Interview #9: Welcoming a Cross-Cultural Roommate

As people in the USA think about heading back to school or university for the fall semester, I want to share this cross-cultural hospitality interview  from the American Midwest. A few years ago, Lisa spontaneously opened her home to an international student from Mongolia who was needing a place to live. What Lisa thought might be a two week or two month stay has turned into a more than two year stay, and a few months ago I got to ask Lisa about what it's been like sharing her home with a Mongolian roommate. Some of her answers surprised me, and most of them encouraged me! Lisa has such a gracious attitude about making room in her home and really in her whole life for Alyona. I hope you'll be encouraged by this interview with her. And maybe by the end, you'll be craving beef dumplings (and a meaningful conversation with an international friend) — I know I was!

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Lisa, I know you've had many different roommates over the years, but ever since I heard about your Mongolian roommate, I've been wanting to ask how you ended up sharing a home. But first I should ask, where do you live and what's your housing situation like? 

I live an a four bedroom, two bathroom house in the Midwest of the USA. Originally I was renting the house for a low rate, so I lived by myself and was really enjoying having so much space. The house has three bedrooms upstairs, and one downstairs — I made the downstairs one a guest room since it has it’s own bathroom. 

After I’d rented for while, my landlords offered to sell the house to me for a reasonable price. I hadn't really been planning to buy a house, but I bought it anyway, and at present I have two roommates, which helps me pay the mortgage a bit faster. One of them just moved in recently, and the Mongolian roommate has been here for two and a half years.

should i host an international foreign exchange student

How did you find a roommate of such a different cultural and religious background? 

I volunteer with an organization for international students. I had signed up to be a “friendship partner” to help new students settle into our city when they arrive. I had previously been assigned to various female students. It just happened that they were all from Africa — Benin, Togo and Kenya — and usually they were 18-year-olds who didn't speak a whole lot of English, coming to start university here.

Because of my involvement with that organization, I received an email in January 2016 at the beginning of the spring semester, saying that a girl from Mongolia was staying in a hotel in our city and looking for somewhere to live more permanently. I am not sure if you know this, but many international students in the USA don’t want to stay in a university dorm, and many come without a housing plan. They just expect to figure something out when they arrive in the USA, and this Mongolian student was trying to find a place to live. 

I wasn't really planning to have an international student roommate, but when I saw the email, a few things made me consider her: she had done undergraduate studies in the USA, then worked in Mongolia again for a few years, and she was back in the USA to do her graduate studies in our city. She had her own vehicle. Alyona, the girl the email described, was older and more mature than most of the students whom I had met through the “friendship partner” program. She didn't sound like someone who would need hand-holding. And I definitely had room in my house.

So you said, "Come on over"?

I told the organization that they could give her my contact information for us to talk about whether she could stay at my place. She texted me the same day at 5:30pm, and by 7:30pm she was at my door with a Mongolian guy who was helping her bring her vehicle to us from the state where she had previously lived and studied.

I showed her the space, and then the Mongolian man said to me, “In our culture, we’re really straightforward. We don’t beat around the bush. You can just tell us directly what the rules are and what the price is.” She asked if she could move in. I was still trying to think things through because it had all happened so quickly. I told her I didn’t want any guys staying overnight at our place, and I gave her a key right then and there. At that point, she really hadn't said much, as her friend had done most of the talking. So I really didn't know the person to whom I had just given a house key! 

The house was not at all set up for a roommate, and actually it was a bit of a mess because another family had used my house over Christmas when I was out of town. So a friend came over the next day to help me clean up and make space for Alyona, who was apparently now going to live with me. When I went to bed that night, she was not there, but by the next morning she was there, and by the next afternoon she had gone grocery shopping, put her things in the kitchen, and was cooking me dinner! I had not even given her any instructions about which cupboards to use or anything, but there she was with a bunch of meat and vegetables chopped, and she needed my help to figure out how to light the gas stove so she could cook everything! 

She was showing you hospitality in your own kitchen on the first night!

Yup, that’s kind of how it happened. And she’s been here ever since, for the past two years. To be honest, I never really thought she would live with me long; I was used to the African students who change housing often. But she’s often told me how much she loves living here!

Who stays in which room?

At the moment my new American roommate has a bedroom upstairs and shares my bathroom, and Alyona stays in the downstairs room with its own bathroom. The third bedroom upstairs is my office, and also has a twin bed in it that Alyona has sometimes used when she has a guest downstairs. Otherwise, my guests now stay on a mattress or on the couch in the living room. Or once in a while Alyona will come up and sleep on the twin bed and let people use her room and bathroom, like when a whole family visits us. And actually Alyona's mom and dad have both spent significant amounts of time with us in the past year.

I hadn't even thought of that, but I know that often when relatives from far away come for a visit, they come for a long time....

Yes, in Alyona's case especially because she's an only child and her parents are retired. Alyona's dad came for six months because he received a six month visa to the USA. Originally he was staying with some other people, but it didn’t work out, so she asked if he could stay with us. Because that downstairs bedroom area even has a door between it and its bathroom and the rest of the house, I thought it would be fine for him to stay at our house. 

Shortly after her dad left, she told me that — surprise!her mom had gotten a six month visa now. (The US government purposely staggers couples’ visas, to discourage them from overstaying, so her parents did not receive visas for the same period of time.) She asked if her mom could stay with us, so of course I said "Yes”. 

So at the moment, Alyona is sharing the downstairs room and a queen-sized bed with her mom. I offered to put a second bed down there for her, but she is content sharing the bed with her mom. 

Alyona is really happy that we have another roommate here now, because I travel a lot and she doesn’t like being in the house by herself. Her mom will leave again in a few months and she is glad that she won't be sleeping alone in the house at night. 

cross cultural roommate

Yeah, I think that’s cultural. "Warm culture" people like to have someone else around to eat with and are often used to sharing a room. What are the logistics around your house with your roommate? For example, do you eat together or who does the cleaning? 

We don’t eat together. Because when she first moved here she didn’t have a  job yet, she wanted to cook for me all the time. But we eat so differently — for example, I like eating salads and she eats a lot of hot meals, like beef dumplings. I told her that she doesn’t need to cook for me. 

Our schedules are different. I work from home and often travel overnight, and she's usually out of the house from 10am to 10pm at work and school but doesn't travel as much as I do. 

I told her that I would buy all the shared cleaners / detergents, etc. however, sometimes she buys those, too. She often asks me where I’ve bought something, and she buys the same thing when it needs replenishing. She’s also always happy to share her groceries if I need an onion or an egg from her stash. Sometimes for special events, like her birthday, and she made dumplings for us. Or if I’m having a party or having people over for dinner, she’s always invited to join us and sometimes we each cook a dish. 

Right now she has weekends off and on Sundays she often comes to church with me. She’s been doing that ever since she moved in. 

How is it having her parents there? Are they easy to have around? 

When her dad first came, it was a bit awkward because she’s gone for 12 hours a day and he had nothing to do. He was a smoker so he would spend a lot of time smoking on the back porch — something I hadn't even thought about before he came (laughs).  But at some point he got a temporary job, and then he was gone almost as many hours each day as his daughter. It was not a problem having him here.

Having her mom here has been a bit trickier, because she and I are both home all day. At first, her mom wanted to cook for me all the time, and she wanted me to be available to be fed at whatever time the food happened to be ready. I had to tell her that I usually prefer to eat my own food. Sometimes it’s also hard because I want to use the kitchen when she's cooking. (She sometimes spends five hours in one day making dumplings.)

Thinking about your house being overtaken by dumplings makes me smile! 

I’ve had to learn to make space in my kitchen for the dumpling pot and the rice cooker, the two tools that they use almost daily. And I’m a coffee drinker but we have tea everywhere in our kitchen now because Mongolians are tea drinkers. When I look in the freezer, it’s just full of meat. We don't have yak here, so they buy tons of beef — I think in the two years that Alyona has been here, she’s bought more beef than I’ve bought in ten years!

She doesn't expect me to entertain her, and I have to remind myself of that sometimes.

It’s taken some getting used to, having Aloyna’s mom around all the time. I want her to feel comfortable to use the common rooms or watch TV in the living room, but when she's not in the kitchen, she's usually downstairs in her bedroom. A couple of times if she's needed a ride somewhere or wants to go to the store with me, I take her along, as I imagine she must be a bit bored. But at the same time, I just have to remind myself sometimes that she chose to come for six months when she knew her daughter was working and studying full time. She doesn't expect me to entertain her, and I have to remind myself of that sometimes. Some nights when Alyona is still at work or school, I have taken her mom or dad along if I'm going to an international student gathering or game night where they might feel comfortable joining in. They don't speak much English.

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You sound very gracious and mature about the interesting situations that have come up, especially now with her mother there, but I know that often these situations are hard, not fun, at the time. Have you felt like you’ve grown in a good way, because of having this roommate who’s so different culturally?

To be honest, she’s been one of the easiest roommates I’ve ever had. She’s worked hard to do things the way I like them, and she notices when we’re running out of something or when the trash needs to be taken out. But I’ve learned that I don't really like to share "my space". It was fine to share the house with her when our schedules were totally different, but it's been tougher when her mom is here 24/7 and I can’t use the kitchen when I want to....

...and the air constantly smells of beef dumplings!

But I guess it’s surprised me how easy it has been, overall, having Alyona as a roommate. She asks good questions, and enjoys learning. She was surprised to see me eating lettuce straight out of the package without washing it, so I showed her on the packaging that it had been “triple washed”. I’ve since seen her buy the same lettuce. Or she buys random fruits and vegetables, not knowing what they are and wanting to try them out. One of her recent exotic purchases was a guava, and I explained to her how to eat it. She’s a fun girl. 

You mentioned her coming to church with you regularly. Were you surprised that she wanted to come to church with you? 

Well, one thing I’ve learned — and I don’t know if it’s just typical of her, or typical of her culture — but she never says “no”. She always says “yes”. I sometimes remind her, “You can say ‘no’ to me; you can tell me things directly.” But I don't think that comes easily. So when I’ve invited her to church, the answer is almost always "yes", but I'm not sure how much of it comes from her really wanting to be there, and how much of it is her being polite and wanting to not go against the flow.

What is her religious background? 

She did not grow up with any kind of formal religion. Her dad is Russian, and her mom is Mongolian. Both of her parents are well-educated professionals. I think she had some connection to Buddhist ancestor worship on the Mongolian side, but she would not say she is Buddhist. Growing up they just didn’t talk about religion or God at home.

At Christmas 2016, our first Christmas together, I had Alyona help me set up a nativity scene. When I looked at how she had set the it up, I said to her, “Oh, put Mary and Joseph next to Jesus!” And she said, “Who are Mary and Joseph?” She was in her late twenties, and had never heard the Christmas story. That blew me away. 

She had never heard the Christmas story. That blew me away.

I took her to a live nativity that first Christmas, with live actors and animals. It started with Adam and Eve and gave the whole background story to make sense of Christmas. She absolutely loved it — she was running from one scene to the next, like she couldn’t wait to see what would come next in the story. On the way home that night, she commented, “I can’t believe that all these countries around the world celebrate Christmas but they don’t know the real reason for Christmas.” Alyona spent Christmas with my family that year, and it went well.

Last year, her second Christmas with me, she and her mom helped me decorate the house for Christmas and then we went to the live nativity again. We had a really good talk on the way home, about Abraham and his faith and about how the story of Abraham and his son foreshadowed God and His Son. But I'm still not sure exactly how much she understands about Christ and His story. 

international student roommate

It can be hard to measure, especially with your cultural differences.

Spiritual conversations had never been part of her home and life.

We have communion every Sunday at my church. I explained to her when she first came to our church, that communion is only for people who believe in Jesus and what He has done on the cross for them. She asked a couple of questions and for the first couple of months, she didn’t take communion. Then on Easter Sunday, her dad was there, and she said, “I'm going to take communion today.” It was one of those awkward situations where the service was about to start and I couldn't ask her much more about her choice to take communion. I quickly reminded her that it’s only for people who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for their sins, and she said, “I believe in Jesus”. On the way home, I talked with her about it some more, and we had a special Easter lunch at my house and used "resurrection eggs" to talk more about what Easter means. We've had so many opportunities to talk about the Bible, a friend and I even did a Bible study series with Alyona. We’ve had some really good conversations about spiritual things and she is 100% open. I think part of the reason for this is because she had a spiritual void; spiritual conversations had never been part of her home and life. 

And she's come from that spiritual void into a home and relational network where spiritual conversations happen every day. 

I often have to back up and find a way to talk about Christianity or faith in a way that is more basic than what I'm accustomed to.

She doesn’t feel comfortable praying or asking a lot of questions about our faith. Sometimes even the way Christians pray or talk can seem so foreign to her. Alyona has made comments before like, “You have such a close relationship to God” or “I like hearing how you talk to God, but I don’t know how to do that.” In living and talking with her, I have realized that as someone who grew up in a Christian home and has been so surrounded by Christian input and friends for over 40 years, I don't even know what she doesn't know. I often have to back up and find a way to talk about Christianity or faith in a way that is more basic than what I'm accustomed to. 

She recently even took a membership class at our church, but she said she does not feel ready to be baptized. She’s still processing that. I can't know what's going on inside of her. When I’ve read about Mongolia, they said that they’re quite accepting of all religions there. They seem to live relatively peacefully with Muslims and Christians, etc. in the same country. So she’s open to talk about Christianity, but I don’t know if she would also be open to becoming a Muslim or joining another religion, or if she senses that this is something unique and that God is calling her out in particular to follow Christ.

Have your friends taken an interested in Alyona or gotten to know her?

Yes, they have. I go to a super white church. They want it to be diverse, but it happens to be in an upperclass, white neighbourhood so — guess what — it’s a white church. But I don’t think she feels awkward there, which is great. A lot of the people have sought to make her feel welcome. One couple in particular invited her over and gave her a Mongolian Bible as a gift. 

My friend group has also been really good about including her. Even when I’m travelling or gone, they often try to include her in things they're doing. She comes to our small group and often commutes to church with our group. When her parents are here she doesn’t do as much with us. But everyone has been encouraging and supportive and friendly. In a group she is not particularly talkative, but one on one she’s friendly and outgoing. I think I’d probably be like that too, in another culture...

Yes, my husband and I are totally like when interacting in German, too — way quieter in group conversations than in one-on-one. It’s hard to follow everything that's going on in a group conversation, or to contribute something to the discussion when it takes you longer to formulate sentences. 

If Alyona were to move out, would you try to invite another cross-cultural roommate? What’s some advice you would give to someone who is looking to do something similar?

I would definitely consider having an international roommate again. I don’t mind answering cultural questions, like explaining how the flag on the mailbox works or why I can eat my lettuce without washing it first. But what’s important to me is that I don’t have to babysit my roommate. With how much I travel for work, I could not take on a roommate who’s 18 and has never lived in the USA before she lands on my doorstep. I would do it again, but only with a mature roommate like Alyona. 

Maybe it’s just God’s graciousness that it’s worked out as well with Alyona as it has. It’s good to be clear from the beginning about expectations, for example, to talk through expectations about food, meals, or cleaning. 

This has been an enlightening conversation. I expected that having a foreign roommate would be more complicated than a roommate of the same culture, and in some ways it is, but in some ways it has been easier, because Alyona expects you to be different than her, and so she wants to learn to do things the way you do them. Whereas an American roommate maybe just does things the way she’s always done them, without noticing that you might want some things done differently. 

Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, but she’s been so great about noticing things I do or that need doing, and doing them with or for me. Even better than many roommates of my own culture. I hope that someday I can visit her and her family in Mongolia.

If you do that, you'll probably have some “Aha!” moments where you’ll finally understand something about how Alyona and her family lived when they were with you!

Yes, and if I visit them there, I will eat what they cook...not my "cold food" as Alyona's mom refers to my salads!