Love crosses cultural boundaries through foreign exchange host family Tom and Joan Fussy

Sometimes love comes in the form of a piano

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer 

This is Tom and Joan Fussy’s third year hosting foreign exchange students and their family has expanded to include each student. This year, they have sons to add to their three daughters. Pictured above, front row, are (from left): Yeonha Choi from South Korea, left, and Juan Carlos from Colombia. Back row: Tom, left, and Joan Fussy.

The doors open wide at Tom and Joan Fussy’s home, and this year their home has been full of the sound of two young foreign exchange students’ voices as well as the lilting sound of a piano. Yeonha Choi from South Korea and Juan Carlos from Colombia have been living with the Fussys in Bowlus and attending Royalton High School.

Juan Carlos wanted to learn English better for his future. “I wanted to know it better for my career,” he said. He is planning to be a business administrator in marketing and sales.

“I chose the United States, but was assigned to Minnesota. It’s been really cold for me,” said Carlos. He has been told how mild this past winter was.

Carlos’ father is an electrical engineer and his mother, a former high school social studies teacher, is a homemaker. He has one older sister, Lina. They live in Cali, a city with a population of two million people, but have a rural vacation house.

“The biggest difference this year has been living in a farm area,” Carlos said.

Carlos attended a private parochial school with 140 students in his grade. He had been taking English in school since the first grade. He graduated from his high school in June 2011.

It’s nice in Royalton with only about 60 students in his class. “I know everyone,” he said.

If he wants to go somewhere with his friends in Colombia, they take public transportation. Colombian citizens cannot drive until age 18. “I do miss that about the city, where I was close to everything,” he said.

He does miss some food from home, but really likes American spaghetti. He is looking forward to eating empanadas at home again, though.

Carlos has played soccer since he was six years old. “It’s his life,” said Joan. Here in Minnesota he is on the track team.

The Fussys took Carlos to visit Jamestown College in Jamestown, N.D. to try out for a soccer scholarship. He would love to play on their international team, which now includes players from Belgium, Ghana, Venezuela, Brazil, England and Ireland.

“And we would be able to watch him play,” said Tom. “Jamestown is only six hours away.”

Many people have already advised him on the necessity of having a winter down jacket, leather mittens and a wool hat and wool socks.

Carlos first needs to take the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is a test equivalent to the American College Testing (ACT), for foreign exchange students.

He has enjoyed the new experience of being a foreign exchange student. “It made me feel more responsible and independent,” he said. “I missed my parents a lot the first few weeks, then I met more people and it was OK.”

Yeonha Choi didn’t actually intend to be an exchange student, but when the opportunity came up, he took it. He had to have good grades and then took a test to qualify, but was surprised when officials notified him that he was going to Minnesota.

On the way to Bowlus, he missed a connecting flight in Dallas and the Fussys got a hurried phone call letting them know he would be late. But the rest of his trip went smoothly.

In South Korea he and his parents live near the coast in a town of about 40 people, 10 minutes from a city of about 250,000. His mother runs the school store where snacks, cafeteria food and school supplies are sold. His father works in administration at his school.

For Choi, school is most different here in the United States. In South Korea, high school hours are from 8 a.m. – 11 p.m., six days a week. “We suffer as children and then have a good time when we are grown up,” Choi said.

He has taken English classes in school since the third grade and studied at a separate academy for English for about five years.

He is devoted to playing the piano. His family cleans the school at home, and when he was little and was supposed to be cleaning the music room, he was really playing the piano. After his parents found out he was playing, he took lessons for about seven years at a piano academy. When he finds sheet music, he just plays.

Choi found it very challenging to be so far away from his parents for the first time in his life. When the Fussys found out how much he loves the piano, they wanted to buy one for him to use. “We were fortunate to find one on Craig’s List,” Tom said.

At home, Choi’s only out-of-school activity is playing the piano. Here in Minnesota he has participated in two plays, speech competition, jazz band, basketball and track.

Choi will be going to the university, and his dream is to be a doctor. “I would love to attend Oxford or Harvard,” he said.

At some point between high school graduation and the time college is done, he will have to serve two years in the South Korean military.

His favorite thing at Royalton High School is the chocolate chip cookies. One of the kitchen ladies nicknamed him “Cookie Monster,” as he usually eats about 10 cookies every day.

Choi, whose visit is sponsored by a different group than Carlos’, took a trip with his student group to Washington, D.C. and New York. But he likes it in Bowlus.

Tom and Joan Fussy never had kids of their own, but their family now includes five children. This is the third year they have hosted foreign exchange students. Previously, Sarah from Mongolia stayed with them. Then Aileen from Germany and Maria from Mexico lived with them during the same year.

“Sarah and Aileen have been back to visit,” said Joan. “Wherever we live, that will be their home too.”

What is most challenging for Joan is having more people in their small home. “I have to escape for some quiet time once in a while,” she said. “But the kids know I’m not really running away.”

“The highlight is having the kids around,” she said.

Tom’s challenge is being a chauffeur. “They are in so many activities, but we either work around my and Joan’s work schedules, or they get rides from friends,” he said. “The best part is just having them around, watching TV and laughing together,” he said.

Next year, the two new students joining their family will be Marta from Poland and Song from Thailand.

“Hosting an exchange student is easier than people think,” said Joan. “They’re at a good age, and take care of themselves.”

“People get the impression that they need money to do this, or have to be home 24/7, but we both work outside the home,” Joan said. “We’re all flexible.”

“It’s working,” said Juan.

“We would be willing to sit down with anyone who has questions about being a foreign exchange host family,” said Tom. “If people have ever thought about hosting, don’t hesitate. The reward is great.”

“The hardest thing is when they leave,” he said, with tears in his eyes.

“I will be taking their love with me,” said Carlos.