Even with the start of high school for our youngest daughter, Ingrid, and EKU for Mason and me looming last month, I figured we could squeeze in a quick trip to China in the waning days of summer. It would give us a chance to learn a few words and phrases from another language. Get reacquainted with a different culture. Practice eating with chopsticks. See how things have changed since my last trip there in 2006.
But, there was no time to book last minute reservations. Dust off our passports. Pack our bags. Sedate Mason who hates to fly. We only had a few precious days available. So, we tried the next best thing. We agreed to host a college student from Beijing for a couple of weeks. Her name: Angel.
We've hosted international students before -- from Germany, Japan, China and Kenya -- from several months to two years. Thanks to the Internet and assorted Apps, we've managed to stay in touch and even travel to see them.
Now, there was a bonus reason for opening our home to Angel. I'd been trying all summer to finish renovating our guest room. Nothing fancy, but progress had been excruciatingly slow. I hoped a deadline of her arrival would help speed things up. Which it did.
By the time we met Angel at the airport, we'd finished painting the room, set up a bed, and color-coordinated the comforter, rug, storage bins and artwork with motivational messages. I'd cleared out the billowing prom dresses from the closet. And corralled renegade stuffed animals scattered around the room. It looked so inviting, I considered moving in there myself.
Angel turned out to be an ideal guest. Quite conversational once she got over jet lag. I especially enjoyed our morning talks at breakfast. My own family is always too rushed to sit down to eat the waffles, pancakes, French toast and oatmeal I love preparing. So, after they dashed off to school, my breakfast buddy and I could calmly consume our meal while chatting about her studies in Beijing (international taxation), her family (only child to a factory supervisor and political science instructor), favorite places to travel (by train to southern China to relax on beautiful beaches), and hobbies -- playing the Pipa, a traditional stringed instrument of China.
Of course I had to show her my dulcimers since that's the state instrument of Kentucky. Angel caught on quickly, and after only a few minutes of explaining the tablature and chords, we quickly moved from playing simple songs to harmonizing on duets.
Another plus: Angel was a sport, ready and willing to try whatever activities we suggested. We hiked at the UK Arboretum, Lake Reba and Camp Catalpa (until we discovered a snake on the trail). Watched the harness-racing horses as they ran through their paces at The Red Mile in Lexington. Played miniature golf and shuffleboard at Adventure Falls. Even rubbed the big toe of EKU's Daniel Boone statue for good luck.
At Pleasant Hill, Angel tried to comprehend the depth of Shaker beliefs as they created their "heaven on earth" -- whirling, twirling, stomping and singing their worship songs that could be heard from miles away.
Along with about 12 other younger Chinese exchange students, Angel traveled to Corbin to visit the original KFC restaurant (a little disappointing because she expected a larger museum to honor the Colonel), Cumberland Falls and The Kentucky Horse Park.
She sampled southern food like spoonbread, fried green tomatoes and Kettle Korn. Tolerated all the lunchtime sandwiches we fed her (bread is not a staple in the Chinese diet). And enjoyed a respite as we dined at our favorite noodle restaurants. Angel had also generously brought an assortment of Chinese treats, from steamed cakes to cookies and candies, for us to try.
At Berea, she shopped for gifts -- looking for handcrafted items that weren't made in China. She posed with all the uniquely painted "Hand" statues stationed around town and we tried to get the hang of the tabletop game of Skittles (which is like bowling, where you spin a top to knock over pins).
On one of her first days here, Angel donned an EKU T-shirt and joined us in welcoming the freshman class as they marched ceremoniously through the Turner Gate. The next week, she sat in on several of Mason's English classes and three Communication courses, including my Public Speaking class.
My students were amazed to learn that at Beijing University, Angel attends classes from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. Each class has about 300 students. And each involves lecture only, no discussion, but plenty of note-taking. Quite a contrast to their own EKU schedules.
As with all travels, this visit ended much too soon. But, Angel might return to the U.S. for graduate school in a few years. I hope she looks us up so we can continue (vicariously) our travels to China.