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.


  1. Do you have to feed her? If she gets hungry enough she might come down for meals.

  2. Yes, I have to feed her 3 meals a day. That's part of my agreement with American Councils. I also have to entertain her. This is one expensive brat. Also, she stockpiles candy. I feel honor-bound to get some real food into her.