We had moved for my graduate program. My family: irreverent, wickedly humorous, sci-fi/fantasy loving, non-religious, diversity-welcoming goofballs that we are found our selves in the South. My husband and I had grown up in the south of Virginia and Maryland, but not this kind of South. This was the openly racial-slur dropping, homophobic, gun-loving South that my husband experienced daily in his work at the firearms store. This was the “love the sinner but hate the sin,” and “I’m appealing to you not just as your boss, but as a Christian,” South that I experienced in my work at non-profits.
While on the one hand, I am glad for open discourse and I want people to be able to say whatever points of view they have (it helps to gauge your safety when people tell you just how unsafe they are), it was alienating to frequently hear opinions stated as fact that were so completely out of line with what we held, and thought of, as normal values: love people, embrace diversity, seek stories for greater understanding, be kind.
Before graduate school my friend Anne Jonas had sent me an invitation to join CouchSurfing.org. Anne and I had interned together at Virginia Organizing during our undergraduate programs, working on the living wage campaign. Couchsurfing was an early manifestation of the online gift economy. The idea, which I maintain is a brilliant one, was for people to open their homes to “surfers” from around the globe which would create opportunities for low cost travel and cultural exchange. Safety was addressed by a system of reviews that both surfers and hosts left for each other.
After graduate school, we had a second baby and bought a house and my husband and I were both working, he at the gun store and I in non-profits. I am sure that it was after one particularly prejudice-masked-as-values seeped workday that I came home and said, “I have got to either move or meet people from other places.” To my surprise Chris, who is much less trusting and more security-minded than I, said okay. We began using Couchsurfing.
Couchsurfing rocked my world. It seems so straightforward that it almost shouldn’t have been an epiphany, but it was: Doing something I loved that I felt no obligation to do instantly improved my mood and quality of life. I loved hosting. Among my favorite memories: Sharing the first Thanksgiving bird I’d ever cooked with a couple from Iceland and Canada, learning to make risotto with cheese smuggled into the country in the pocket of my new friend from Italy, American beers and barbecue with two French girls who were hitchhiking the United States and understanding them better through limited shared language and thick accents as the evening progressed, staying up late into the evening with @nikki_often who I would go on to stay in touch with and become one of my close friends. As I’ve begun thinking on favorite memories, my brain is flooded with them. There are too many to mention and I am grateful for every one.
When we moved back to Virginia we moved in with my parents and stopped hosting Couchsurfers because we didn’t have space of our own to do it in, but I knew that hosting had changed my life for the better. When I was scrolling through Indeed.com I happened upon a job listing for Cultural Homestay International to grow an exchange student program and jumped at the opportunity. While I wasn’t in a position to host, coordinating the program would be an opportunity for me to share my love of cultural exchange with others.
As I write this, I have now been the American mom to two teenagers and gotten to know over 40 exchange students from around the globe who I supported through the program. My kids are Matús from Slovakia and Victoria from Spain. Like Couchsurfing, hosting these two very different but intensely awesome teens rocked my world. Last summer I spent a few days in Madrid, visiting my Spanish daughter and her family, experiencing her country and culture. This coming summer my Slovakian son has been offered a job at a summer camp near us. These are relationships that have expanded my view of the world and that are lifelong.
Let me sum up (in the words of one of my favorite fictional Spaniards), Cultural exchange has profoundly changed my life. Both experiences, as a member of Couchsurfing and as a host parent and exchange student coordinator, have been invaluable. There are differences between the two. Couchsurfing, while it doesn’t discriminate, feels more geared toward the young adult set. The security it offers through the system of peer reviews relies on individual community members’ willingness to be honest about their negative experiences. It is generally short term, from a night to a week, and surfers are adults who are responsible for themselves. Hosting exchange students means gaining a family member. It is a longer commitment than hosting a short-term guest and there is always adjusting that needs to happen. The impact an exchange student has reaches beyond the home. Introducing cultural diversity improves the larger community, and creates opportunities for everyone the student encounters to learn a little more about the world.
I never thought of myself as a volunteer, though both sorts of hosting are volunteering. In a world where I was struggling with needing to be exposed to other ideas and new perspectives, hosting is how I, as a young mom with impediments that prevented me from traveling the world, brought the world to me.