Our two families live so far away from each other that it’s accurate to say that we reside on opposite sides of the planet. Yet we visited the Pieris family in their home country of Sri Lanka because we are so close. Despite the unlikelihood of people from around the world becoming friends, our connection was immediate and only grows stronger with time.

We met Heshani Pieris through the Flagstaff International Friendship Program (FlagFriends) in the fall of 2015 when she was a freshman at NAU. Students from other countries are matched with local families (or individuals) based on interests, hobbies or profession. The purpose of the program is to promote international and cross-cultural understanding and provide international students with local connections to enhance their experience while studying in this country. The demands on the family are minimal as they are simply asked to get together with their student once a month.

FlagFriends offers students a chance to get to know the culture of the United States better and families learn about their student’s country and culture. Mostly, it’s just a lot of fun for everyone.

In the past, we have had very positive experiences with students from the Netherlands and from Australia. We were excited to be matched with someone from Sri Lanka. We knew little about this country other than that visitors to it say that it is gorgeous and that the food alone is worth the trip. (Following our travels there, we know both of these claims to be true.)

We knew right away that Heshani and our family were a good match. The first time we got together, we went out for frozen yogurt and looked at the starry sky. An astronomy and physics major, Heshani chose NAU specifically because of the opportunities here in that area.

Our dark, high-altitude skies offer the best star viewing she had ever experienced. She is from Colombo, Sri Lanka, which is a big city. Few stars can be seen from there due to the typical brightness of a big city, so that first night we got together in Flagstaff was the first time she had ever seen a shooting star or the Milky Way. We love the skies here and were so happy to be able to offer Heshani this experience and to share it with her.

We were equally happy to take her to Lowell to see a blood moon eclipse some weeks later. We have a lot of other things in common, too — we’re all rabid Harry Potter fans and share many other literary interests, enjoy online trivia, and traveling.

One of the great things about connecting with international students is introducing them to typical American experiences. When an international college student carves a pumpkin or attends a Thanksgiving dinner for the first time, it gives you a new appreciation for the fun traditions that our own culture offers.

Hanging out with us on Halloween and seeing all the costumed trick-or-treaters was definitely a new look into our culture. Though it’s not uniquely American, sharing a snowball fight and the building of a snowman with Heshani was special to our family. Having come from the tropics, these activities were totally new to her and seeing her love them was magical.

It’s all just fun for our family, but to her parents it is different. We can understand how much it means to them that we are close by and happy to help their daughter out if she needs it. As parents, we can hardly imagine what it would feel like to drop your child off at college in a foreign land on the other side of the world!

(Our two towns are so far away, that when we were in Sri Lanka, we joked that when people asked us where we were from, we could honestly answer by just pointing straight down and saying, “We’re from there.”)

The first time we met Heshani, she and her parents, along with her older sister Toshini, had flown here from Sri Lanka and were spending a week in Flagstaff getting her settled here. Feeling a kinship with these parents who were soon to be as far away from their daughter as is possible without going into orbit, we promised that we would make sure she bought a bike helmet, that she had the proper boots, hat, gloves and clothing for our winters and that we would do whatever we could to help her adjust to school in a new country.

One of our favorite experiences in Flagstaff was celebrating the Sri Lankan New Year in April. We surprised Heshani with a traditionally decorated table, some traditional foods, and music from home. The process involved a lot of secret help from her parents, because we needed to learn how to make a variety of foods, with changes to account for translations of the recipes, substitutions of ingredients not available here, conversions from the metric to imperial measurements, and altitude adjustments for the baked goods.

It is endearing how grateful the Pieris family is for the little things we do. Their gratitude is kind and wonderful, but also over the top. I’m not complaining, though, because their kind feelings towards us prompted them to invite us to Sri Lanka. They said that if we covered our airfare to get there, they would take care of the rest. We hesitated only briefly because going to Sri Lanka was never something we had considered.

Within hours of their offer, our whole family had independently come to the same conclusion: “We should go!” We are so glad that we did! Heshani’s family generously paid for and arranged everything in country.

It was an amazing trip, so much so that I’m robbed of the fun of exaggerating about it, because the truth is so full of superlatives. We saw amazing wildlife, Buddhist temples and ancient sites from thousands of years ago. We played on the beach and snorkeled in the Indian Ocean, seeing lionfish and puffer fish among many others. We went white water rafting, hiked in the rain forest, and went on safari.

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We saw 107 species of birds, including Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl (the national bird of Sri Lanka), Brahminy Kites, Asian Paradise Flycatchers, Indian Peafowl, Green Bee-eaters, Purple Sunbirds, a White-tailed Sea Eagle, a Legge’s Hawk-Eagle, Indian Pond Herons, and Sri Lankan Hanging Parrots. We visited a cinnamon plantation as well as a moonstone mine.

Though the sites we visited and the experiences we had were beyond thrilling, there is no doubt that the best part was sharing it with the Pieris family. We found common ground philosophically, though we come from a variety of religious backgrounds. They are devout Buddhists, while we come from a Judeo-Christian heritage.

It was fascinating to us when Heshani’s father, Channa, commented that many aspects of the way we live our life match Buddhist teachings. For example, we enjoy what we do during our travels and don’t worry about what we don’t end up doing. We’ve always emphasized to our kids that being disappointed about what we don’t see is “not allowed.”

(That worked out well on our safari because we did not see a leopard, which we had high hopes of seeing. We were too busy focusing on what we did see — elephants, mongooses, Painted Storks and elephants — to be disappointed.) We learned that the Pieris family considered any kindness to their daughter to be evidence that Buddhist ideals are manifested in many who are not Buddhist.

We have lived abroad as well as traveled to many countries, and that is true of their family as well. When two families, no matter how different in terms of culture, language and heritage, have both experienced a variety of countries, it is easy to see that we are more alike than we are different.

Our time together in Sri Lanka enhanced the friendship we had developed by Skype and over e-mail. We walked around their yard together, sharing knowledge about trees, fruits, insects and astronomy with one another. We played with their dog, a lovely cocker spaniel named Sammy.

They introduced us to a variety of traditional Sri Lankan foods including pastries, curries, breads, fruits and vegetables. Heshani’s mom, Sandya is a professional baker and an absolutely amazing cook. The food she made for us during the time we were at the Pieris house was the best in Sri Lanka, and that is saying something in a country where the food is always listed as a highlight by anyone who travels there.

Our experiences through FlagFriends have been so incredible that we are guilty of telling our friends about it in the hopes that they will participate also. It’s such a gift to truly live an experience that embodies the idea that friendship does not know cultural bonds. It was so amazing to visit Sri Lanka and learn about a new culture first hand.

We are thrilled that we will be Heshani’s local family until she graduates. Most of all, we are happy and so grateful that we have met Heshani and her whole family and that we will all be friends for life.

Karen London and her husband Richard Hofstetter love to travel with their sons Brian and Evan, who start every school year jet-lagged. More information about FlagFriends is available at www.flagfriends.org.

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