A family in Wisconsin has a nerdy, friendless teenage son. Sad! Brainstorm: Let’s host an exchange student who’ll be our son’s new buddy. Problem: The exchange organization says the kid is coming from London but he’s really from Pakistan. Wow, a Muslim lad! In school, a teacher tells Raja how angry the U.S. is with his country for 9/11. (Even though they didn’t do it.) Welcome to America, dude!
That’s the premise of Aliens in America, a sitcom that debuts tonight on the CW network. Now we like the idea: a chance to explore different cultures, open eyes, and all that kind of good stuff. Too bad the show gets so many things wrong. That’s what Pop Omnivore learned when we talked to Tamara Jazbec, a program specialist with AFS-USA Intercultural Programs for YES, the Youth Exchange and Study Program, and Kimberly King, project manager for Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, which promotes better understanding between east and west and works with exchange students.
1. The $500 monthly payment to the family. Hosting an exchange student is typically a volunteer act done from the goodness of your heart.
2. The misunderstanding about where he’s from. Exchange organizations absolutely tell hosts the student's country of origin.
3. Raja’s skullcap. Pakistani teenagers who attend a mosque school would wear the headgear, called a kufi, on a daily basis as a sign of respect for God. Other Pakistani boys, not so much.
4. An uncomfortable scene when Raja drops his towel in the locker room. “I can’t even imagine,” says Kimberly King. More likely, a student from the exceedingly modest Muslim world might ask permission to leave gym class early to shower and change clothes before the other kids come to the locker room. And if a host family dad emerges from the bathroom clad in a towel, ay yi yi!
Now here are some of the real issues that may confront students who are Muslim.
1. Daily prayer. A devout Muslim prays five times a day, including one prayer shortly after noon. The prayer is short, about five minutes. Still, where do you pray during the school day? Some schools provide a space. King’s group explains to students that, if necessary, it’s okay to postpone the noontime prayer and combine it with the late afternoon prayer.
2. The Ramadan fast. We’re in the middle of the Muslim holiday right now, which calls for a dawn-to-dusk fast. So school lunch – what a trial! Some schools will allow Muslim exchange student to sit in the library or a classroom during lunch period.
3. Dogs. Pakistani students aren’t used to house pets. Plus, the Muslim religion has long said if dog saliva gets on clothing, the garb becomes impure and must be washed. Ditto for hands or other body parts. This fear of slobber dates to a fear of rabies 1,400 years ago. Exchange students are told in advance that American dogs are well-groomed and clean, but it’s sometimes hard for them to overcome their canine phobia. Or their astonishment at doggy salons!
Pop Ominovore would love to hear from families who have hosted exchange students (and from the students themselves). Tell us what it was like: misunderstandings, funny anecdotes, moments of cultural bonding. Who knows, maybe it’ll spark some better plot lines for Aliens in America.