Siyan Yu is a 21-year-old from the People’s Republic of China who is studying computer engineering at Georgia Tech. Her native language is Mandarin, but she speaks fluent English, as well as Italian and French. She self-identifies as an agnostic. She is a confident, sophisticated young woman who seems at ease in a foreign culture.

Maria Angelica Teran, 27, arrived in the U.S. from Columbia just a few weeks ago, and speaks very little English. A devout Catholic, she goes to church twice a day with her mother back in Columbia. Interviewed by the Review three days after arriving at O’Hare Airport, she was working hard at learning how to use public transportation and acquiring the basic English vocabulary she needs to function in the Chicago metro area.

Strange bedfellows, you might say, until you learn they’re both living with longtime Forest Park residents Mark and Cindy Waldron for the summer. Siyan is doing an internship in the Chicago area, and Maria is studying English at the Stafford House, a language school on Michigan Avenue in the Loop.

Siyan and Maria are the latest of the 35 international students who have lived with the Waldrons during the last 10 years. The international encounters began about 15 years ago when they hosted a Slovakian exchange student at Walther Lutheran High School in Melrose Park, where their sons Ben and Lucas were enrolled.

When their boys headed to college, and when the second unit of the two-flat they own became available, they realized they had three empty bedrooms, which they could use to expand their exchange student hosting. In the past decade they’ve shared meals, chores and conversations with students from Korea, Japan, China, Switzerland, France, Spain, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia.

For Maria, who has never lived outside her home country before, the Waldron two-flat is a safe place to come home to after exploring an often bewildering new environment. Siyan, who is more comfortable in new places and cultures, likes living with the Waldrons because she is being exposed to a real American family.

In her experience at Georgia Tech, she noted, international students tend to stick together for emotional safety and resist venturing out into America society. Therefore miss a lot.

Although computer engineering is available in China, computer education is better in the U.S., but she also wanted “to experience something different.” She said her time in the U.S. had “definitely” changed her.

“Everyone changes all the time,” she observed. “I don’t know if this environment changed me or if it’s simply my age.” Being here has made her “more humble” in the sense of recognizing that her culture’s way of doing things isn’t the only way.

Maria had difficulty putting into words what impact her time in the U.S. has had on her. She explained that her career in Columbia is in international relations, and speaking English is essential to that kind of work because it really is the global language.

Learning goes both ways, of course. Cindy remarked how much her picture of Asia has changed. She learned for example, how Japanese culture differs from China. Siyan acknowledged that “some Chinese don’t get along with Japanese for the same reason that some Jewish people don’t like Germans. I don’t think it’s anything about personality. I have a Japanese friend, and I’m willing to make friends with Japanese people, but we’ll never forget what they did to China [in WWII].”

Hosting students from all over the world has enabled Cindy to put a face on places that previously were just locations on a map. 

“Another way hosting these students has changed me,” she said, “is that I couldn’t possibly think of going to war with China because I would never want anything bad to happen to Siyan.”

Some of what she has learned makes her laugh. Siyan explained that Mandarin is a tonal language in which the word for “4” sounds very much like the word for “hell.” Just as some American hotels won’t have a 13th floor for superstitious reasons, some Chinese buildings don’t have a fourth floor.

Mark, who is director of Educational and Synodical Placement at Concordia University in River Forest, said his daily encounters with people from different cultures has changed him. 

“You can’t know another culture without knowing people from that culture,” he observed. “I know something about the culture of Columbia from knowing Maria, which I can’t learn from reading a book.”

It’s a two-way street, Cindy noted. “There are so many students who come to America, go to the colleges in our area and have never shared a meal with an American family in their home. So the students staying with us will sometimes find those students and bring them to our house for dinner.

“Diversity is not a black and white issue,” she said. “That is so archaic. Our society has so many cultures and so many languages. To be stuck in that black-and-white thing is to be stuck in the past.”

“Hosting international students,” Mark added, “has been especially helpful for me in these times because, apart from the Muslims we’ve had in our home, what we ‘know’ about Muslims comes from what we hear in the news, and that’s usually not good, nor always accurate. There isn’t a Muslim we’ve ever talked to who hasn’t said that it’s against God’s law to kill other people. When you actually hear from them what they really believe, you begin to see and understand their culture in a new way.”

“I think appreciating diversity is something we grow into,” he continued. “People who have lived in Forest Park for more than 50 years can remember when the first black family moved into town and what a big deal it was. Now we live together. 

“To appreciate diversity, you have to be intentional about it. It’s not just a matter of putting up with diversity but valuing it. We are better people because we have experienced multiple cultures and have learned how to get along. We don’t just tolerate each other; we value each other.”

Like their present house guest from Columbia, the Waldrons are devout Christians, but that has not prevented them from being impacted by the non-Christians or even non-religious people they have encountered. 

“What being exposed to people who believe differently than I do, Mark explained, has strengthened my own faith. Because it challenges me to question what I believe, sometimes the questioning leads to a more solid faith, and sometimes it causes me to change how I understand something in scripture. It certainly increases my respect for other people’s beliefs.

“When I was growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, everyone was the same,” he said. “Having international students frankly gives us an opportunity to show other cultures what Christians are like. If Muslims grow up in Libya, they don’t rub elbows with Christians. Having them live with us is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach. We don’t see our role as converting our non-Christian students because we know that the best way to engage in evangelism is to be in relationships with people. Then I think it happens naturally around the dinner table or when questions come up about how we live or what we believe.

“We don’t know how God will use the relationships we build,” he said, “nor how they will influence people down the road. That’s not our place, and besides, we don’t need to know.”

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