By Landon Kuhlmann
Already eight people (and six kids) strong, Katy couple April and Sean Bray have opened their home as a host family for dual exchange students each year since 2014 hoping to help them experience the American culture, and say it was the best decision the family ever made.
The Brays are a host family with Ayusa International, a non-profit organization promoting global learning and leadership through high school student cultural exchanges. Already six kids strong, the family has hosted two students--Mahau Conti-Granteral from France and Genzo Niimi from Japan--in 2016 and four since beginning. Both students have been attending Mayde Creek High School.
New appreciation begins it all
As a teenager, April had previously been sent back to her native Peru as to live with family after falling prey to what she called the “American entitlement.”
After a several-month stay, she said her entire view regarding her native culture and understanding unfamiliar ones changed.
“I had a whole new appreciation for what I had but I also enjoyed seeing their culture, so ever since then I was curious as to all the other cultures out there,” she remembered. “This is now our way of traveling around the world in a way because they come here and share their culture with us.”
“It’s just amazing how the manners are completely different, how you say things can have totally different meanings,” she added. “Even certain hand gestures we normally do can be offensive to the other cultures—we’ve enjoyed learning the different things.”
April sees the decision to become a host family as one of the best the family has ever made.
“[The students] quickly become a part of your family and it's always a great feeling to see their eyes light up when they experience something for the first time or hear the excitement in their voices when they tell you about a new friend they made at school,” she said. “There is no greater feeling than watching our students succeed and grow and being able to share our culture and learn more about theirs.”
As always, however, the life changes extend both directions. April said Genzo originally desired attending college in Tokyo, but has opened a door on the possibility of studying in America due to his experience this year.
“We hear such great stories, they do such great things,” April said. “It’s a good feeling that we could’ve done something to contribute to their success because we gave them the opportunity to study here for a year.”
“It’s been wonderful, I can’t wait to see where they end up,” she added
History of blended cultures
The Brays are no stranger to diversity and a melting pot of cultures. Sean himself hails from Wisconsin, while April has a “southern belle” mom and Peruvian culture on her father’s side, while the father of her first three children is a first-generation Mexican-American.
April believes having been exposed to so many different cultures from an extremely young age streamlined the adaptation and adjustment process for the couple’s children when they began hosting in 2014.
“Since my kids are used to having different cultures, they have adjusted rather well,” she said. “They’ve enjoyed it immensely.”
Sharing more than cultures
Not only did the children adapt, April said, but unbreakable bonds have been forged between the children and the students over the course of the school year.
“Giosué (my son) and Mahau have become each other’s confidants, then you’ve got Armani (my youngest) who’s gotten extremely close to Genzo,” she said. “There’s a lot of attachment there—it’ll be hard on them (my kids) whenever they (Mahau and Genzo) go back home.”
“My host family is so nice to me and I feel like this family is the home I can go back to,” Genzo has said according to an Ayusa release. “They make me feel like I’m loved by them. Of course you can share your culture and learn the language but more importantly, you experience the other family you love.”
The Brays expanding their family during this time has also had a noticeable impact on those in the community around them. April said the family’s neighbor across the street has grown close to Genzo.
“She’s actually considering it (hosting) now that she’s seen some of my students—she’s thinking that it’s fun and she’d like to do it for her kids,” she said.
For Genzo in particular, Sean noted that the chance to immerse himself in the American culture did wonders for his pick up of the language that his training in Japan never could.
“They knew a lot of written when they learn it in the Asian countries but they don’t do a whole lot of spoken. ‘Yes’ was the answer to a lot of things because he didn’t know what he was saying,” Sean said. “Now he’s fluent—the amount he’s picked up in nine months here is like six years of being in Japan. It’s just amazing the leaps and bounds the kids make.”
On the home front, Sean said expanding their family also serves as a way to further expose the family’s children to the difference in cultures and open their eyes to how others view America.
“People come over here and are like ‘whoa, you have so much,’” he said. “We take for granted a lot of things, but the American Dream is still alive in a lot of countries.”
“Your children also get to gain another brother or sister and it's always fun to see them trying to learn your exchange student's language or customs,” April added.
Small world after all
The now ever-connected family may now soon depart to different hemispheres, but have created bonds which will last a lifetime--and should not have any trouble keeping in touch with their new American family.
“As small as the world is now with all the social media, the world has shrunk,” Sean said. “You go back 15 years, the world’s not as big as it was then—everyone’s attached.”
Family: Not blood alone
What has been successful for the Brays is their belief that the students welcomed into their home are as much their family during their time in America as their own children.
“They’re not a guest, they’re your family. She (Mahau) is my daughter for life. If she doesn’t meet expectations I’m not just going to say ‘Oh I don’t want to make my guest mad.’ Talk to them,” Sean said. “Just like with your own kids, you’re not going to be silent if something’s bothering you.”
Though he said the students (like any teenager) have become upset at times, Sean said it eventually becomes water under the bridge due to the familial bond now created.
“It’s crazy how much you can love people you didn’t know 10 months before,” Mahau has said according to an Ayusa release. “Every day they make my exchange year great. I consider them like a member of my family. They are the reason why I enjoyed every single day of my new life.”