(Courtesy of Hometown Weekly)I stared in puzzlement as I walked into East Walpole resident Sue Richardson’s kitchen some twenty years ago. Everywhere I looked there were little pieces of paper filled with writing. They were stuck to the floor, the table, the window, the doorway and even on a chair.
We’re old friends. After taking in the scene, I finally blurted out, “What’s going on?”
“Oh,” Richardson replied, with a laugh, “Raul, our exchange student from Paraguay, is here. He knows some English, but there are lots of English words he doesn’t know. Our kids wrote down the names of things and taped them up all over the house. They had fun, and it’s helping Raul.”
Richardson’s children were eight and eleven at the time. The family had “adopted” Raul for the school year through AFS (American Field Service) a non-profit student exchange program.
She and I sat down recently in her home in East Walpole to talk about some of her experiences with AFS since that time her children “labeled” her house. “My parents are the ones who suggested we think about hosting a student,” Richardson explained. “They had hosted a student from Switzerland when I was in college and my brother was still in high school. They’ve visited him since then and still keep in touch. When my kids were in elementary school, my mom suggested that we consider hosting a student for a year. We got Raul, and had a wonderful experience with him. He went to Bellingham High School, [where the family lived at that time,] participated on the soccer team, ran in the Boston Marathon, and became part of our family. He discovered what an ironing board was while he lived with us. We took a number of trips, and we drove cross-country together. We really wanted to share America with Raul.” Since then Richardson’s family has hosted a number of other students. Some Walpole residents may remember Aom Anutrapibal from Thailand, who lived with the Richardson family and attended Walpole High School during the 2008-2009 school year.
But the exchanges have not been a one-way street for the Richardson family. Richardson later visited her first host student, Raul, in Paraguay, and she’s maintained a close friendship with him and his family to this day. Daughter, Kate, went to Latvia for a year with AFS. Julia, Richardson’s stepdaughter, also traveled to Vienna as an AFS exchange student. She’s presently a Political Science and German Studies major at Clark University, and plans to spend a semester abroad in Trier in Germany this fall.
A registered nurse, Richardson works in Burlington, MA for Minuteman Senior Services. After Aom, her family’s latest host student, returned to Thailand, Richardson was browsing through the AFS website and noticed an opportunity to travel to Thailand and teach English as a second language. With her family’s blessing, she applied, and was accepted into the program, which involved a six-month commitment. Her workplace granted her a leave of absence, her children were all in college or out of school, and her husband was on his own for six months. She was on her way in June of 2010.
“Since I’m a Registered nurse, I never expected to be teaching English,” she said. “But the support I received through AFS was excellent.” This particular program was a joint project between the U.S. and the Thai embassies, coordinated by AFS. The Thai government paid travel, room, and board expenses for the seventeen teachers who participated. AFS supplied all the logistics, including personal liaisons throughout the six months and three training-debriefing sessions while they were in Thailand. AFS also set up time at the end of their stay to take a ten-day Thai massage course.
The teachers were expected to create their own curriculum; Richardson decided to base hers on storytelling. As she explained, “Stories can be present, past, songs, spoken, from America or Thailand. You can recognize character, plot and setting. I used the same curriculum for all ages; it was useful for them all. This was a new way for them to learn a language. Up till then they had expertise in written English and sentence structure, but little practice in speaking or connecting ideas in English.” She found that the children seemed eager to understand this strange phenomenon of a person who didn’t know Thai but was able to speak, regardless of this limitation.
“I was teaching English,” Richardson said, “but I was really teaching courage. The students were so timid and polite. At my first class I began with a brief statement that Thai students know many words in English, which is generally true, but they are too shy to speak in English. I then told them that I wanted them to have courage to speak English. I acted out courage—picture me as the Lion from the Wizard of Oz. I wrote ‘courage (noun)’ on the board, then said ‘please repeat: courage.’ Their first attempts were invariably wimpy, and then got stronger. Some classes actually said ‘courage’ with courage!”
Based in Bangkok, Thailand, Richardson had a small apartment in a quiet neighborhood, an easy five-minute walk from the school where she taught. She had fourteen classes a week with about fifty students in each class. The students ranged in age from eleven to seventeen.
In Thailand, as in other AFS countries, a family usually hosts students. But Richardson’s age was a mixed blessing in Thai culture. She noted, “My white hair made it more difficult to place me. Elders are so respected in Thailand that the whole family would have had to defer to me, and wait on me, even though I knew nothing about Thai culture or language. So I was given my own apartment and was introduced to my AFS liaison Jiaranai and to Boom, who became my unofficial host daughter. Boom and her friends and her parents included me in their life, travels, and meals. Boom taught me to cook some Thai food. She taught me by feeding me. Jiaranai helped to coordinate my school schedule and arranged for field trips in Bangkok and around the country.
Aom and her family not only met Richardson at the Bangkok airport upon her arrival, but hosted her on several visits to their family home in South Thailand, helped furnish her apartment, and took her on trips around the country. The Anutrapibal family went out of their way to make her feel at home. “During my entire stay I never felt like a tourist,” Richardson recounted. “A visitor yes, but not a tourist. I was so much a part of the people—it was a natural environment. I had the role of honored guest and was taken to see many places. Hosted students here in America are the same—they are helped to feel like part of a family, part of a community. My own family provided a lot of experiences for our AFS students just by including them in everyday activities such as meals, shopping, and family events.”
As we finished up our visit, Richardson shared one last story of her time in Thailand. “The director at our school was giving a speech to 400 high school kids sitting on the floor. He thought the students were fidgeting too much. I didn’t think so, but he did. He called for 10 minutes of silence. The students sat completely still. They were probably able to do this through meditation practice. At least some appeared to me like they were meditating.” And you, Sue, what did you do all this time while the children sat so still? I asked. “Oh, I fidgeted. But I have white hair—for me it was all right!”
Traveling to another country takes courage. Inviting a person into one’s home to become part of one’s family also takes courage. A good sense of humor is essential in either situation. But the benefits and rewards are great. AFS is looking for host families in Walpole and surrounding towns right now for the upcoming school year. There are additional opportunities for hosting students for as little as two weeks. But be careful; once you get involved, your life may never be the same!
Check out WWW.AFS.org for details of hosting or going to another country on exchange
Contact Sue Richardson for questions about hosting students in your home—508-668-8326
Read more of Sue Richardson’s Thailand adventures at http://thailand-sue-2010.blogspot.com/
|Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and has completed two guides to Easy Walking trails in Massachusetts, “Easy Walks in Massachusetts 2nd edition,” and “More Easy Walks in Massachusetts.” A native Floridian, she came north for college and snow! New England Regional Chair for the Association of Personal Historians, she is a Certified Legacy Planner with LegacyStories.org, and is the producer of numerous veterans interviews for the Bellingham/Mendon Veteran’s History Project. http://www.marjorieturner.com|