I used to work for an arts non-profit, doing a variety of things loosely filed under a project manager-type title — and my very favorite experience in that job happened one summer when a group called Iowa Sister States contacted my org about working with a jazz trio from Veneto, Italy.
It took some doing, but in the end we rented equipment and worked these guys into our summer jazz schedule, and I spent a day and a half running around town with a group of incredibly nice men who didn’t really speak a lick of English — and the only other language I speak is enough Spanish to communicate pool rules to you and ask that you please not run on the deck.
Anyway, the guys played amazing music — the best we had that summer — and it turned me on to the work ISS does. This isn’t a super well-known program, but it seems like it’d be right up the Homies’ alley.
Basically, the organization facilitates exchange programs between Iowa and eight foreign states in Japan, Mexico, China, Malaysia, Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine, and Italy. They work to bring in artists, medical professionals, environmental professionals, athletes, educators, chefs, emergency response professionals, and official state delegations who then put on shows, participate in education and seminars in my state and — of most interest to us here on Offbeat Home — bunk with Iowans. In lots of ways it’s like a non-profit that organizes couch-surfers.
Though Iowa has the largest Sister States program — thanks to Governor Robert Ray and his relationship with the USSR — there are programs like this going on all over the world. I sat down with my friend Kim Heidemann from ISS to get a primer on how one dives into hosting international guests — and what one should expect when they agree to board a couple of strangers with whom they may or may not share a language.
The typical international hosting experience
Well, this is easy: there is no “typical” experience. Each relationship is as different as the people who make it up — though it’s very common for people to report their experience felt like summer camp. By the end of each visit, there are tears on both sides and lifelong bonds are formed.
While each visit has different factors, similarities include:
- Language: Often guests and hosts don’t share a language. The program employs interpreters whenever possible but also emphasizes that interpreters aren’t the only way to communicate! Every guest has a different level of language skills; they may not speak English, but may write, read, or listen effectively. You know, like in Spanish class when the spoken bits of tests were nightmares, but writing in answers was a breeze. According to Kim, hosts should always assume their guests can understand every word.
- Polite guests. Most guests arrive wary and a bit out of their element. Many of them have no idea what to expect. They’ve heard Americans are cold, uncaring, or decadent. Or they expect Iowa to be dotted with saloons, old west style. Often guests tiptoe about for the first day or two, not wanting to tax their hosts’ generosity — but after everyone has time to settle in together, life gets smoother and more fun.
- Curious guests. Many visitors want to visit a McDonalds or a Wal-mart — and Kim says one visit is usually enough. Hosts often get to introduce the most well-known parts of our culture to their new friends. Some visitors also come bearing shopping lists and empty suitcases: they plan to return home with everything from American jeans to iPods to microwaves to $2000 worth of John Wayne-style duster jackets.
- Food insecurity: Iowa Sister States advises hosts to take their guests to a grocery store so they may help select food they recognize and feel comfortable with. Buffets are also a big hit — required communication is minimal and visitors are able to sample many foods without commitment.
- Calling home. Guests love to Skype, or phone, or at least email. Bonus points when hosts pick up a couple international phone cards in preparation.
- Cultural understanding. These are my favorite stories. America is a famous country, guys. People all over the world have notions about us — true and untrue. Exchange programs like Iowa Sister States gives Americans the chance to experience other cultures and to put our best face forward. Invariably, guests are surprised by Midwestern friendliness — one man actually thought Kim had planted people along the street with instructions to smile and greet their group. A good example of what Iowans learn? Many guests are astounded by our sense of safety, since they come from unstable, unsafe countries where one must constantly be on alert.
Are you a good international host candidate?
Strong candidates are open minded and look forward to new experiences, and are flexible and patient — especially in communicating, since most guests don’t speak fluent English. ISS doesn’t have a formal application program — getting involved is as simple as giving the staff a heads-up that, hey, you’d like to throw your hat in the ring to host.
In working with organizations like ISS, hosts are expected to provide a bed — one room per person is preferable. It’s nice, but not required, to be able to host two guests. Hosts should be able to transport their guests to each days’ programming with Iowa Sister States, and to pick them up at the end of the day and provide the evening meal. Evenings are also a time for some entertainment — showing guests around town; local haunts, favorite stores, good restaurants.
Hosting international couchsurfers like this is a repeat activity for most hosts — one family in Des Moines has hosted more than 150 international visitors. That kind of testimonial goes a long way to impressing me with what a great experience it is.
If you’re in Iowa, start with the ISS site and get in touch with Kim or Carol. Elsewhere, there isn’t a national overarching program which keeps track of these things, surprisingly. Start with plugging your location into Google and SHARE any resources you’ve got.
REMEMBER! Just because you aren’t in the US doesn’t mean there won’t be similar opportunities. Many city halls are also full of info on sister cities and sister states — they should be able to tell you about your city’s sisters and how you can get involved in international relations.
Have you hosted international visitors like this? What was your experience?