Host families share more than holiday traditions
By NICOLE R. ZIMMERMAN / Cotati and Rohnert Park Correspondent
Each holiday season, Jeanine and Leo Antone of Rohnert Park share a typical Christmas dinner with their family.
Jeanine Antone cooks ham or prime rib along with potatoes, carrots, salad and either pumpkin or pecan pie with ice cream, which their 4- and 6-year-old grandchildren devour.
But the meal, along with most holiday traditions, is nothing typical for their principal guest. Megumi Tateyama is a Japanese student the Antones have hosted in their home since mid-October.
For 20 years, the couple has welcomed students attending the Sonoma State American Language Institute who have come from as far away as Venezuela, Indonesia, Poland, Turkey, Korea and Saudi Arabia.
“The students are polite, very smart and very patient,” says Leo Antone. “When the program needs a family home for a student, a place to learn the culture and be safe, we just never say no.”
Tateyama, 21, doesn’t celebrate Christmas in her hometown of Saga because she is Buddhist. But she also says Christmas in Japan is usually reserved for children and couples.
This year’s family-oriented celebration is unique for her, one the Antones are excited to share. They brought home a big tree for her to help decorate, asked if she wanted to help wrap presents and took her on a tour of the holiday lights in C section. Santa Claus might even come to the house sometime before Christmas Day.
Tateyama is one of 40 students that participated in the language institute during the fall semester, about 75% of whom stay with host families. During the past academic year, the students have represented 24 countries and 17 languages.
Siqi “Selene” Li, an 18-year-old student from Beijing, has been in the U.S. just three months but has plans to stay for five years.
Beginning in January, she will attend early childhood education classes at SSU with the ongoing support of her advanced ESL classes.
Describing Christmas in China, Li says it’s customary to eat “hot pot” for each meal of the week, a simmering pot of soup into which slices of meat and vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and potatoes are added. She anticipates this Christmas will be different.
In November, “we had turkey for seven days!” she says, laughing about the Thanksgiving feast she shared with her German-American host family.
Li enjoys playing games and drawing with her 10-year-old host brother and 7-year-old host sister. They gave her the gift of a teddy bear and together made Christmas pop-up cards and decorated the house for the holiday.
Most of the program’s students come from non-Christian backgrounds, says Barbara McCall, international student coordinator and assistant to the director. Retiring this semester, she has matched host families with students for 15 of her 27 years at SSALI.
“When it comes to Christmas, the students tend to be easy-going and tolerant, as do our host families,” she says.
“Both sides know that they need to respect the other and to use the time here to learn and broaden their horizons about different beliefs and traditions.”
Yu-Chia “James” Chang, 24, says his host family now cooks rice for him. In a unique twist on holiday leftovers, he even made them turkey fried rice.
Chang says of his host family’s holiday tradition: “They eat too much, so when they finish a meal they walk outside, even in cold weather.”
After a trip to Los Angeles, Chang plans to return to Taipei, Taiwan, where he says Christmas decorations are also a big deal, especially in the department stores.
His biggest form of culture shock came when his host family took him to volunteer at their church, passing out plates and utensils to 300 people in need of a free meal.
“They wore the same clothes as me,” he says. “Some were well educated or had a degree. If they walked on the street, I wouldn’t realize they are homeless.”
Although he won’t be with his host family during the holiday, he received a gift of hot cocoa powder, which he will take back home to share with his own family.
The Language Institute has six entry dates for students throughout the year and is always looking for host families, especially in the summer when the program expands.
“We eat together as a family each night to talk about the day,” says Jeanine Antone. “It’s a home, not just a room.”
Interested in hosting a student? Contact SSALI Director Helen Kallenbach at 664-2742 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.