Monday, July 02, 2012

A Reflection About International Exchange

 We're still getting used to Ege's absence around here, and I guess I am marveling at the whole experience this morning.  As an employee for the organization and a former exchange student, I am surprised by the set of emotions that I feel, and am in the mood to reflect on our 10 months with Ege.

First, I'd say it wasn't easy.  I work with families all the time who host, some year after year, and they make it look so easy.  They effortless surmount cultural and personal differences.  They add an extra child (or children) into their lives without breaking their stride.  For me, it wasn't quite as easy, and I do think that has a lot to do with me specifically.  Granted, my children are younger than most of those who host, but it is also representative of me, and probably representative of having our first teenager living in our house.  I mean, sure I give people advice all the time about how to handle issues with their teenage exchange students, or sometimes their own, but when it was my job every day, I'm not sure I always handled things the way I would advise others.  I'm not one to hide my feelings though, and Ege had a pretty thick skin, which helped.  Still, there is privacy lost, time split in more directions, less money, more pressure to cook meals (while I might feed my own children popcorn for dinner, I didn't feel good about doing that to Ege:), etc.

And yet, I am truly humbled by how empty the house now feels without him.  Watching his parents come and clean up his room, and help him pack his mountain of stuff, I was reminded in a way that wasn't always at the forefront of my mind, that he is still a kid.  I think I sometimes forgot that when he was with us.  I tried to help Ege have awareness of his own strengths: extreme generosity, positive attitude, sensitivity, intelligence, confidence, courage, kindness to those others are not kind to, and weaknesses: disorganization, an extreme intensity at times, a tendency towards extremes, and sensitivity (which I of course also listed as a strength.)  I think back to some of his difficult times this year.  December was certainly a difficult month.  He was really really hurt by his treatment as a part of the basketball team.  It was difficult to watch him at that time. 

And really, what an amazing thing that is.  How intimately I know Ege.  I thought I heard footsteps in the house last night, and momentarily thought it must be Ege, only to have the second thought, "no those steps aren't loud enough."  I know him by the sound of his footstep, and in a myriad of other mundane ways.  I know that when I'm not looking he'll give my kids chocolate. 

My kids will really miss Ege, and not just for the chocolate, though that turned out to be a pretty effective method of earning their attention.  Watching the relationship between Ege and my kids unfold over the course of the year was indeed the most magical part of our experience.  Ege really had had little experience with young children.  At first he wouldn't talk to them because he didn't want to teach them "bad English."  I told him that wasn't going to work out for 10 months.  Then he went through a phase of yelling at them, and was upset that they didn't automatically respect him as an authority figure.  That was part of the December doldrums. It was also about the time that he moved from being mad at them for not listening to him, to trying to play with Remick (mostly) by harassing him.  He would chase him up the stairs, or whatever, to the extent that the screaming nearly made me lose my mind.  We had a lot of talks about the kids and how to get along with them.  At some point he finally heard me.  He heard me say that he had to sit down and play with the kids to build a relationship.  He started to do this.  He would draw or build legos with Makili.  Mostly he still harassed Remick, but that is sort of who Remick is.  And over time, the screaming diminished, and real relationship was formed.  My children started to talk about Turkey.  They begged to go to Ege's basketball games, or to the park with Ege. 

This thing of Ege, is in my opinion, his biggest strength - his willingness to try to change.  The two biggest hurdles I had with him were his relationship with my children and his ability to pick up after himself.  Ege really had never done a whole lot of chores (unless you count shaving as he did).  This is certainly at least partly cultural, but as we share a relatively small space, everyone has to put their things away: pick up dirty socks off the floor, put away food taken out, etc.  It took me months to try to get him to contain his mess in his room.  (I should take an aside here to say that I think this is likely karma in action, because I think I was exactly the same in high school.  My parents used to talk about Blayne droppings and how they knew everything that I had eaten or did over the course of a day from what was lying around the house.)  At some point, Ege said to me, "this mess thing really bothers you doesn't it?"  And it did bother me.  I spend most of my days cleaning up after two young children.  I felt that I shouldn't have to pick up after a 19-year-old too.  And yet from that day forward, from the day that Ege realized this was a big deal to me, he made a real effort.  He wasn't perfect, but I spent less of my time putting things in his room, putting away his milk, or finding the toothpaste that he'd leave all over the place.  And by the March his room really did contain his mess for the most part.  And soon after than, his room even became less scary of a place.  He would pick things up off the floor, almost make his bed. 

Ege really tried and the importance of that cannot be understated.  And this morning as I am looking into his empty room, I am feeling the net effect of our year together.  I'm going to miss him.  A lot.  My children will miss him more.  It wasn't an easy or perfect year, but neither is any family.  I have a Turkish son, my kids have a Turkish brother.  He is part of our family.  I suppose that was the idea all along.