blaming us for all sorts of things. At least my parents felt like being reproached. She told my parents that they did not speak English properly. At the time my mother had developed a slight Flemish accent due to being out of practice and my dad’s English was self taught and did sound a bit like Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies. I was being told off for having a British like accent among others. I did try to reason with her and tried to find out why she had not been eating well. Apparently she had been trying to lose in order to look more like me. At that time my weight was around 49 kg for 162 cm which is about 100 lbs for 5 ft 4! Moreover, I was eating all the time as a teenager. It worried me that someone had been starving herself in an attempt to look more like me! During this conversation our YFU contact person arrived. Needless to say the girl’s stay at our home was cut short after that. Afterwards we were told that the girl’s behaviour had been largely due to homesickness and that we were not to blame in any way for the way things had turned out
A few weeks later we got an apologetic letter from the girl’s mother. She wrote that she was sure we had been kind to her daughter and that she was sorry for her daughter’s behaviour and the way things had turned out.
I remember the did affect the way I thought about Americans for a while. In the mean time I have met countless Americans on and offline and I cannot help but wonder what did become of that young homesick American high school girl.


Antwerp, Belgium, Cambridge, Charleroi, Cultural Exchange, Dartmouth, France, Massachusetts, Student

Meet the author

author avatar littlebelgianwriter
Retired social worker.
Addicted to languages and writing.
Avid writer of Belgian poetry in English

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
5th Aug 2013 (#)

16 is probably a bit too young for a girl to be away from home like that in another country for so long. Neat story though.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
5th Aug 2013 (#)

Adjusting to a different setup does not come naturally and needs some effort especially when one is a teenager. Very interestingly narrated from start to finish - almost like a thriller story! All is well that ends well. I remember the beautiful Flemish accent of my friend, Romain, who spent years in Asia and returned to Belgium with his Thai wife and daughter who should be approaching thirty now. He wanted to start a pub back home but his wife was worried he would finish the drinks all by himself! siva

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author avatar littlebelgianwriter
5th Aug 2013 (#)

I hindsight I think it proved to be too young for that girl. I was 17 at the time and had been away on similar trips for 2 to 3 weeks from age 14 onwards. The thing is that I did know French when staying in France and English when staying in England. I always managed to blend in with the locals. I suppose we often assume that anyone knows English when this is often not the case. That is where the whole experience went pear shaped. That girl solely depended upon us when it came to communicating.

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
5th Aug 2013 (#)

interesting indeed...thank you

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author avatar bronnamdi
5th Aug 2013 (#)

Interesting article. I never had such opportunity to learn other languages and cultures.

When will you write about your own visits and stay with other families? I bet it will be as interesting as The Cultural Exchange Student.

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author avatar redvakaurvaki
5th Aug 2013 (#)

I'm sure this must be an interesting experience for you, your family and her. I often hear about Exchange Student before, and this one is very interesting

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