Bringing it all back home

When you’ve been a host family to 14 international journalists, the world becomes much smaller.

by Judith Strom

We know what it’s like to walk the streets of Northern Ireland, wondering if a bomb will explode at any moment. Or to leave your country for a few months, only to have it descend into chaos or disappear altogether. We’ve tasted the food of Nigeria, of Hungary, of Brazil. And we’ve listened as a South Korean sang the best “Moon River” we ever heard.

We’ve experienced all this without ever having to leave Minnesota. The journalists we have met through the World Press Institute have brought the world to us, and we are much wiser for it.

Our involvement with the program grew out of a chance remark I made to classmates and then-WPI staff members, Paul Sherburne and Erik Baum. We were sitting in WPI’s tree-top offices at the International Center, planning our 15th class reunion. I remembered what a great program it was from my days at Mac and asked if there was anything I could do to help. “How about being a host family?” they asked. And so in the summer of 1985, my husband, Lee Kaplan, and I hosted our first journalist, Javier Ayuso, a business editor from Madrid.

In the last 14 years, we’ve met 139 journalists from 60 countries. Besides Spain, from which we had two WPI Fellows, we’ve hosted journalists from Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, England, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Nigeria, Norway, and most recently, Yugoslavia. Three of our journalists have been back for visits, and last spring we saw Alberto Romagnoli, our 1991 Fellow, in Bologna, Italy. It’s like having a very spread out, extended family.
The world has become a much smaller, more personal place for us. Now when we read of something happening in another part of the world, it’s no longer a distant, impersonal event. Instead, it’s about what’s going on where people like Bela, Emenike, Aleksandra or Eduardo live. We share one of the journalists’ greatest frustrations with American media — not enough international news.

The Internet and email have made it much easier to keep in touch. We read articles written by our Fellows by accessing the Web sites of their newspapers. We created a bilingual Web site (“The Adventures of Pietro”) for our Brazilian Fellow, Eduardo Mack, so he could share pictures of his newborn son with his WPI colleagues and relatives, spread all over the world. Along with the brochures that WPI issues when the journalists arrive, our scrapbook now includes photos of weddings and children.

Over the years, we’ve learned about other cultures in very personal ways. I waited anxiously in a doctor’s office with an African journalist to find out if she could ever conceive. This bright, attractive woman had undergone many painful procedures to try to have children. She’d been forced to sell her car to pay for medical bills. Her culture, she confided, valued her only as a mother, not a journalist.

We’ve learned that animosity between enemies is harder to maintain when you get to know someone. At one “graduation” dinner for the journalists, a Palestinian and an Israeli Fellow shared how their growing friendship over the previous four months had shown them the human face of the enemy. As they embraced, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. It’s something we’ll never forget.

We’ve also learned that a common language isn’t always the key to international understanding. We were never able to penetrate the stiff-upper-lip reserve of our British journalist, yet became very close to others whose English was limited. At the same time, we’ve discovered that words can have different meanings to non-native English speakers. For example, Lee had a rather heated discussion with Kaarina Jarventaus when he described her Finland and other Scandinavian countries as “socialistic” in their approach, rather than using her preferred label, “welfare states.” Misunderstanding only one word caused one of our journalists an embarrassing moment. At a meeting at Reader’s Digest, she berated the company’s representative for marketing “pornographic records.” Someone then pointed out to her that the product in question was phonographic records. Never mind.

If we had ever been tempted to take race relations for granted, we never could do so after becoming Emenike Okorie’s “parents.” It was the first trip out of Africa for this 27-year-old Nigerian. As we stood on a St. Paul street corner, I experienced with him the first time in his life that he was the only black person in sight. I wondered what I could tell him to keep him safe as he traveled the U.S., perhaps encountering people who might hurt him simply because of his skin color. If he hadn’t experienced racism, how could he protect himself from it?

We’ve also gained insights into life in the U.S. Some came from questions the journalists asked or their reflections — not always complimentary — on our way of doing things. “Why,” asked an exasperated Olga Stokke from Norway, “do you Americans have so many choices? Why do you need 30 different types of cereal?” We couldn’t answer that one. Another journalist’s criticism of Americans’ preoccupation with materialism and work led to an awareness of how the lack of a social safety net — prevalent in many European countries — contributes to a sense of insecurity about our futures.

For their part, the journalists sometimes come here with preconceptions about the U.S., shaped largely from movies, CNN or their own media. Not all are open to having their minds changed, and that can lead to some frustrating debates. Some simply come with amusing misconceptions. Our Nigerian Fellow wrote from San Francisco that he must know now what winter would be like in Minnesota, after experiencing a bone-chilling 50-degree September day. He also wondered if snow came down in big chunks, as he had never seen it fall. We gave him a snow globe as a farewell present to remember Minnesota.

Often the experience is just plain fun. One warm summer evening, we sat in the common area of the Stadium dorm, where the journalists stay during their time at Mac. We listened in pure pleasure, as nine voices in nine different languages simultaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to our own Yugoslavian, Aleksandra Ajdanic.

In a few weeks, our 15th WPI journalist will arrive. We don’t know what country he, or she, will be from, but we plan to be at the airport to meet the plane. Can’t wait!

(Reprinted with permission of Macalester Today)