Daniel Rose trimmed long, wet rice noodles into slurpable bits, while his classmate Peter Shaffer browned some ground chicken in a pot. The boys dumped both ingredients into a large bowl, and then Shaffer dug his fingers into the pile of food and began to toss.
The two high school freshmen were getting a hands-on education about a Hmong family’s dinner prep. It was just one activity during a weeklong homestay with the Vues, a multigenerational family in St. Paul.
Rose and Shaffer came to the Vues through City Stay, a program that places students in the homes of families with different backgrounds from their own. The teens didn’t have to travel far for this cultural exchange. They both live in Minneapolis.
“I wanted to see how other people really live,” said Rose, 14. “And I like to try different foods.”
City Stay takes the principles of study abroad — immersion, cultural exchange — and gives students a chance to experience them without ever leaving the country. Instead, it treats the Twin Cities’ diverse immigrant communities as real-world classrooms, acquainting folks with neighbors they might never meet otherwise.
In just a couple of days, Rose and Shaffer visited Hmong markets and tried foods they’d never had, such as spicy noodles and dragonfruit. They learned a few Hmong phrases, including “Let’s eat.”
They also attended a Hmong funeral, watched Hmong bullfighting movies and rap videos, and helped their host family’s young daughter with her math homework.
“I never had any interaction with the Hmong community before,” Shaffer said. Now, he and Rose plan to go back to the St. Paul markets they explored with their host family to bring these new flavors home.
People who’ve been involved in the program say hosts and guests benefit.
“It helps my children be more engaged to different cultures in the Twin Cities,” said See Vue, who hosted the boys. Her daughter Diav, 7, goes to a Hmong school, “so this helps her experience diversity.”
Crossing the dividing lines
St. Paul native Julie Knopp hatched the idea for the program after she returned from studying abroad in Thailand.
Living with a family there enriched the experience for her, and she wondered why she never had a similar exchange with people closer to home.
“I just thought, ‘This makes so much sense to me,’ ” she said. “I thought it could be a really powerful model for building strong communities and building trust between communities.”
She expected that a cultural exchange program existed in the Twin Cities, but couldn’t find one. So she started one herself. Now, running City Stay is just one of her jobs; she also teaches Spanish immersion kindergarten at a dual-language school in Richfield.
“The point is to build relationships across the dividing lines of Twin Cities communities,” said Knopp, 28. “When a student builds a relationship with a host family, that connection has a ripple.”
About 70 students have gone through the program, with more added each year as high schools sign on. Although shorter term stays are possible, a typical City Stay experience lasts a week.
During the day, students volunteer with an English as a second language program or attend lectures from community members. At night, they immerse themselves in the home life of their hosts, who are mainly Hmong, Somali and Latin American.
The Minnehaha Academy students got to take part through a weeklong field experience that’s part of their curriculum. Knopp works with other schools, too, but applications aren’t open to the general public. The cost of the program — about $250 per student for food, transportation and laundry during the week — is funded by donations. (More information is at mycitystay.org.)
While feedback from participants — students and hosts — has been overwhelmingly positive, Knopp says not everyone is convinced the program is a good idea. She had one student request not to be placed with a Muslim family, for example. But the main source of resistance, she suspects, comes from parents.
“I see mistrust from parents regularly,” she said. “We have more stereotypes and preconceptions about our neighbors than we do about people halfway around the world.”
But once participants go through the program, Knopp has seen them and their families transformed by it.
“Students are interested in exploring diversity in their own community,” she said. “They’re learning not just about these cultures, but also the experience of coming to Minnesota.”
Back at the Vue household, See’s cousin Bryan Lee instructed the boys on how to toss the noodles properly.
“What we’re trying to achieve is an even coating of color,” he said, as he squirted oyster and fish sauces into the bowl.
Meanwhile, four blocks away at the home of Vue’s sister, Jewelly Lee, student Abbi Slininger of Inver Grove Heights also helped prep dinner — noodles with bamboo, corn, onions and carrots, and cold cucumber soup.
Slininger is the third student that Lee, 28, has hosted. Lee, too, had been changed by a foreign exchange experience when she traveled in Japan.
“My family didn’t understand why I traveled,” Lee said. “I wanted them to experience this, and see that you can get to know a culture by living with them so much more than if you were to read about it.”
During meal prep, Slininger had long talks with the matriarch of the family, Xai Lee, who shared pictures and told stories about Laos, and what it was like to come to the United States in 1980 as a refugee.
“I never heard a story like that,” Slininger said. Before her homestay, “I really didn’t know anything.”
But after a week together, Xai Lee said, “She see people who look like me, and now she understand.”