Visitors from foreign lands.

When our children were younger, I became concerned that they were in danger of becoming country bumpkins. We lived and continue to do so in a rural area out in the provinces and explaining to them there was a much bigger world outside it with different traditions, customs and even languages was becoming a problem. I was a well-travelled man who’d been to a lot of spots around the world, and I don’t mean just business trips or holidayed here or there. I actually worked and lived there, picked up a functional vocabulary and worked out how to be operational in a foreign land. I learnt to love and appreciate the unique peculiarities of the people who lived there as well.

In an effort to address the problem, we volunteered to start taking in foreign exchange students. You got paid some sort of stipend for their room and board for three weeks, but it barely covered what a teenager can eat their way through on an average week of growing. We’re not talking a nice little earner in this case. Our first one was a French kid who turned out to be a classic French snob who learnt absolutely nothing in his time with us, so he might as well have stayed at home for the three weeks in the obscure French hovel he came from.

He was followed by a few American kids who were a varied bunch but mostly game for the adventure. They were a big improvement on the French snob. Two of them came advertised as brothers but by the time we’d worked out they were both the wreckage of multiple divorces from all sides and there was actually no direct bloodline relationship between them, it didn’t matter. In all the ways that are important, they were brothers.

One was built like a bull moose and the other one thin and slight and looked to be a bit damaged by life already. He’d always need an amount of overwatch by kin. The moose had that protectiveness gene, so he’d never let go of his baby bro’s hand. Think of George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men except with the big guy having the brains, and you’ll have the picture. I’m sure that’s still the situation with them.

Another American kid went into medicine, an ambition he’d mentioned as early as sixteen, and is now saving premature babies in trouble at ridiculously early gestation periods. It’s nothing much to do with us that he ended up in such an on the limits branch of medicine, but it does gladden my heart in these days when so many people seem obsessed with killing yet to be born babies. When you work on the bleeding edge of medical technology like that, you have to be someone prepared to take losses, so my only fear is his heart will be strong enough to take such sorrows.

He gets invited abroad to lecture on his specialty, so it’s indicative that he’s highly respected in his field. He’s grown up to be one of those people who run into the fire to save people, rather than running away from the flames to save their own lives. He’s that rare and valued breed, and always was really, I could already see it in him as a youth.

Having poked our toe into such unusual waters, the whole exchange student industry started to swarm us. An exotic branch of it was housing Japanese kids whom nobody seemed to want. Having had some experience of things oriental, I thought we could handle the Japs. As it turned out, they were the perfect remedy to the country bumpkin problem. Uniformally polite, a totally different culture, anxious to learn and crack the bone and suck the marrow out of it to get the most out of a once in a lifetime experience.

When having complete teenage strangers as house guests for a few weeks, it’s pretty much like picking up the hand you’ve just been dealt and mulling it over and making some fast but shrewd decisions. They all came with a one or two paragraph handwritten bio they’d written about themselves and their interests. The handwriting was always exquisite; more like calligraphy.

The first one mentioned in his bio that he liked horses, so my wife promptly booked him in for a riding lesson in our local stables. He did the lesson but didn’t appear to have enjoyed it. I had to explain to her the oriental obsession with gambling. When he said he liked horses, he was more thinking about how to pick out the winner in a horse race.

The next one was a young girl who was one of identical twins. Absolutely charming but they both came with strict instructions that they had to be kept apart in separate host houses, but it took them barely three days to find each other and meet up secretly in the park opposite our house. We and the other host family quietly scrapped the keep them apart rule, so everybody was happy. What it was supposed to achieve was never that clear to anybody.

The next one was a crazy kid who loved Hank Williams cassettes and had jet black hair sticking out in all directions, which reminded me of the Dennis the Menace character in the comics. He quickly acquired a bicycle for himself (probably from a ditch somewhere) and cycled around the village on it. Both tyres were as flat as a witch’s left nipple, but it never seemed to slow him down.

There were others, but our last student, and the reason I stopped hosting foreign students, was the most endearing child.

He turned up in a serge blue military uniform of the academy he attended 6.5 days a week before he got more of the privately paid educational brutality treatment for the other half of Sunday. I think he was actually very gifted, which was why he was being hot-housed so intensively. The first night, he performed in a traditional kimono some classical Japanese dance, most cultural nuances that I’m sure were in every step went straight over our heads.

Anyway, he was used to a killing timetable of events every day and I went along with it for a few days until I said to myself, he’s a bloody kid getting his childhood ground down to nothing FFS, so the next day when he got up and asked what’s on the agenda today, I said nothing – you can do whatever you please, or even nothing if you want.

He was stunned with the mere concept of just goofing off, and grew to enjoy it. We used to go for long walks as a family and in the summer evenings we’d sit cross-legged at the end of the garden sketching the house, flowers and each other. In the end he’d be out there so late sketching, I’m sure he must have had great night vision. He had to be dragged in for supper. For the first time in his childhood, he’d three weeks of an unregimented life and loved it. When he left, I said to my wife, I think I might have ruined him for whatever brilliant career his parents et al had scrupulously planned out for him to cover the next 50 years or so of his future.

It became a tradition for all the host families to turn up and wave goodbye to them in the coach taking them to the airport. His last words to me were that he wouldn’t cry, which came as a total surprise. There’s no predicting what young people may say to the you pretending to be a responsible adult. They’d obviously been having discussions between themselves about the host families. It’s surprising how attached you can become to someone in a few weeks, especially when you’re a stranger in a strange land and meet a kindly soul.

The coach got loaded with the baggage, all the kids were jammed into it and as it pulled away he was at the back window waving to me and crying his eyes out. I waved back furiously, but it finished me with the host family thing. No more of that. Too much, too hard. You’re waving goodbye to a kid you’ve grown remarkably fond of in a short time but also know in all probability you’ll never see again. It was the rule that you lost touch in those days. At the time, the internet was a DARPA futurology project and email had yet to be invented.

One of my sons went to Japan for the Rugby world cup last year and located him via Facebook before going – the wonders of modern technology. He’s become a Shakespearian actor in Tokyo. The Bard in Japanese could only happen there, and good on them. Perhaps those hot summer evenings sketching at the end of the garden with a kid while batting away buzzing insects with the other hand helped to inform that lifestyle choice.


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4 Responses to “Visitors from foreign lands.”
  1. Behind Enemy Lines says:

    Dear Pointy

    I get most of my inbound from the RSS reader (even now, in 2020), and tag the best of them. Most tags are pretty functional: things like ‘how to’ or ‘business’ or ‘cooking’ or ‘revolution’.

    But there is one special category, rarely used, for things that amount to more than that.

    This post went straight into ‘humanity’.

    Thanks once again for your work. You aren’t alone.


  2. just stevie says:

    The ‘good’ of humanity is getting harder to find. That makes this post excellent…made my heart smile!


  3. felicia says:

    Since your blog was brought to my attention by a friend, I’ve admired the insights and intellectual ferocity you bring to your comments. Political insights that are well ahead of the game. Once in a while you write something like this and it just rips my heart out.


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