By MORGAN MANNS
Americans say ‘family.’
The Chinese say ‘jiatíng.’
The French say ‘famille.’
The Spanish say ‘familia.’
Regardless the language, Webster’s Dictionary primarily defines ‘family’ as “a group of people who are related to each other.”
However, local families are experiencing a different meaning, one not shared by blood, marriage or coexistence; rather, shared by a mutual feeling of love.
Heather and Jason Combs opened their West Ohio 18 home to an international student from China during the 2013-2014 academic year. Zelong Li, or Alon Lee, was a senior at St. Wendelin Catholic School in the school’s International Program.
“Being a host family just means that you’re open to let someone else come into your family,” Heather said. “It means being open to learning and taking the time to communicate.”
Lee, who is a 2014 graduate of St. Wendelin, has lived with the Combs’ for the past year and attended the school for two years.
Lee and the Combs spend time together as a family, going skiing and snow tubing, traveling to Florida and indoor water parks, and partaking in simple activities such as going to the movies or the grocery store.
“We’ve gotten to learn a lot about the Chinese culture from him and he’s gotten to learn a lot about the American culture from us,” Heather said. “Sometimes there are cultural differences that I think you have to take the time to figure out where each other is coming from. It’s different but it’s fun.”
Lee said he is grateful for the experience he has had living with his host family and attending St. Wendelin, saying that it has helped him learn about American ways and terminology and helped him prepare for an American college experience.
“Before, I wouldn’t be comfortable with other cultures or customs,” he said. “For instance, I wouldn’t have known that Americans love football so much. I’m glad to have the experience before I go to college.”
The purpose of the program is to give the students the opportunity to study here, graduate and attend a college in the states, according to Heather.
According to Lee, he wanted to attend a small, private school for a change. In China, there were roughly 20,000 students at Lee’s school, with four to five million people living in his hometown near Beijing.
“I didn’t want to go to like New York or California because they have too many extra attractions,” he said. “I wanted to worry about focusing on studies and school. It’s a pretty nice area down here and it’s such a quiet town for high school kids.”
Lee will be leaving in the fall to attend the University of Dayton for mechanical engineering. The Combs said their house will always be open to Lee when he wants to come home for the holidays or other occasions.
Heather said one of her favorite parts is having a son, adding that she and Jason only have one child: a four-year-old daughter, Kinley, who they adopted from China when she was 11 months old.
Kinley said she likes having an older brother, who she calls ‘Ge Ge,’ which means ‘big brother’ in Chinese. Lee was also an only child and said he enjoys having a little sister. The two said they share a love for music.
During an interview with the Review Times recently, Kinley asked Lee to sing with her, saying, “Come on Lee, sing a song.”
Lee played the guitar while Kinley strummed along and both sang “Let it Go,” from Frozen, and “Roar,” by Katy Perry.
Heather said they were unsure about whether or not they wanted to become a host family because Kinley was so young; however, she said they are glad they took the opportunity to allow both of their children to learn about both cultures.
“Now we have an even bigger connection to China,” she said, adding they communicate with Lee’s parents in China through Skype and email. “Lee is a part of our family now and (his parents) are a part of our family now too because we all care about the same person.”
The 2014-2015 academic year will be St. Wendelin’s third year offering the International Program, according to Elizabeth Herman, International Program coordinator.
“With the world becoming more and more global, these opportunities are becoming more important to younger generations,” she said. “(The program) is a great cultural exchange opportunity and lets other students see another perspective.”
Students are encouraged to join clubs and other school activities and to be active in the community. Currently, international students are not permitted to participate in sports; however, Herman said the school is trying to change that.
This past school year, St. Wendelin had approximately 15 international students, according to Herman, ranging from China to Thailand to Austria to Korea. She said she expects there to be the same number of students, if not more, in the coming year coming from Mexico, Vietnam and Germany in addition to the previously listed areas.
“We give students the chance to come to school in America and get the American family experience,” Herman said. “It’s a good experience because it gives the host family a chance to learn about a new culture as well.”
St. Wendelin is seeking host families for the upcoming academic year, according to Herman. Applicants must “have time to treat the kids as a family member and not a tenant,” must be accepting of other cultures and must complete a thorough application process.
A home visit will be made by Herman to ensure the family has a bed for the student and other appropriate means to care for them, as well as reliable means of transportation to and from school.
Families do not need to be members of St. Wendelin Parish to be eligible for the program.
The school is accepting applications through July 4. To apply to become a host family, contact Herman at 419-619-2055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I would say if they’re thinking about it, that they should do it,” Heather said regarding potential host families. “Expect an adjustment period. Be willing to open your doors and try to embrace some of their culture. The students are so happy to be here and they’re eager to learn.
“It is what you make of it and if you’re willing to have the patience and compassion to let someone into your life, it’s going to be a really good experience all around.”