On any given day, Trudy Schandler-Wong gets e-mails from around the world saying, "Mom, I miss you!"
Trudy and her husband, Alvin, have been a host family for students at the East-West Center since 1976. They were newlyweds when they started, welcoming in "kids" who were actually around their age.
"College professors have been our ‘children.’ We’ve had a minister of economics, the number-two person in government in Bangladesh. …"
The Wongs officially have been a host family for more than 100 international students, but unofficially there have been many more than that. Schandler-Wong has pictures of all the students she has cooked for and laughed with and cried over. The photos are mixed in with pictures of her two children, hanging in frames in the hallway and pasted into albums.
Schandler-Wong points to a picture of a young man. "I have no idea what his name is. They would say, ‘Mom, can I bring a friend?’ so we always had extra people coming. He was somebody’s friend." After each meal, they’d pack up all the leftovers and send them back to the dorms for other students to enjoy, so they’ve fed people they’ve never met.
"One student wouldn’t let anyone have any of the leftovers until they signed a thank-you card for us," Schandler-Wong said.
"As newlyweds, we got our first student, an agronomist from Taiwan," Schandler-Wong said. "We felt he needed a brother, so we paired him up with a student from Afghanistan, the most highly educated man in his village."
The Wongs had just moved into their house in Manoa, and the two students decided to put in a garden for them. They went to Star Market and bought spikes and string and seeds and put in a little vegetable garden that was big on good intentions but poor in actual production. Never mind. It’s still a favorite memory.
Host families in the ohana program for the Friends of East-West Center don’t have the students stay with them. The program is more about getting together for occasional meals and holidays. Some students are at the East-West Center for only a month. Others pursuing advanced degrees stay for five years.
"Those who are here for a long time, it’s hard to let them go," Schandler-Wong said.
There have been so many parties.
She has invited students to bring their children over for Halloween and made ghost costumes for them out of pillowcases. Every year, she and her husband cook Thanksgiving dinner for 40 people using a special multicultural stuffing recipe from Sam Choy that involves Okinawan sweet potatoes and water chestnuts.
There was an engagement party for a student from Nepal who hadn’t proposed yet. Schandler-Wong had to coach him on what to say. "I took him aside and I got down on one knee and said, ‘I can’t imagine my life or future without you. Will you marry me?’ and then he went out to where she was sitting, got down on one knee and said, ‘What do I say again?’" After more coaching, the answer was yes.
The connections made between the Wongs and their "children" stretch over time and distance. They keep in touch with students they met years ago and have gone to visit them in their home countries.
"This is the year of weddings," Schandler-Wong said.
In January, they went to Manila to be the "third set of parents" at a wedding. They’re going to the East Coast this month, and then in August Alvin and Trudy will serve as mother and father for a student getting married here in Hawaii.
Her life has had a theme of cross-culturalism. Schandler-Wong grew up in a Jewish family in North Carolina. Her husband, who is Chinese, born and raised in Hawaii, converted to Judaism. "I grew up in a segregated community. My family hanai’d an African-American young man who came to my father looking for work. Our family wasn’t allowed to sit in most restaurants."
At the meals she hosts, she manages various dietary and religious restrictions and brings people together over food and friendship.
"I’ve had students sitting at my table who were from enemy countries, but here they called each other brother and sister."
The Wongs’ two children are grown and living on their own. Daughter Shaaroni is a teacher who has traveled the world; son Ari works in federal law enforcement the mainland. Alvin heads a group of oncology doctors and Trudy is a flight attendant for United, making two or three West Coast trips a month. She also volunteers for a number of nonprofits, but there is always room in her schedule for being a host parent. And if there isn’t, she’ll make time.
"I can’t imagine not welcoming in new students to our home. I can’t imagine not having our hearts ache to say goodbye."