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Local families host exchange students through 4-H

Nancy Burman, right, holds her cat while Haruma Aratami, a chaperone from Japan, learns to use a "furminator" brush.

As 4-H clubs zero in on local county fair efforts, some members are rapidly expanding their attention to something much larger: international hosting.

This summer, eight local families are hosting students from Japan, Korea, Argentina and Mexico through Wisconsin 4-H International Programs. Although most have already arrived, some will not land on American soil until the end of July.

According to local coordinator Nancy Burman, the state as a whole will receive more than 40 students along with four chaperones, who begin month-long stays at varying points depending on their country of origin. Locally, students are staying in New Richmond, Star Prairie, Hudson, Baldwin, Prescott and Eau Claire.

The exchange students, or delegates, belong to language clubs within their native countries and are usually between 12 and 16 years of age. Although most of them do not speak English well, families are equipped with a phrasebook in their student's first language to increase the quality of communication.

"The students are so excited to learn about everything," Burman said. "They want know how you do your laundry, how your vacuum works, how you dust the house and weed the garden."

Many families try to expose the students to as much Wisconsin culture as possible, from taking them to pick blueberries to bringing them to the state fair. Other popular activities include attending the county fairs, visiting lakes, camping and going to Valleyfair and the Mall of America.

Burman said anywhere with chocolate is always a big hit, since American chocolate is not only sweeter but less expensive than Japanese chocolate.

"You want them to experience American life and see your area and what you do," Burman said. "And that's what they want to do, too. They become a part of your life."

Having hosted several students over the years, Burman said she shares things that are important to her, like her Christian faith. With no intention of converting him, Burman gave one of her exchange students a Japanese translation of the Bible, watching as he and her son read it together and exchanged different ideas about what it might mean.

Burman said the goal is not to strip the students of their culture, but rather expose them to other cultures and create an educational environment. The delegates are not allowed to make any dramatic life changes, including changing their hair color and getting tattoos or piercings.

The visiting students take advantage of the opportunity to share their own culture with their host families as well. Most bring food with them to cook a meal native to their country, and they also bring small gifts and demonstrate traditional dress and customs. As Burman put it, the program is a learning experience for everyone involved.

"You learn communication skills and develop a global worldview," she said. "But you also learn to respect and understand diversity, and you establish a friendship with someone halfway around world."

As the program's local coordinator, Burman encourages families to host and interviews applicants to ensure that exchange students are being placed in a safe environment.

Delegates from Japan and Korea have a midpoint meeting, where they reunite with one another, talk about their experiences and meet with their chaperones to make sure the stay is going smoothly.

The students' host families also benefit from the meeting, comparing experiences and swapping tips. If a problem arises, the chaperones are responsible for transferring the student to another host family.

"Problems are usually caused by subtle cultural differences that can become a roadblock," she said. "You have to learn to overcome that and grow in personal relationship."

For example, Burman said that most Japanese mothers do everything for their children, including cooking meals and doing laundry, because the child's job is to attend school. If a host parent doesn't prepare dinner, the delegates will not ask for food or make something for themselves for fear of appearing rude.

According to Burman, the experience makes both families and students challenge their own preconceived notions. One of Burman's Japanese students questioned the United States' right to declare war, forcing Burman's family to re-examine their own beliefs. In the same way, the student learned the American perspective on World War II, which was very different from the education he had received in Japan.

"It's a real eye-opener for everyone," Burman said. "I have become much more open-minded to cultural differences and diversity, and I've realized that children are children all over the world."

Although some families are deterred from hosting students because they believe the time commitment is too great, Burman said hosting demands little more attention than the families' own children and is generally inexpensive. Besides making sure that a guardian is home during the day - whether it's a parent, older child or neighbor - families must provide a sleeping area and food for the child, but their obligations end there.

Delegates travel with their own spending money and insurance card, and hosts are free to show them as much or as little of the country as they want. Although families do not have to be involved with 4-H to host a child, they should be open to learning about other cultures.

After the exchange students complete their stay, they undergo a debriefing process and discuss the positives and negatives of their experience.

"Generally, kids have liked swimming, boating and fishing on local lakes, as well as football games, fairs and large animals," Burman said. "And cheese. Cheese is a big one."

While students may enjoy the dairy state's food, they aren't wild about the things that go along with dairy production. Burman said the students' least favorite part of their stay is the smell of manure, along with mosquitos, long car rides and, above all, saying goodbye.

Because delegates spend a month cultivating relationships with their host family members, Burman said the experience crushes the stereotypes that foreign students associate with Americans and encourages them to return to their native country with a clearer understanding of the culture.

"The kids go back home and tell their families that we're not all the mean, nasty, selfish Americans that other cultures often see in tourists," Burman said. "They've made American friends, and it seems like a whole new world."

Burman said one of her most memorable experiences hosting students was when her family housed two boys from Japan. When the family took the boys to a dairy farm, one brother said "ew" and walked on tiptoe through the dirt. The other brother was fascinated and even put his finger into the mouth of a newborn calf to feel the animal suck on it.

"They were different, just like our children," Burman said. "It was such a fun experience that our own son went to Japan and stayed with the same family."

Indeed, the Burman family -- like many others -- has been greatly impacted by international hosting. After welcoming six exchange students and five chaperones into their home throughout the years, Burman's children lived and studied in countries like Scotland, Australia and Germany, pursuing the love of culture instilled in them since childhood.

Burman said the experience especially equipped one of her sons, John, with the tools necessary for interacting with another culture. A U.S. Marine, John completed a tour in Afghanistan and was able to look past stereotypes perpetuated by the media and enjoy an unobstructed view of Afghan culture.

"Because of his early exposure to other cultures, John was able to have a more open-minded viewpoint than some of the other Marines that he was with," Burman said. "This exchange program really does make a difference in people's lives."

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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