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Experience with exchange student involves crash, apples, pingpong

After our oldest daughter left for college I found an organization that was searching for families to host foreign first-time college students who were coming to Rochester. Surely that would then fill the hollow I still somehow felt. After an introduction to the program, we were assigned a young Chinese student from Hong Kong who would be attending the University of Rochester in New York. His English name was Raphael. He spoke impeccable English and was extremely bright.

We hosted him one day every weekend for activities and meals at our home or in various restaurants in the area. One day he even introduced us to lettuce soup made from the ribs of romaine that I wasn’t planning to use. We had formal communications with his well-to-do parents in Hong Kong, mostly by letter. He was polite and friendly and seemed to enjoy our family life and activities, including pingpong, at which he was a pro. Afterward we would take him back to his dorm at the university.

One outing that we all particularly enjoyed was an afternoon field trip on a crisp, sunny autumn day to a U-pick apple farm. We went deep into the orchard on a tractor-drawn hay wagon enjoying a glimpse of country farm life. Half-sized bushel baskets were provided for visitors and would be weighed as we left with the apples we’d picked. On exiting, we were charged nominal farm prices for the fruit.

Raphael seemed enchanted with the heavily pruned trees with branches heavy with fruit hanging within easy picking reach. What we found interesting and a bit humorous was watching our student pick an apple, take a bite, then stuff it into his pocket. When his pockets were full, he stuffed more apples, each with a single bite, into his sleeves and then into the front and sides of his expensive, leather, bomber-style jacket. He looked as round as the Pillsbury dough boy.

At first we thought he just wanted to taste each one to see if it was sweet, crisp, tart and juicy enough. When I asked him about it he declared “No, but do you know how much these apples would cost in Hong Kong? More than $3 each! I just can’t believe it!” We again explained that he could pick as many as he wanted and put them in our basket to take back to the dorm, but he said “I’m finished now.”

Cultural insight was what we’d hoped to introduce to our kids, but this seemed a little strange. Maybe the single bite of each apple was to deter his roommate from filching his treasure.

However, after a few months, our student-guest created problems. Two episodes caused particularly awkward situations for us. The first incident was when he called one evening to change the time of our pickup after his last class. During our conversation he bragged that he’d taught himself how to use the university computer ... the one that was the size of a room ... one of the few of its kind in the country!

He’d picked the lock to the secured, off-limits room and now he was boasting about it. Yes, he was very bright, but our trust in him was rapidly waning. I decided to have the sponsors of the hosting program deal with it.

A little later in the spring a midnight call jolted me awake. Our student had purchased a motorcycle from another student that evening and promptly crashed as he wrapped it around a utility pole.

He had not bought the helmet from the other student, “It was too expensive,” and he had hurt his head and neck in the wreck. He never had any driver’s license and, of course, no insurance. He just wanted me to “fix it.”

I told him that local police would take him to jail with all the infractions. He indignantly retorted, “It’s no problem. I have diplomatic immunity.” What a way to spoil my night! I told him to get to the university medical office immediately and report the incident to school authorities.

The following morning I again called the sponsor of the host program. I felt I’d hit a wall and asked “Do you by any chance have a host family where both the parents are attorneys?” The sponsor was stunned. I was tired. We didn’t hear from them after that.

Raphael would not play any more pingpong with our kids. We would not be hosting any more foreign exchange students who have never been away from home before. At their age, we couldn’t teach them responsibility.

Alas, no more lettuce soup.

Sylvia Malagamba is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.




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