An email came from my Chinese friend, Liangying, Lia, on 31 May 2017 saying: “We just want to tell you again that we really appreciate your kindness and help through this whole time.” My husband and I had planned to attend her and her American boyfriend, Max’s wedding in California on July 7 that year, but had to cancel, because it would have been too complicated to fit it in with our other summer travel plans. I felt sad because I loved these two young people I had learned to know through the friendship program, FlagFriends, I was running for five years.
The purpose of Flagfriends was to match foreign university students from the Northern Arizona University with local American families, couples (=hosts) and singles giving both parties an insight into each other’s cultures and helping the students feel more at home in the little mountain town in Northern Arizona. The only commitment both parties had to make was to meet each other at least once a month during the student’s first semester. But in many cases the communication and meeting continued over years as long as the student stayed in Flagstaff and sometimes many years afterwards.
When I started coordinating this program I had a selfish idea of learning to get to know people in Flagstaff where we bought a second home in 2014. I knew I might be spending much time in Flagstaff and wanted to get most out of my stays there. Because I would not be continuously in Flagstaff, I had to look for activities that I could start and stop at short notice, or mainly do online. One of them was FlagFriends that had been run by an elderly couple who only spent summer months close to Flagstaff. They were coordinating the program mainly by phone, but because they had some health issues, they foresaw that they would not be able to do it much longer.
When I volunteered to take over the program I thought that if I moved all the coordination online I would be able manage it from anywhere in the world. I knew this might lead to losing some of the faithful local program participants who did not like using computers, but I started offering hands-on training using computers. It did not work out and I lost many participants. For a while I had to intensely focus on finding new hosts by talking at various events, announcing on social media, distributing info folders and biking around displaying small posters at notice boards at libraries, cafes, swimming halls and wherever possible..
Finding international students who wanted to be part of the program, was much easier. The Centre for International Education at Northern Arizona University promoted the program. I was invited to have a table and meet students at semiannual orientation sessions for foreign students and at international fairs. The first year I had about 100 “active” hosts and a couple hundred students . All these interested parties had filled applications in paper format. Therefore I found myself crawling on my living room floor in Denmark, distributing the applications in piles according to countries and interests of the participants. When I thought I found a good match, I sent emails to both parties telling them about each other and asking the host to propose a place and time for the first meeting with the student.
Sometimes it worked fine, sometimes not. Both students and hosts could come back and ask for a new match. Since there were many more students than locals, I also got many inquiries from students as to why no hosts were contacting them. In addition to the discrepancy in number between the two categories there were other reasons not every student was chosen. One of the most frequent ones was that many hosts were interested in certain countries or certain languages. Maybe they wanted to meet a student from a French or Spanish speaking country to practice their language skills. Maybe they had an adopted child from Russia or Vietnam and wanted to befriend a student specifically from those countries.
Many of the interested students were from large cities in China. In their applications, they sometimes had listed as their interests “eating, shopping and watching television”. The local Americans, on the other hand, had often listed their interests as “hiking and other outdoors sports”. Despite this discrepancy in interests, I still tried to fit these groups together, not always successfully.
It is understandable if you have lived your whole life in a huge city without seeing many trees or other nature, you focus on what is possible in those circumstances, like eating and shopping, but Americans who choose to live up in the mountains of Northern Arizona, do it typically because of their love of nature. Anyhow, there are not many good places to shop or eat in Flagstaff.
However, Liangying’s application was different from that of typical Chinese students. She had grown up in a mountainous countryside in China. She had played flute for 14 years and was fond of all kinds of indoor and outdoor sports, as well as reading. Initially I thought it would be easy to match her with locals. I tried a couple of times, unsuccessfully. She met at least one of the proposed matches, but the host informed me that she wanted another student.
On my return to Flagstaff I focused on encouraging local hosts and others to invite unmatched students to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners so that these would get at least some insight into an American traditions. Further I invited interested Chinese students on tours at the only mall in Flagstaff, and the Chinese students interested in dancing, I suggested taking part in monthly contra dancing with me.
The only student who showed up to contra dancing was Liangying. She learned quickly the various turns of contra dancing and we had a good time. When the orchestra had a break, Liangying went to talk with the players and she was invited to rehearse and play with them later.
After that we occasionally met and sent each other emails. Luckily she had met Max, who was studying environmental sciences at the NAU, and therefore she did not need a local “FlagFriend”. The friendship with Max ended eventually in marriage, and now the young couple is living in San Diego. Now we correspond through Messenger, and we inquire about each other’s wellbeing. This gives me a feeling of continuity. I hope to see Lia and Max in Denmark some time in the future, when the world has become a safer place to travel.