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Program Highlight: A Cultural Exchange
July 13, 2017

Last year, the Lange family generously opened up their home for one of our students to stay for a week. For Boonta, one of our university students who hopes to study in the US and one day teach English to others in her village, it was an opportunity to practice her English speaking skills and gain exposure to a different culture and lifestyle. It didn’t take long for the experience to turn into something deeper—for both sides.

Frank and Carrie Lange had been supporters of The Freedom Story and had been looking for ways to get involved more deeply. When Carrie was younger, she had stayed with a Japanese family for almost four months and it had been such an impactful experience that she wanted to offer the same thing to someone else now thirty years later. They approached us with their idea to host a student, and we matched them with Boonta, who we thought would be ideal for their situation, and with some coordination of schedules, were able to make it happen.

In anticipation, they put sticky notes around their house with the English word for items, and they prepared activities to do together. The most profound experiences together came not in fancy excursions at a high cost, but just through simple daily activities like grocery shopping and cooking together. These activities were some of Boonta’s favorites. She remarked on how beneficial it was for someone who primarily has learned English in a classroom to have a chance to really converse in real life situations, “speaking real using English with [a] foreigner, [and to] learn English through cooking, [seeing] English movies, and [doing] activities together.” It was her first time spending a significant amount of time with foreigners and she especially enjoyed seeing a different kind of life style.

Carrie drew a lot of inspiration from her earlier experiences in Japan. She recalls,

My Japanese was very basic, at a much lower level than Boonta’s English. The family’s English was also, most likely, at a lower level than Boonta’s. We communicated with dictionaries, I was studying Japanese on my own, and we used a lot of drawings! The kitchen table always had two dictionaries and a pad of paper. We started off with the usual uncomfortable silences, and we are still very close today. My Japanese improved quite a bit, and everyone in the family improved their English.

Carrie knew to expect some awkwardness at first, but that it wouldn’t take much to push through it.

The first day we stopped at our favorite local market. My husband loves to cook, so he and Boonta went through the market and she told him about a few things for cooking. It was a great ice-breaker, and we all came home and cooked dinner. In her comments, I noticed she liked this very much, and, although, I think it is a pretty universal activity, families cooking together, showing her the “American” way was what she liked.

Although Carrie was very conscientious about not trying to make the experience about what her family might learn, and tried to focus instead on what they could offer Boonta, it came as a revelation that when a student can share a bit of her own culture too, it doesn’t just help the host family—it helps everyone.

While they shared about the “American” way, it was also a good opportunity for Boonta to practice her English by sharing about her own Akha hill tribe background and life in the village.

In the end, Carrie explains,

“It is all about having some kind of common talking point for the student to work towards. I think that every Thai student who speaks good English, or Mandarin, will be asked to be a sort of “tour guide”, or to explain certain parts of their culture. It may be a good exchange for the families and students. I know Boonta really wanted to contribute in some way. She was always ready for activities, and very willing to help. By sharing their culture in English may be a way for the students to contribute while practicing speaking skills.

Beyond language and culture, the Lange family and Boonta also began to share a bond. The experience was so rewarding the Lange family expressed a desire to do more to help Boonta pursue her dreams of an education in the States, and they all remain friends to this day.

It was an incredibly special and precious experience for the Lange family, for Boonta, and for us as staff at The Freedom Story to observe from the sidelines, and we are very grateful for their generosity in making such a special time possible.