My husband was hovering over my shoulder as i scrolled down a web page last August. “Did you get one yet?” By “one” he was referring to a foreign exchange student who would be living with us for the school year.
“No, I’m still looking,” I said. “It’s sort of like picking a dog from the SPCA.”
Actually, it was exactly like that, only the cages were on the computer. I looked at hundreds of pictures and profiles of students posted from around the world. The computer made the process so easy.
In our minds, we were going to be the best host family in the history of foreign exchange students. We would be goodwill ambassadors for a whole country—at least a state. Okay, maybe just for Richardson.
The very first picture I saw was of a beautiful brown-eyed girl named Linda, 17, from a small town in the Netherlands. That means Holland. She listed her interests, which seemed to mirror those of our 11-year-old daughter. Linda and her parents wrote passionate essays about this opportunity to come to America. She worked at a small market to earn money for her trip. I spent hours fixated on the online profiles, but I liked Linda.
The exchange program encouraged us to write a letter to Linda and her family and gave us her e-mail address. What we wrote sounds like a cheesy travel brochure. It was hard to write something to a complete stranger who would be living with us, describing our house, family, and life in one page or less.
I found it difficult to express what this opportunity meant to us. We are a small family, and I can’t have more children. My daughter always wanted a big sister. We’ve discussed adoption, or maybe even being a foster family. To us, we were embarking on an adventure. I said something corny like, “Howdy from Dallas, Texas. We welcome Linda with open hearts and open arms.”
With that, we were a host family.
My heart jumped when we got the first e-mail from her. There were dozens of messages going back and forth between Linda and us in the days leading up to her arrival. Most of them had topics of general curiosity. She eased into what was really on her mind soon enough: “How do you feel about boyfriends? They don’t want me to talk about my boyfriend. Can I talk to my boyfriend on the computer?”
I dismissed all of that as teenage banter. I was, after all, a very precocious teenager, prone to pranks and nefarious activities that put me on a first-name basis with most of the patrol division of the Richardson Police Department. Neither my husband nor I are naive. Surely we could handle one teenager for 10 months.
Linda arrived the last Saturday in August. We were waving our new flag collection—the Netherlands, United States, and Texas—like maniacs when she strode into baggage claim.
“Guess what?” I announced, “I ordered 2,000 tulip bulbs for us to plant in January. Our yard will look just like Holland!”
Linda wasn’t impressed. “Tulips aren’t even from the Netherlands; they are from Turkey,” she said. I could have sworn I saw her roll her eyes.
My heart sank. “Oh, well, I thought it would be fun.”
When I picked her up from school the first day, she said, “I didn’t know black people really talk like that. I thought that was only in the movies.”
Linda was a senior at Richardson High School. RHS is a national model for diversity. Caucasian kids are a minority. I didn’t think that would be a problem. Linda was a huge hip-hop fan. To her, hip-hop was synonymous with America and its cultural diversity. But living in a diverse environment was quite different from singing about one.
“There are a lot of Mexicans also,” she said.
At that point I gave her The Diversity Speech, suggesting she use words like “African-American” or “Latino” for the sake of being successful at school.
It didn’t help. Linda hated school. She invented various illnesses and maladies which kept her home. At about 1 pm, she would miraculously heal, the precise moment that As the World Turns started. She was very excited, as she would be two years ahead on the plotline when she went home. My daughter was hooked, too, and delayed her homework so the two of them could steal away to the media room to watch what my husband and I dubbed As the Worm Squirms.
My primary job was to explain intangible elements of our culture to Linda, which was exhausting. This was never more apparent than the night we went for a traditional American meal at Pei Wei. My husband was out of town. “In the Netherlands, the Chinese food is different,” Linda informed me at the counter.
I was a little crabby that night. “Yeah, well, in China, the Chinese food is different, and this is Asian fusion, it’s totally different.”
We moved over to the drink station. Linda gestured to the bins, “I don’t understand.” I looked at the object of her attention, the artificial sweeteners. I breathed in deeply for my response, “In America, we have pink chemical, blue chemical, and yellow chemical. Yellow chemical is new, and may not cause cancer.”
After we sat down, Linda asked me plaintively, “Your husband travels a lot. Aren’t you afraid he will meet someone else?” My daughter leaned in, this type of juicy talk rarely passes her 11-year-old ears.
I stabbed a dumpling, dipped it in sauce, and twirled it to avoid a drip. Linda’s eyes were a mix of curiosity and fear. I plopped the dumpling in my mouth. This was the crux of her being. Her fear that her boyfriend would stray ruled her very existence.
I said, “That would be a better question for him. We’ve been married for 13 years. If he did, it would be about him, not me. Quite frankly, if he found someone else to do his laundry and trip over his big shoes, that would be just fine. I would live. Life isn’t what you see on soap operas.”
Linda spoke Dutch, English, German, French, and a little Spanish, but I could swear she didn’t understand one single thing I said.
We decided to keep her busy. I suggested extracurricular activities such as dance classes, clubs, and volunteer work. She instead spent most of her evenings and weekends on the computer, chatting with her boyfriend.
This is where my opinion of the Internet changed. It was possible to be a Linda, to be a Dutch foreign exchange student in Dallas but never really leave Holland.
She would slink down the stairs, almost every day, with tears streaming down her cheeks. “My boyfriend is talking to a girl in another village,” she sobbed, “and he told me I am different.” I offered her The Boyfriend Speech.
I explained that in “boy-speak” he was probably laying the groundwork for a breakup, and he would probably blame her. She confided in me that he, the boyfriend, was a daily user of marijuana, it being legal in Holland.
Loser. Yes. I definitely used the word “loser.”
I felt very confident I had quelled the boyfriend. She and my daughter walked our dogs around the neighborhood. Linda would excitedly point out dogs in cars, heads poking out windows. Dogs, she told us, were very expensive in Holland because breeders had to register with the government. She wanted a Chihuahua, which could cost up to $4,000.
“Can I get a dog? You can teach me how to take care of it, and when I go home, I will have it with me always.” Linda was breathless on the phone. She was at the SPCA with my mother. This was one of those “Think, MacGyver!” moments. “This isn’t like getting a pair of shoes,” I lectured to her. (Or like getting an exchange student, for that matter.) “It’s a commitment to a living creature that will be in your life for the next 15 years.” I hesitated, knowing all that could go wrong with this scenario, but overruled my inner voice.
“Sure.” I just wanted her to be happy.
Linda named her dog Lola. She bought a playpen, clothes, toys, blankets, collars, all pink. She carried Lola with her everywhere. She was so happy. And Linda being happy made us happy.
“Can you hold Lola for me?” Linda was headed upstairs for another computer chat with her boyfriend.
She returned a few minutes later. “He hates Lola,” she choked between sobs. “He doesn’t like small dogs.” And, he was talking to the female population of the Netherlands, Holland, or whatever, online again. Linda was devastated.
Dallas has a Dutch restaurant, Cafe Rembrandt. We decided to take her there for some comfort food. I rehashed The Boyfriend Speech. I took it a bit further, explaining that it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a relationship with a hash-smoking, trash-talking, philandering XY chromosome. I dropped The L word again. I told her not to change for a boy.
We sang “I Will Survive” to a CD in the car on the way home. I thought that just maybe it would be okay.
The next night, Linda cornered me in the living room. “I want to go home,” she sniffled. I glanced at my husband. I knew Linda, although physically in Dallas, was never really here. My response seems a bit harsh, but I just wanted her to be happy.
“Do you need help packing?”
A flurry of e-mails followed between her parents, the exchange program, and us, but Linda was headed home without Lola. The boyfriend wouldn’t like the Chihuahua.
Linda was here only seven weeks. The next week, I cleaned her room. Lola’s tiny paws clicked on the floors. Written on purple paper was a five-page letter addressed to me. Through the hot sting of tears, I learned that Linda had heard me loud and clear, every word. Being right didn’t make me feel better. I cried for Linda. I cried for what she lost. “I wanted you to have Lola. I know you will love her and care for her like you did me. I am not like that. Please don’t be mad at me. I am sorry.” Lola licked my cheeks. We both loved a girl who couldn’t love us back.
Write to Amanda Tackett at [email protected].