Different Is Not Wrong

One thing I have tried to teach my daughter from the get-go is that different does not mean less or bad or wrong. Kids actually know this inherently before they learn otherwise. From those earliest visits to the park or pool, it’s fascinating to watch toddlers make fast friends with anyone who wants to play.

When they’re about 3, they start to notice people who are different and are very matter-of-fact about it, usually announcing loudly in the middle of the grocery store, “Mommy, that person has purple hair!” After wishing I could disappear through the milk case, I always tried to respond with equal candor, pointing out to my child through a gritted-teeth grin that it’s impolite to comment on appearances.

Then they start school, and all bets are off. They learn that some people have negative opinions of others who are different — perhaps they overhear kids talking about someone, or maybe they are the targets. When our kids display disrespect or prejudice based solely on race, color or creed, it’s our job to teach them to treat others kindly and with respect because every person, no matter what they look or act like, has intrinsic value.

One of the best ways to instill in our kids that “other” is not bad is to spend time with people from different walks of life. Watching movies and reading books to learn about others is great, but it’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

A way we have found to facilitate such interaction is through the West Liberty University International Student Office. A few years ago, we became a “friendship family” to a four-year Chinese student who stayed with us over school breaks, attended several family functions, cooked traditional food and taught us about her home. She is now in graduate school in Minnesota, but we keep in touch; she even will be coming back to spend Christmas with us this year.

We also played host this summer to a 20-year-old young man from Russia who is attending West Liberty through the YEAR exchange program facilitated by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Part of the requirement is a one-month home stay.

We got hooked up with both these students through our good friend, Heather Kalb, who is the international-student adviser at West Lib. Heather also separately coordinates placement of high school exchange students and has herself hosted students from Thailand, Vietnam, Tajikistan, Germany, Spain and Turkey, among others. We have gotten to know these students, and our lives are richer for it.

I was intimidated about hosting at first because I don’t want foreign students to judge all Americans based on us! But sharing whatever makes your family unique is what it’s all about.

The month with our Russian student flew by. He introduced us to rustic Russian food from his grandmother’s recipes, shared cultural traditions and openly discussed differences ranging from the weather to economics.

His command of English is remarkable. He also speaks fluent Sarcasm, so he fit right into our household. He showed patience, kindness, respect, good manners and a willingness to learn the nuances of cross-cultural communication. He won points with our daughter by knowing some of the music and anime she likes and gifting her with Russian chocolate.

I felt sad when I moved him up to campus Thursday — almost as if he were mine! We hope to see him occasionally throughout the year, and maybe one day we will get to visit him in Moscow, which he insists upon. With all of the trouble between our countries, I hope we get that chance.

READERS: If you are interested in becoming a “friendship family” to a Tunisian or Pakistani student at West Liberty University (they live on campus but visit with you once a month minimum), contact Heather Kalb 304-336-8382 or heather.kalb@westliberty.edu. There also is one Tajik boy who will be arriving next week and attending Wheeling Park High School who still needs a home for the school year. He received a scholarship to come here and has a place to stay initially, but it is temporary. For information, email hjkalb.hosting@gmail.com.

Betsy Bethel is the Life editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register and the editor of OV Parent magazine. She can be reached at bbethel @theintelligencer.net.

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