Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

thankful February 12, 2013

Filed under: Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 11:30 am
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I was just chatting with our school’s exchange student, a lovely girl here for the year from Finland.  Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I was an exchange student in Finland myself, many years ago.  It has been really great having Satu here.  We greet each other in Finnish in the halls, and once a week or so we chat more thoroughly about things.  I hope she enjoys having someone to speak her own language to, because I sure love speaking with her.

I talk to myself in Finnish to practice, but that doesn’t help my listening skills.  I can tune into Finnish radio, but radio doesn’t have the necessary pauses that allow assimilation of meaning nor does it provide opportunity to clarify meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary.  Having Satu here has been fantastic.  In September, there was a lot that I struggled with when I listened to her.  I constantly had to check words.  Now, I find that I understand her so much better.  I’ve learned some vocabulary (What does it tell you about my exchange that I didn’t know the word for ‘homework’! lol).  It makes me so happy that so many years after my return to Canada, I can still speak fluently enough to have these interesting conversations with her.  When I promised my 4th mom that I would never forget my Finnish, I meant it.  I have kept my promise.

I also have really enjoyed the excuse to do some Finnish baking now and then.  When I take karjalan piirakoita or some pulla buns to school for her, it’s nice to know I’ve brought a bit of ‘home’ into her week.

It makes me thankful, once again, for the existance of the Rotary Exchange Student program, and thankful that I was part of it.  It is amazing how it never leaves you.  When you meet another exchange student, of any age, from any country, you instantly have a  common bond of experience.   There is always something to talk about.  Eyes sparkle with fun or commiseration.

Once an exchange student, always an exchange student.


Vesta August 16, 2012

Filed under: Alpha-biography,Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 9:11 am
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I quite like Vesta.  She is the hearth goddess, the one who keeps the home fires burning.  Vesta is a virgin goddess, but she is ‘mom’ to the rest of the gods.  She’s the one who provides the milk and cookies and the ear after the stressful day battling monsters.

On Mother’s Day, the sweet and mushy cards abound and they mostly seem to envision the same mother, devoted and appreciated.  But mothers are women, and they are diverse!

I have 6 mothers.

First, I have the mother who carried me, thoroughly nauseated and regretting the idea, within her body and who raised me.  She is a creator mother.  She makes clothes, quilts, jewelry, tapestries, sweaters, and good food.   She gardens, and eats her harvest, while her flowers are admired by neighbours.  She has had four children, each quite different in outlook.  She cares for them with gifts of time and talent.

Next, I have the four Finnish host mothers who sheltered me on my youth exchange:

The first, was like Vesta.  She was  a nurse who had raised five amazing children, and she welcomed me into her embrace with a loving care that overwhelmed me with its sweetness.  She patiently listened each evening, sitting with me and asking me to describe my day and the news from home.  With my growing Finnish vocabulary, funny drawings and a Finnish English dictionary as a last resort, I learned to communicate with her.   I grew by leaps and bounds.

The second was an athletic teacher.  She was tough and no nonsense.  She had four children.  Three older teens (one in the army) and a two year old.  She was harried and busy.  I was devastated to have left my first host family, and suffering from serious Seasonal Affective Disorder while I was living there (though no one knew it at the time: I slept all the time, had no energy, and felt very morose).  I wasn’t a very good exchange student there, to be honest.  What I remember most, actually, was that the bathroom with the shower/tub / sauna didn’t have a lock, and the two year old would come in whenever I wanted to bathe.  I had no privacy, and was terrified of having my host dad or host brother walk into the room accidentally.  I smelled bad when I lived there, as a result! :-S   She was the working mother of a toddler.  Her life was full and exhausting.

The third was a trophy wife of a banker.  Bouffant bleach blonde hair, blue eye shadow, and black eye liner were her trademarks.  She had two children who were away from home, so I was a relief to her her boredom.  Not that she was often bored.  Her calling was as a hostess.  There was a constant stream of guests, dressed to the nines, holding their wine glasses, and discussing the world. She wore beautiful clothes, practised her English on me, and went travelling.  They left me alone rather frequently, and I found that I didn’t mind the independence of having my own little apartment where I could shower in security, but I missed the embrace of a family.

The fourth was the wife of a sailor.  She was grounded, earthy, and fun.  She had two teens and a 9 year old.  She welcomed me into the household and treated me like one of her own, taking me everywhere.  We chatted constantly and I felt understood and appreciated.  I adored my little sister in particular, as she had the time and interest to take me around the neighbourhood, have me at her school for show and tell, and to chatter with me constantly so that my Finnish was solidified.

When I married, I received my sixth mother.  My mother-in-law is a pious, caring lady who is anxiously devoted to her children and grandchildren.  She is a wife of a professor and farmer who hosts crowds of visiting entomologists, ornithologists, lepidoptorists, genealogists, farmers, church members and friends from all walks of life with good grace and sincere interest.  She adores each of her in-law children and grandchildren and makes sure we know it.

Vesta guards the hearth and everyone gathers around its warmth for sustenance, care, and conversation.  Pull up a chair.  Whatever kind of mother or child you are, there is room.


home March 27, 2012

Filed under: Commentary — Shawn L. Bird @ 3:21 pm
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While we were travelling this Spring Break, my husband had an epiphany: you can live anywhere. This is old news for exchange students who quickly discover a new meaning for home fairly soon in their exchange year.

It doesn’t take long to feel so comfortable in your new life that you can hardly remember the old. When it’s time to return, you are torn between two worlds. Home is two places.

But really, home isn’t about the place, it’s about the people.

“Home is where the heart is”

the old adage says, and it’s true.


How to have an amazing Rotary Youth Exchange year July 14, 2010

Filed under: Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 5:45 am
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Today I got an email from an outbound exchange student in response to my blog “Why I am a Rotarian.”  I started to write some hints for Chris, but then thought perhaps they’re best recorded as whole blog entry rather than a comment.  So here is a message dedicated to Chris who is on the way to India, and any other outbound Rotary Exchange Student.   

Rotary Youth Exchange will be a life changing experience, but how successful your year is completely rests upon your shoulders.  You need to approach your exchange with an attitude of openness.  You have to be willing to try new things, whether it’s new clothes like a burka or school uniform, new food like liver casserole or goats’ eyes, or new experiences like attending a different place of worship  or participating in inexplicable festivals.  This is a cultural exchange and your job as an exchange student is much more that representing your culture.  It is even more important that you learn as much as you can about your host culture so that when you return home, you can reflect a new view of the world to your home community.  This year will impact the rest of your life.   

So here is some advice from me from my rather broad perspective as a returned exchange student, a host mom, an exchange counselor, the mother of an exchange student , a Rotarian and a high school teacher.  I hope these suggestions will help you approach the most difficult year of your life with enthusiasm so that in embracing the challenges, you find yourself becoming a global citizen.   

embrace cultural practices- like Finnish sauna

1. Adjust your attitude.  Whenever you are faced with a cultural challenge, remember it’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different! We don’t all have to be the same on this planet; diversity brings beauty in the world.  Embrace it all.  Be open to the new.  Avoid saying, “At home we do it like this…”  Say, “That’s interesting.  Can you tell me more about that?”  Listen.  Learn.  Keep your better/worse thoughts in your private journal.   A lot of brilliant A students struggle as exchange students.  They’re used to being the best in the class.  They don’t like to make mistakes.  They expect excellence in themselves.  Let it go.  You are not in your perfect world any more.  There are new rules on exchange.  Relax.  Let yourself make mistakes so you are free to learn.  Embrace the novelty of not being the best.  Just be.   

2. Learn the language of your area as soon as possible. Speak it often.  Take special classes if necessary.  Everyone will want to speak to you in English, don’t fall into the trap. If you’re in Barcelona, the area language is Catalan, not Spanish.  What is the language or dialect of your region? Make that your focus.  Language is the gate to culture, and you want to open that gate.  If you don’t learn the language, you will miss significant understanding of your hosts and your host culture.  Even if you do it badly, the effort to learn the language is crucial to your host community seeing that you are committed to learning about them.  Go beyond Hello, Good-bye, Please and Thank You.  Be willing to make mistakes and be laughed at for your mistakes.  Join into the laughter, learn the correct way, keep talking.  Especially learn the words that have no English translations, because those words represent important cultural concepts.   

Finnish Independence Day parade

3. Take every opportunity you can. Go wherever you can.  You will frequently be invited somewhere, and you won’t have a clue what it is.  Go anyway.  Take your camera.  Prepare to be amazed.   

4.  Get involved with your sponsor Rotary Club.  Sometimes you have to work hard to do this, because overseas clubs often don’t involve their exchange students.  Be sure the club knows you want to help with their service projects.  Go to meetings at least once a month.  Pester them to involve you if you must.  Yes, the business component is boring, but use the social time to meet members.  Find out what they do, express curiousity.  You may get invited to join them on a ski trip or a reindeer round up.  You never know.  Rotarians are amazing community leaders with fascinating experiences.  They have a lot to teach you.  Ask questions.  Learn.   


 5.  Don’t be shy. Don’t wait for others to approach you.  Make the first move.  You’re going to be gone in a year and so some people won’t want to make the effort to be your friend.  They might become your best friend if you make the first move.  Say something like, “Excuse me, I’m an exchange student, can you explain this…?”  Ask questions.  Be curious.  Smile.   Your closest friends are quite likely going to be other exchange students or former exchange students.  This is a comfortable thing, because you have the most in common with them.  You can rely on them to help process the cultural challenges, but beware of pity parties and grumbling.  Don’t let exchange students be your only friends; the more friends you have from your host culture, the more experiences and opportunities you will have.   

a knitting party with Finnish teens

6. This might be the most important point, especially in this age of instant communication around the world. Let go of home. Certainly, post a weekly log of your activities to share your experiences with your friends and family back home, that’s an important reason you went on exchange.  Keeping a journal provides a record of what you learn and gives you a tool to reflect upon for the rest of your life.  However, daily writing with your girl/boyfriend back home, trying to negotiate your best friend’s break up or panicking about your college entrance means your focus is back home instead of on your cultural immersion.  You’ll need to contact home now and then so your mother doesn’t go crazy, but your focus must be on your new culture.  You’re never going to have this exchange opportunity again.  Don’t waste it! Embrace your new culture and let go of home.  Your home culture will still be there at the end of your exchange year.   

Have an absolutely amazing, fascinating, life changing Rotary Exchange!


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