I literally said it. "What, I thought every family had strangers living in their house?"
It was the summer of 2003. A month prior my family had found out that I was gay, and their response was an ultimatum: either repent and become an ex-gay, or get out of the house, and I chose the latter.
With that one bold declaration I started a new life. One night I had Christian friends and a church family to support and love me; the next morning I stood with just one friend by my side. It was strange, bizarre, surreal; I was 18 years old and suddenly this new life brought many grand realizations--one being that, no, not every family allows foreigners who don't speak much English to live in the extra rooms of their house.
My mother called it "Harbor House", and it was a ministry of hers to introduce international students to what an American family is actually like. Her interest was to share with them the love of Christ; her benefit was that it paid the mortgage. They would eat breakfast with us, check in to make sure my sister and I were doing our studies and even came to family functions with us. We celebrated their birthdays as if they were just part of the family. We took them grocery shopping as if we were all brothers and sisters. My mother even wrote "Harbor Lights", a Harbor House newsletter welcoming the new students, printing up the weekly dinner menus and discussing house news. It was like an international dorm, and it was what we called home.
It'd be an understatement to say the array of people who came through that house were unique. Who could forget Joseph Arbiza, the Ecuadorian house painter who eventually ended up joining a cult? Or what about Zhui-Ping, the Chinese man whose name sounded like "Sweeping"? I'll always remember Mercedes, my Hungarian roommate-slash-science teacher during the years I was home-schooled. And of course there was Hiroko, the daughter of a Japanese Executive at Fuji Film who could outspend the GDP of Finland. The most traumatizing Harbor Housemate may have been Grace, the older African lady who was convinced I was possessed by demons and literally tried washing the little devils off of me...
I can remember great Thanksgiving feasts with food from all over the world. The day when Dawn, the architect from Guyana, became a US citizen is one of my proudest memories in The United States. My all-time favorite memory involves Nadagjeay, the student from Nigeria with the complicated name (we just started calling her "Nadi"). When Nadi was leaving after living with us for six months, the whole Harbor House Family got together to say goodbye. Just as Nadagjeay was getting into her car, my mother blurted out, "Wait, before you go--how do you say your name?!". It may or may not have been the most hilarious thing to say to someone you just lived with for half a year.
Altogether my sister and I probably lived with 30 different people during our lifetime. And this was normal. This was typical. This was usual. Or so I thought.
It was only about a month after moving out of my parents' home that I came to the realization that this was not normal. But, looking back, it certainly provided a strange initiation into other people's culture. And, if nothing else, at least I have bizarre bragging rights! I mean, how many children do you know that grew up eating Russian pancakes for breakfast, Hungarian Goulash for lunch and barbecued Japanese eel for dinner?