Adventures in Cultural Exchange

Who knew our cultural exchange experience would include a Mountain Dew addiction, a trip to the ER and a new member of the family?

Mats was a surprise.

Standing at just over 6’4”, he was a big 19-year-old with a big personality. I’d never planned on being a host mother for a foreign student, but when we learned our church was hosting a group from Sweden and was short one home – we volunteered.

While we had worried that our Swedish cultural exchange guest would not speak English, Mats was beyond fluent. This, he said, was due to a combination of language classes at school, and lots of Internet gaming with Americans. My teenage son, who had graciously moved into the family room with the Xbox to give Mats his bedroom, was thrilled.

Mats settled in for his two-week stay while we questioned him about his home, family and country, and about his expectations and preconceptions of America. He admitted to being warned that he would gain 20 pounds because he would be fed only hamburgers during his visit, which, I admit, made me rethink the barbecue we were planning for the next night.  Mats was also surprised at how “nice” and welcoming everyone was, and expressed doubts that Sweden would offer the same degree of hospitality.

The exchange visit passed in a whirlwind of sightseeing, trips to Broadway and Great Adventure, and parties thrown in the group’s honor. The American and Swedish teens bonded quickly amid the commonalities of iPhones, Harry Potter, and a love of the mall. My main responsibilities were to cook a huge breakfast every morning, chauffeur teenagers to and from activities, and keep up with the laundry.

The serious bonding came when Mats dislocated his shoulder on the Fourth of July, which required a trip to another great American institution – the emergency room. By the time the morphine drip eased his pain, our Swede was singing to the medical staff and cracking jokes. He missed the holiday fireworks, and his sightseeing was curtailed for a day or so, but our family took this opportunity to get to know him better. We took him to see the Statue of Liberty to make up for it, and we bought ridiculous foam liberty crowns and were actually seen in public wearing them. We decided Mats was a “keeper” and should not return to Sweden.

In many ways, Mats became another one of our kids, staying up late and sleeping in. After the scheduled activities, he joined us for late-night movies, shocking my offspring by disliking popcorn. He spent time with our 13-year-old daughter, arguing over whether ketchup was appropriate on pasta and teasing her like an older brother would. 

To my shame, Mats went home with a new passion for, of all things, Mountain Dew. Not widely available in Sweden, my kids introduced this highly-caffeinated delight to our guest, and he was hooked. We spent an amusing night listening to Mats speed-talk in slightly accented English until 3 a.m. after imbibing several Dews.

In the end, Mats’ real family wanted him back, and we all cried as he and his friends left for home. Next summer, our church will send a group of teenagers off to visit their new friends in Sweden, and the amazingly strong friendships that have been formed will be renewed. Perhaps a family in Sweden will be as pleasantly surprised by our kids as we were with Mats.

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