I wasn’t surprised when Claire* and Ahmed* told me that our house was the first American home they’d been in. And they didn’t just land in the racial mosaic of America’s southern California area yesterday.
I first met Claire, a Chinese doctor, and Ahmed, a Saudi Arabian businessman, in early July, along with a young man from Japan. I volunteered at a local university with an international program as a conversation partner to help students learn English. These three were paired with me for the whole summer and through the last few months have become friends.
When my husband and I invited them over for dinner one Friday night in September, it felt strangely exciting. I say strangely because I am ashamed to admit that I’ve never hosted an international “student” in my home before. I say student because while both Claire and Ahmed are technically here in America to learn English and/or attain master’s degrees, they really feel more like peers than students. Both in their 30s, married, and well established in a career, I found myself drawn repeatedly to our similar stations in life as newly married, working adults. I also sympathized with both of them, who left their homes and spouses thousands and thousands of miles away. And so it seemed a somewhat weighty and expectation-laden experience to open up our home to them. What if they don’t come? What if they don’t like the food? What if they’re too busy and something else comes up? What if they get lost?
Or, as it turns out, what if they came, appeared to like the food, were not too busy, found our place, and enjoyed some good old fashioned community? In fact, we talked quite a bit at dinner about how closed Americans are. Other countries are much more relational than the US. It would not be hard for visitors to assume that Americans come home from their busy days, pull their SUVs into their two and three car garages, turn the deadbolt, sink onto their sofas, drag themselves upstairs, and are lucky if they exchange stories of the day with their spouses and children. We often do not think about inviting others over to be a part of our community because our lives are busy enough as is. And, if we do choose to invest in others in our daily routines, they are typically people who think, operate, and maybe even look just like us. However, other parts of the world are littered with town squares, sidewalk cafes, apartment buildings with community centers, public parks, and other inviting and encouraging structures built into the fabric of their group-minded society. This disparity in cultures is not all that shocking, given that Americans are known for their fast paced lives, rugged individualism, self-reliance, and competitive nature that often leaves us climbing social ladders alone. What IS shocking is the equally well known American concepts of opportunity, freedom, liberty and justice for all. Just not hospitality. Freedom and justice and habeas corpus, sure, just not open doors, hot meals, and good old fashioned neighborliness for all.
Unfortunately, Ahmed and Claire’s experience of living in America for several months without once being invited into an American home is not unusual, or an exception. Sadly, “statistics prove that among the international students who study in the U.S., historically 70% have never been invited to an American home during their stay. More than 85% are never invited to an American church or have any meaningful contact with genuine Christians during an average stay of four years,” according to Dr. Tom Phillips, co-author of “The World at Your Door.” Now, whether an American is a professed Christian or church attender is not the point. The point is, for a nation that touts the Statue of Liberty beckoning the unwashed masses onto her shore as her icon, we do a very poor job of welcoming the foreigners in our midst, who are anything but unwashed. In fact, a lot of international students, such as my friends Claire and Ahmed, are already well-educated leaders or potential leaders in their communities and countries. We are hosting some of the world’s most influential citizens in our backyard and we don’t even think to have them over for coffee.
And so it hasn’t taken much to conclude that Americans are woefully pitiful at loving, hosting, hell, even helping, international students, or just foreigners in our nation at all. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that we’re all immigrants, that we’re all foreigners and as Maya Angelou reminds us in her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning”,
Each of you, descendant of some passed/ On traveler, has been paid for/…[So that] You may have the courage/ To look up and out and upon me the/ Rock, the River, the Tree, your country./ No less to Midas than the mendicant./ No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Americans do a lot of things well. A lot. Hosting people from other lands and loving our foreign visitors is just not one of them. Farbeit from me that Claire and Ahmed return home and have friends ask, “What are American homes like?” and not be able to answer the question. Farbeit that I have princes, princesses, and future world leaders in my own city and I shy away from just sharing a meal with them or asking them if they need a ride to Target.
So the question is how do we bring back some semblance of neighborliness? How can we live out the mythic image of the Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing the first Thanksgiving together? How can we re-embrace the legend of America, land of the free, home of the brave? How do we brave the world at our doorstep? Because, the problem is, if we don’t, we exclude a large group of people, who are and can be world leaders and changers. According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs, in 2013 the ECA had 275,000 J-1 visa participants who came to the US from over 200 countries and territories. Moreover, the ECA, which provides exchange programs for both American and international students, boasts 55 alumni who are Nobel Prize winners.
Well, the ECA is a perfect place to start. There are programs for Americans who are willing to be host families of exchange students. Since America is so rich in institutions of higher learning, chances are most of us have a college (or more than one) within a 25 mile radius of our front door. Chances also are that that school has some international students who would love to make an American friend. And here’s the thing, you don’t have to be some fancy, upper-class, intellectual elite or super American to befriend an international student; you just have to speak English, and be nice. The holidays are coming up, and many international students will not have the opportunity to travel home. What better way to embrace the ideals of America than to make some new friends and invite them over to share in the Thanksgiving meal? I can think of no more patriotic and truly American act than to celebrate that first feast with someone of a different nationality than you. After all, isn’t that the whole legacy of our nation?
*- Names changed to protect individuals’ privacy