Friday, March 28, 2014

She's Gone!

My exchange student has gone to a new home.  After a month of sending almost daily pleading emails to the American Councils, a new host family appeared at my door and took her and her luggage away.

I hope her new family can handle her better than I could.  

Perhaps she’ll show up for meals at their home.

Perhaps she’ll accompany their family to cultural events instead of claiming she can’t go because she has to study. The new family has two teenagers who attend the same school, one of whom is in some of her classes.

Perhaps they’ll be able to get her out of her room where she watches Turkish YouTube shows. (The exchange program requires that exchange students get private bedrooms. It also requires that the exchange students spend time in family areas of the house.)

Perhaps they’ll be able to get her to help with making salads, clearing the table, and even walking the dog.  I could barely get her to wash her own clothes.  Not her sheets.  Not replace the toilet paper, or clean her hair out of the sink.

We were her 2nd American family.  She is now on her third.

My life is returning to peace.

I can lie in bed past 6 AM, because I don’t need to make the hot breakfast that she won’t show up to eat. I can serve dinner without calling her several times. She never responded to my calls, but sometimes she deigned to join us about 15 minutes later. If I want to serve dessert, there will be some in my freezer. She wasn’t here to take them all for lunch and midnight snacks, to feed that sweet tooth she was so proud of.  I can go to the museum when I want. I don’t have to clear my plans with her in case they might interfere with hers.

I feel like a freed kidnap victim. Or a freed prisoner. I was her servant and I had to pay her expenses.  

It jars my sensibilities to get stuck with food, transportation, entertainment, water and utility bills for someone who won’t even try to be a guest, let alone a part of the family.

I’d like to forget I ever met her.  But she mail-ordered stuff and she didn’t give us her forwarding address. She also didn’t bother to tell the post office.  So I have to run her packages over to her school when they arrive.  But she was only here 6 weeks.  This will come to an end.

I’ve ordered some gadgets that are supposed to get her hair out of my now clogged drains. I put a screen over the shower drain and explained why it was there. But she kept kicking it aside.  I asked her to limit her showers to 10 minutes.  But my monster water bill says she ignored this request, too. Eventually everything she broke will be fixed or replaced or we’ll be fine without it.

She’s gone!

While I’m relieved, I’m also sad.  I had such good fantasies about exploring my city with a teenager from another country who was eager to see and do everything.  I was going to discuss world events with somebody who had a unique point of view. She was from Kazakhstan. She was here during Putin’s capture of Crimea. All she said was “Crimea has always been part of Russia.” It was as if she had memorized this one untrue line, and had no other thoughts on the subject.  I was going to cook new dishes with someone from another country.  Watch movies with someone from another culture.  

Her goal was to study hard and get into a US College because that would give her prestige back home.  She said that US Education is inferior to Kazakhstan education and her favorite teacher told her not to believe anything that is taught in US Schools. So she was just memorizing to pass the tests. 

At least she’s gone!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Trying to Prevent a Future Bad Exchange

Okay – maybe I’m not being fair.  Maybe some family in Kazakhstan is putting up with an unpleasant American teen who wants to be waited on, won’t show up for appointments,  is generally rude, and cares nothing about Kazakhstan culture.  Maybe it was a fair exchange.  But it wasn’t my badly behaved teenager who invaded their country.  And maybe that’s the core of the problem.  Maybe families in different countries should just swap children for a year and leave the rest of us out of it.

But, that isn’t likely to happen.

I’m taking the free class on thinking at

One of the points the teachers of this class makes is that interviews are useless as determinants of how someone will do in a new job.  Most people can be nice for half-an-hour. These teachers suggest instead, that a future employer ask a potential employee “What have you done for the past 4 years.”  The past is a likely indicator of the future.

I say all the more so for someone who will live with you for the next year.  I wasn’t allowed to interview my exchange student before she was dropped off in my living room with her luggage.
I got to meet and play with my dog at the Animal shelter.  The State Department treats a human being with less care and concern than the pet rescuers treat a dog or cat.  This needs to change.

I think the FLEX program interviewers could protect families from an inappropriate exchange student like the one I got if they asked potential exchange students, “What did you do in your out-of-school hours for the past 4 years?”  A question like this would elicit answers that are likely to reveal which students are curious about art and culture and their fellow humans.  My exchange student would likely have answered, “I study all the time so I can get into a good college.”  Since exchange students aren’t supposed to spend their year abroad in their rooms, reading textbooks, such an answer should exclude students like the one I got from the program, even ignoring her Princessy behaviors.

Other questions that might exclude students who should stay home include:

Do you prepare (or help prepare) meals for your family?

Do you do your own laundry?

Do you wash dishes?

Do you set the table?

What do you talk about at the dinner table?

What was the most interesting dinner table conversation you had this week?

Do you help take care of your family’s pet(s)?

Do you know how to sew on a button or mend a torn seam?

Do you usually meet your deadlines?

When you missed a deadline, what did you do? How did you notify the people who were depending on you?

Do you show up at the agreed time for appointments?  If you are late, what do you do?
Are you interested in trying new foods?

What would you do if your host family served a meal that you thought tasted terrible?

What would you do if a member of your host family became ill?

What if caring for that person meant your host family couldn’t keep some of their promises to you, like taking you someplace, or shopping with you?

What do you do when you disagree with somebody?

What do you do when somebody disagrees with you?

Do you have a favorite type of music?  Art? Movie?

What do you do / say / plan when you discover that people with you have different tastes from yours?

What do you most look forward to doing / seeing / experiencing in the country you want to visit for a year?

What do you think you’ll do as a member of another family for a year?

I also think it is inappropriate to limit applicants to those who already are fluent in the language of the country they will visit.  This limits applicants to the upper class in most countries.  I think finding and selecting students who really care about the world and other people should take precedence.  Language immersion camps could be offered for students who are otherwise appropriate for the program.

Exchange programs are supposed to develop future leaders, who having made friends in other countries during their year abroad, will not want to start wars with their friends.

When the program selects someone inappropriate the exchange fails twice. First, the selected student gains no friends or appreciation for the visited country. In fact, such a student may become hostile to the visited country because it is not like home. (My student has asked if she can live in the Russian part of town with a family that speaks fluent Russian.)  Second a student who could have met the goals of the program was not selected and therefore does not experience the desired friendships.

The student exchange program needs a major overhaul.

Friday, March 14, 2014

War and Peace

I’ve always wanted to do something for world peace.  I went through my teenaged years and early 20's working for civil rights and women’s rights, and getting out of Vietnam. 

Folks who couldn’t eat at the lunch counter, now can be elected president, but the Vietnam war became the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war and politics haven’t changed.  I doubt they’ll change when Hillary is elected. 

I read Gandhi.   Be the change you want to see in the world.  

Maybe that was it.  Maybe these changes weren’t truly effective, because I hadn’t changed. . But what changes did I need to make?

Then I saw the notice about a teenaged exchange student from Kazakhstan who needed a place to stay, I thought  – maybe this is it!  She’s a Muslim. I’m Jewish.  I can help her practice her religion. Gandhi said helping another practice their own religion was a way to peace.

Still, did I really want a teenager in my life again?  I’m a firm believer in the theory that children turn into teenagers so we’ll be happy to let them move out.

The clincher was her essay that she wrote applying for the program.  In it she said that she loves biology and chemistry. 

My husband and I are academics.  We teach the sciences.  This seemed like a perfect fit.

I made plans.  We would visit museums, go to the circus.  I might get a better appreciation for my own country as well as for hers. Yet another aspect of world peace.  We cleared out the upstairs room so she would have a private place to sleep.

And then, she arrived.  We lugged her stuff to her bedroom. She got out her laptop computer, and said “I’m  going to study.” She didn’t want to eat with us.  She didn’t want to talk with us. When we offered to take her to cultural events, she said, “I’m not interested.” 

I had researched Muslim temples in Philadelphia.  We have Sunni, Shia and Sufi.  
“I’m not interested.”
Would you prefer to worship with other students. Two nearby campuses have Muslim worship.
“I’m not interested.  Just don’t serve me pork.”

 As if you need to ask a Jewish family not to eat pork! 

In sum, she didn’t want to fulfil any of my fantasies. No dinner table conversations. No cultural outings.  I was supposed to cook for her and babysit her, and get nothing in return. I didn’t want to turn our home into a battleground. 

We let her select the times she would like to eat. Still, she didn’t show up at the table.  We arranged to go to a Russian Grocery store to get her favorite foods.  She decided she didn’t want to go with us.  She found a classmate to go with. We worked out a shopping list and gave her enough money to buy the list. 

She went to a different store, bought some of the things on the list and spent the rest of the money on candy.  I didn’t call her on it. I was starting to think that rather than working for peace, I was practicing appeasement.

Even having her favorite Russian foods didn’t get her to the table at dinner time, or her chosen breakfast time.

This wasn’t working

This is how Neville Chamberlain messed up –   Choosing peace in our time, rather than a real living arrangement.

And just as it didn’t work for him, it didn’t work for me.

I called the American Councils which arranged the exchange program.  They worked out an agreement.  She must eat 2 meals a day with us.  She must attend at least one cultural event per week with us. She must talk with us at dinner time.

I wished I’d had a council that could make agreements like this with my own teens. We might have had peace at the dinner table all those years ago.

She came to dinner.

What have you noticed about America – that is different from Kazakhstan?

“The education system here is far inferior to what we have in Kazakhstan.”

As a teacher, I’d like to know what a student regards as an excellent education.

I asked – what made your education better?

“Students here are just now studying molecular biology.  I learned that in third grade.”

What was your favorite part of molecular biology? 

“I don’t remember.”

Did you like learning how the stomach always stays acid, while the intestines stay basic?

“I don’t remember.”

Did you study pH?

“I forget.”

Do you remember how pH indicators work? How they change colors?

“I forget.”

Clearly her application to the exchange program was false advertising. And False Advertising has been the start of many wars. 

Plus, her constant phrasing of “I forget,” and “I don’t remember” implies that she once knew, which I was starting to doubt.  I’d feel more comfortable if she said, “I don’t know.”

Of course I couldn’t say any of this to her.  That would start a war. 

She huffed off to her room.  “I’m going to study.”  Actually, I could hear – she turned on Youtube.

The next night, I had to call her twice to dinner. The second time I called her, she asked if we would hold dinner for half an hour.  No!  It’s warm. It’s on the table. 

Battle on!

About 10 minutes later, she came to dinner.  Sort of a pyrrhic victory.   Dinner was now cold. I popped it into the microwave while blocking her exit from the dining room.

When I brought out the meal again, she complained. “Is this all you’re serving? At home, dinner is soup, appetizers, main dish, fruit compote and dessert.”

The next day she didn’t show up for breakfast. I reminded her that she had agreed to eat two meals a day with us.  She said, “You didn’t call me.”  I reminded her we had an agreed time.  A time she had selected.

I told her that in our culture, being late to meals or skipping meals is an insult.

She said, “I know that.”

In subsequent days, she missed 5 breakfasts and 2 dinners.  I reminded her that she had signed an agreement.  She said, “It is excusable.”  I said, “No excuses.”

She missed breakfast again the next day.

I contacted American Councils.  I have asked them to remove her from my home.  They said it is difficult to find a new host for her at this time of year.

So, rather than peace, I now have battles on two fronts.  I have a hostile teenager whom I must feed and entertain. And I have a bureaucracy that I must convince to remove this teenager from my home.  I feel like I’m being held hostage and paying ransom at the same time.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Trying to Teach Science at the Dinner Table

Our exchange student from Kazakhstan is learning about gas laws.
Short version:
Temperature can make the pressure of a gas in a confined volume increase.
Temperature can make the volume of a gas in a non-confined container increase
At a constant temperature, if the pressure on a gas increases, the volume will decrease.
At a constant temperature, if the pressure on a gas decreases, the volume will increase.

I decided to show her how it works.

I put a floating candle in a bowl of water.
I lit it.
I put a glass over the flame.
After a while the flame went out.
The air over the candle cooled.
The water rose about 10% of the way up the glass, above the level of the water in the bowl.

I tried to talk her through what she had just seen.
The sticking point was that the flame had warmed the air and when the flame went out, the air cooled.

She wasn’t believing me. She wanted an explanation based on pressure, that did not include temperature.

Then my husband, the alien, walked in.  He remembered that fire converts oxygen to carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide dissolves in water.

Our student liked this explanation because it didn’t require her to consider the effect of temperature.

But since oxygen is 20% of the volume of air, and the water only rose 10% of the way up the glass, something else is going on here.

Possibilities include:
Only some of the carbon dioxide got dissolved in the water.

What we saw was a combination of effects from the cooling of the air and the dissolving of the carbon dioxide.

I checked on the web.  Air must contain 16% oxygen to sustain fire.  So even if 4% of the air was converted to carbon dioxide and all of it dissolved in the water, that would not account for a 10% rise in the water.

Plus according to this

warming the water would decrease the amount of carbon dioxide that can be dissolved in the water.

So, if anything, less carbon dioxide was dissolved in the water after the fire, than before.

And our student’s propensity to believe men over women has led her to the wrong conclusion.