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How Kana from Japan, Graciela from Argentina and Lis from Brazil became my extended global family


Special to the Star

Thu., Oct. 4, 2018

When I found myself single with two kids and a tight budget, a friend suggested I take in language students. She and her husband had been doing it for years, and with their arts-related incomes it provided some stability. All I needed was an extra bedroom and a willingness to make dinner and eat it with the student, which is something I did every night with my kids anyway.

So, after filling out an application and getting a police check, the co-ordinator from ILAC (International Language Academy of Canada) came to check us out, and soon we had our first student: Kana from Japan. She was followed by Graciela from Argentina, Lis from Brazil, Aya from Japan, and Nicci from Venezuela.

In exchange for a room with a bed and a desk, three meals, use of laundry, Wi-Fi and TV, we received a monthly check of $750 — not a king’s ransom but enough to cover off the grocery bill.

Before Lis Falkowski returned to Brazil, she took a photo with the host family. Pictured left to right are Aidan Zizys, Kathlene Katic, Anna Zizys, Lis Falkowski, Alex Newman. (COURTESY ALEX NEWMAN)

The bigger benefit was for our family life. As my daughter, Anna Zizys, explains: “I’ve always liked having lots of activity and noise around. When my brother left for university, the house was so quiet. Having language students was nice, like having a big sister around to talk about boys, friends, horrible teachers and to complain about my mom’s no-sugar-or-snacks policy.”

The students seemed to get a lot out of the family experience, too. Lis, a Brazilian student we still communicate with, says she got to see traditions unlike anything she knew, like taking shoes off when you came in and having the dog greet her at the door every day. “I felt really at home because I adopted your routines.”

Nicci said “in movies and TV shows, North Americans are portrayed as very cold people and that scared me a little, but I’m happy to say that was not the case, because you were always super welcoming. At some point, I saw you guys as my second family.”

Ozlem Sengul, who has been a homestay host for several years, has experience from both sides. Arriving in Canada from Turkey as a language student in 2000, she stayed with two very different families before getting her own place and attending college. Seven years ago, she and her husband retrofitted their bungalow and they now host three or four students at a time.

“I look at it as a second income and treat it as a business,” Sengul says, “but I also know how important it is for someone new, coming from the airport, to arrive at your door to a welcoming face. Every time a new student comes to my door, I am going back 18 years to my first moment.”

While most homestay arrangements run smoothly, some don’t. Sengul attributes it to the fact that “personalities don’t always match.”

That’s where ground rules come in, she adds, the most important being communication: “I always say talk to me if something isn’t going well for you.”

On her side, if there are problems, she lets students know, then allows two weeks to see improvements and to make sure it’s not her doing. If it’s not resolved, then she asks for help from the homestay department at ILAC. Other rules are common sense: clean up after yourself, and no showers or noise after 10 p.m.

“You have to remember that the students mostly are a little scared in a new country, and if they see you are nice to them, they open their hearts to you and become part of the family,” Sengul says.

You have to be organized to accommodate four students, care for a family and work full-time, says Sengul, who works in ILAC’s homestay department. “It was challenging at first, but then you learn, like in any business.”

Initially she did all the laundry, cooking and cleaning, but she quickly burnt out. Now, she shows them how to use the washer and dryer, gives them detergent, and tells them to do laundry on weekends and only with full loads. Three of the students have bedrooms and a kitchen in the bright, renovated basement, so they make their own breakfast and lunch.

Sengul cooks for seven or eight every night, so she budgets carefully, checks online flyers and cooks ahead three meals at a time. They all sit down together as a family for dinner, and they’re all on a WhatsApp group to let her know whether they’re home for dinner.

When Nicci arrived in Canada six years ago from Venezuela, her parents came with her, which I thought at the time was a little overprotective. After hearing stories of daily life in Caracas, I understood why: a friend kidnapped off the street, his girlfriend jumping out of the moving car to safety; the mugging of Nicci’s grandmother at the grocery store, and of her father in front of the apartment in their nice middle-class neighbourhood.

These cultural exchanges leave especially big impressions on your kids. As my daughter points out, “this wasn’t stuff we learned in elementary school. Nicci told us things we weren’t even getting in the news. What was eye-opening is that Canada isn’t like a lot of the world, and our experience of life is not everyone’s experience.”

Aya had been en route home to Japan from the U.K. when the 2011 earthquake caused the power plant meltdown in her home town of Fukushima. Her parents, worried about the effects of radiation on her (and future children), insisted she divert her travel to Canada and continue studying English.

In 2003, when Mami stayed with us briefly, she demonstrated on my daughter how to wear an authentic Japanese yukata (kimono), including the complicated tying of the obi. We took pictures. Last year, in a political science class, Anna used the story to argue that cultural appropriation is more about intent: “This was Mami’s way of showing us her culture and a way for us to celebrate that with her.”

Anna Zizys, in authentic Japanese garb, after being shown the proper way by a visiting student in 2003. (COURTESY ALEX NEWMAN)

Students and families often forge deep connections — Sengul and her family will attend the wedding of a former Japanese student and will stay with them. Nicci, who recently returned to Canada as a graphic design student, will spend Thanksgiving with us. We keep in touch with Lis and Aya via Facebook and email.

It’s not so surprising considering that these kids become part of the family while they’re here — and you’re a replacement parent. As Lis says, “being away from your family, and all that is familiar, you end up creating a more special bond with the host family. I remember on the last day that I didn’t want to come home.”​

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