If you follow my articles closely, you might notice I sometimes refer to my “kids” and other times refer to my “kid.”
So, full disclosure: I have one full-blood daughter. And one daughter from another mother. And my references sometimes include both of them, other times, it includes just one.
During the year 2017-2018, my family hosted an exchange student from Germany. She lived with us for a full year. She went to the local high school. She fought with my blood daughter/her sister on a daily basis. She lied to us. She tried our patience. She almost failed all her classes. She snuck out. She drank, dated, smoked. She was SOOOOO moody. But also? She was affectionate. She was adorable. She was girly. She was needy and loved us. She was a perfect complement to our weird family. She was basically everything I’ve heard a real daughter is supposed to be. In fact, she was more of what I expected from a teenage daughter than my own blood daughter has been.
Having an exchange student fulfilled a number of goals. We gave our only child the experience of having a sibling without me actually having to go through that whole pregnancy/labor/baby craziness. This was a wonderful chance for our only-child to deal with sibling rivalry (which she did WITH A VENGANCE!).
We got the opportunity to learn about a new culture. Here’s what I learned: Germany is a lot like America but go back in time about 70 years and subtract about 700% of wokeness. More on that later.
And we got to foreshadow what to watch out for when our own kid hits the age our exchange student was (our kid was 12, our exchange student was 17… we learned a lot!)
(Tom)Boys and Girls
My blood daughter is a lot like me – a tomboy who never paid much attention to fashion, make-up, boyfriends, dresses, or other “girly” things. I wore pants to my senior prom. And 20 years later, I do regret not caring more. Not getting a little girly about stuff like that. I wished I had gotten my nails done, my eyebrows plucked, or found a pretty dress—at least for prom or my own wedding.
So now, I worry about my daughter – that she might be too much like me and eventually have the same regrets. On the flip side, our exchange kid was super girly. She was ALL about nails. Fake eyelashes. Hair highlights. Name brands. Makeup tutorials from Youtube.
It was a whole new world for me and for my kid. A nice balance to the don’t care attitude I project, and hopefully one that means when (if) my daughter goes to prom or other fancy events, she’ll care a little more than I did, and not have regrets later in life.
The Name is Bond
For purposes of this article, we’ll refer to my daughter as J and our exchange student as M.
J and M HATED each other for almost their entire year together. However, every once in a while they would come together and bond in a way that made my heart sing.
When we had my in-laws over for Thanksgiving that year, they did the whole “enemy of my enemy” bonding. This is absolutely understandable because my in-laws are unequivocally horrible people. The two girls volunteered to clear the table and wash the dishes to avoid any further contact with the in-laws (that they volunteered to clean up should tell any mother of a teenager daughter all she needs to know about how awful my in-laws are). I was both ecstatic and jealous because I was hoping to use the dishes as an excuse to not talk to the in-laws anymore myself. Dammit.
Later in the year, J went to a Daddy-Daughter dance. It was her last one, as she was aging out of the ritual. This was pretty much the one time of the year that she’d don a dress and act like a girly-girl. Because she was 12 and it was her last one, I told her she could wear make-up. So, she asked M to help her. It was one of those magical moments that made me wish she really did have a sister. At least for an hour.
The Skinny on German Body Images
As much as I loved M, she had issues. As earlier alluded to, German families are not quite as woke as American families are (or at least not as woke as left-leaning, liberal, modern families like mine like to think they are).
M was slightly on the heavy side. Not unattractive by any stretch – she was cute as a button. She was healthy and curvy—a classical Marilyn Monroe hour-glass figure. However, she was not a Twiggy.
In America, where we are embracing all body types and try not to partake in body shaming, plus, she had nothing to be ashamed of. But Germany hasn’t quite caught up to that, and apparently her dad constantly made her feel bad about her weight.
One email he sent her while she lived with us said something along the lines of: “People in American eat a lot. You are already heavy. And when you come back to school in Germany, you will be one year older than all your classmates. You don’t want to be heavier than all of them too, so don’t eat there like you normally do while you are here.”
So, while she was with us, we provided her with boxing lessons, juicer machines, kung fu classes, gym memberships, diet box subscriptions, and whatever else struck her fancy as something that would help her feel better about herself.
We also dealt with a plethora of both good and bad boyfriends who factored in helping her gain or lose confidence about herself. And we had to manage that with the lack of self-assurance that came with a withdrawal from school work and activities, social situations, and a general malaise.
She just barely passed her final quarter in school. We loved her to death, but we were unprepared to help her navigate her own self-confidence issues based on her cruel father’s views and the insanely high bar she held herself to—assuming that coming to America would help her escape/solve all those problems.
Having Said All That…
It was definitely an eye-opening experience into the insecure subconscious of teenage girls and set us up to better deal with this sort of situation with our own kid as she gets older and starts to worry about this kind of thing.
Also, she had a very special relationship with both me and my husband. She made us feel good about ourselves in our ability to help her, even when we didn’t know what we were doing. Of course, given the crap her dad was telling her, made it easy to be great parents.
She’s now 21. She’s living on her own in Hamburg. She still talks to us on a regular basis. She tells us if we get another exchange student, we are not allowed to love her as much as we love her. (Full disclosure – we tried this last year, but… you know… COVID… so M may be the only exchange student we ever have). M claims without her year with us, in America, having parents who supported and encouraged her, having a sister – who despite having nothing in common with and fighting constantly, let her be herself… without this experience, she’s not sure she’d still be around.
Further, my own kid has been exposed to the “what not to do” world. Not in every practice, but she’s now seen how boys can mess a girl up, how body image can ruin a person’s confidence, and how that lack of confidence can affect the rest of a person’s world. Maybe that will have an impact, maybe not. But either way, our experience with an exchange student – for all the ups and downs – I wouldn’t trade it for anything.