When I was in 8th grade, I had the opportunity to be a part of a new student exchange program in our school district. The travel would be during the summer break before going into high school. There were about 20 students from the six middle schools in town who were forced to get along so that we could represent our country well. Many individuals and organizations around town sponsored the local students so that we could afford the expenses of our trip, and most of the outings. It was a unique experience.
Our families did not "exchange" us with some foreign kids. The kids from Mexico stayed in our homes and we spent a whole month together, doing some classes at a school (computers and language) and taking field trips. Living in southern California, there were plenty of places to go. We were even interviewed on a local radio station! When our new friends left California, the American students followed them to their hometown just a few days later to stay in their homes, do more schooling (culture and language), and go on field trips.
Going to Mexico as a student was a big first for me. Besides having never been to Mexico, it was also the first time in an airplane. I still have several photos (yes, prints!) of my trip. I may even have a peso or two. I turned 14 years old in Mexico, and my friends threw me a surprise birthday party! When I arrived back home in the States, it took some time to adjust. The first thing I said the next morning was "Buenos dias". I stayed friends for years with several of the people who were part of the program. We continued to get together for birthday parties and mini-reunions. Although I studied a language other than Spanish in high school and college, I had a better understanding of it just because of the crash course in Spanish I had.
That trip as a young teenager has taught me a few things. In college, I again traveled to another country to study for a semester. After my husband and I were married, God sent us to two different states to minister. Although I lived in the same city for most of my life, I can only call it my hometown and not my home. I know what it is like to be the outsider or the "foreigner". I am the one with the accent, the one who may dress a bit differently than everyone else and not know much about the local culture.
All of my travels have taught me to be more sensitive to those who are the "outsiders". When I taught in Oklahoma, I was constantly scolding my students when they were mistreating the newer students. There was a lack of compassion for most people who were not from there. I was still learning the culture of the school (yes, there is such thing as school culture), and getting used to a whole new environment. I was constantly asking students and staff questions about how things were done. "Who picks the homecoming queen?" "What is a snow day?" "How do I arrange for a substitute teacher?" I exasperated many with my questions, and I often made it worse by inserting "Well, this is not how my old school did it."
I have learned that there is often more than one way of doing things, and what I am used to is not always the best thing. Learning about other places and other people can only benefit you. I can not control other people, but I can control what I say to others. A smile is not the only way to be kind, but it is a start. Expecting someone new to a place to know how things are done, is expecting too much. Expect to be helpful, if given the opportunity. How would you want to be treated, if you were put in that same situation?
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12