By Rachel Madison
When Jared and Christine Sudekum sent their son, Joshua, off to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Bangkok, Thailand, last summer, they had no idea how much the Thai culture would become part of their family.
“We got an email in our neighborhood group that there was an exchange student that needed emergency placement,” Jared Sudekum said. “I shot an email back and said, ‘We might be interested.’”
After learning that the student, 16-year-old Roypim “Ai” Taksaniwattakul, was from Bangkok, Thailand, the Sudekums knew she needed to be a part of their family.
“What a coincidence,” Sudekum said. “We wanted to learn the same culture that our son’s living in. Ai had been in school for four or five weeks in Florence and then Killeen. She got to us in October.”
When Taksaniwattakul first joined their family, Christine Sudekum said they were constantly asking her questions because their son was in her country.
“In the beginning, especially because our son is over there, it was, ‘What is the food like? What’s sleeping like? What are the stores like?’” she said. “We were shooting questions all the time. I think we’ve lessened up a little bit, but we still ask a lot of questions. The culture is so different and it’s just so interesting.”
Taksaniwattakul is an only child, but since moving in with the Sudekums, she’s gained twin 14-year-old “sisters,” Madison and Cassidy. She’s also discovered a love for theater, and recently played the role of an old man in LHHS’ production of “Sweet Charity.” Taksaniwattakul also just joined the LHHS tennis team.
“It’s been fun watching Ai integrate,” Jared Sudekum said. “She was in the school play and was actively involved with that. It’s fun to watch her light up when we do something different and new to her.”
This is Taksaniwattakul’s first time in America. Her main reason for becoming a foreign exchange student was “to have a new experience,” she said. Since coming to Liberty Hill, she’s been surprised by how much open land there is—a far cry from what she’s used to at home in Bangkok. She’s also discovered an affinity for roasted Brussel sprouts and fell in love with Christmas, although she was surprised by how much celebrating actually occurs during the holiday season.
The Sudekums are happy with their decision to host Taksaniwattakul, not just because they’re learning about the culture their son is living in, but also because they’re broadening their own horizons.
“As Americans we think of America as the world, but it’s nice to show our kids that there are other places in the world,” Christine Sudekum said. “It’s not just America and just our way of living. Broadening our horizons and expanding our cultural awareness has been important.”
Joshua and Jennifer Garrett were at a local home show when they saw a booth with information on hosting foreign exchange students. They were used to having extra children in their home because they had been foster parents for many years, so they were immediately interested.
“We thought, ‘We could do this,’” Jennifer Garrett said. “We knew this would be a different experience because we’d get a peek at a different culture.”
That’s when Dayeon Yong, 16, of Seoul, South Korea, entered the picture.
Yong wanted to become a foreign exchange student because she wanted “to get an American education and learn the culture,” she said.
While the Garretts didn’t know what to expect because they’ve never hosted a foreign exchange student, or raised a teenager for that matter, they’ve been impressed with Yong.
“She set the standard really high for future foreign exchange students,” Jennifer Garrett said. “She molded her way into the family and she’s even assigned herself chores. She saw where needs were and she took over. For example, she always makes lunches for everyone for school. She’s very respectful and I really admire that.”
Over the last few months, Jennifer Garrett said their family has also learned that the South Korean culture is very considerate of others.
“No one leaves the table after a meal until everyone is finished, and if someone sees a wallet on the ground, they’re excited to give the wallet back to who it belongs to,” Jennifer Garrett said.
At home, Yong has a younger sister and many young cousins, so she’s enjoyed spending time with the Garretts’ children, Stephanie, 9; Caleb, 7; and Sarah, 5. In return, they have loved having a “big sister” the last few months.
“Our kids really love Dayeon,” Jennifer Garrett said. “They have a really strong attachment to her. And she wants to be with them. She’s very good with children.”
While Yong has been in Texas, she’s spent time volunteering with the animals at the Central Texas SPCA in Leander and she helped to pack shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child during the holidays. She’s also looking for more opportunities to volunteer and hopes to be able to help at a local assisted living home in the near future.
In addition to her volunteer work, Yong has also enjoyed being a student at LHHS.
“She’s very studious,” Jennifer Garrett said. “She always gets her homework done without being asked. She’s very self-sufficient and motivated.”
Yong’s favorite part of school is her art class, particularly because she loves to draw.
“She’s an outstanding artist,” Jennifer Garrett said. “If you ever see her drawings, they are just beautiful. She can do everything from pencil drawings to 3D art.”
Yong has also learned quickly that Texas is like “one country,” and she’s been surprised by how long it takes to drive anywhere—something she’s not used to back home. She has also enjoyed traveling with her host family over the last few months, particularly their trip to Six Flags. And when it comes to food, her favorite discovery so far is turkey with cranberry sauce—something she encountered while celebrating Thanksgiving for the first time.
Overall, Joshua Garrett said the experience has been amazing for his entire family.
“We’re learning about South Korean culture and it’s been a real blessing to our family,” he said. “We really want to impact our children by letting them know there’s more than just what you see around the corner from you. There’s a whole world out there.”
Yong and Taksaniwattakul are a part of the Counsel on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program. Paige Johnson, the CIEE local coordinator, said the program was founded in 1947 and is the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit study abroad organization.
Through CIEE’s USA High School program, international high school students come to the United States to experience American culture as part of their schooling by living with an American host family and attending a U.S. high school. Students are also required to volunteer in their host communities and are encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities.
“CIEE provides a life changing cultural exchange opportunity to help families, students and schools gain new perspectives,” Johnson said. “It’s almost like a diplomatic program. We’re helping to change students’ perspectives of the U.S. that often get skewed. By coming into a family, they can see what America is really like. I’m the local coordinator now, but my husband and I have hosted three exchange students ourselves and we still keep in touch with them almost daily.”
In Johnson’s area, which is a 100-mile radius around Cedar Park, there are six host families and seven students, including Yong and Taksaniwattakul. The students come for the academic school year, which means they arrive in August and leave in June.
“These students usually go all in,” Johnson said. “There are some challenges along the way with some culture shock, but typically by the end of their experience they are sad to go and their host family is sad to see them go. When you give a student the opportunity to explore our culture, they’re able to gain new values, traditions and languages. And in return, host families learn about a different culture and hopefully enjoy a lifelong relationship with their student.”
For more information about becoming a host family, contact Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (541) 760-9300.