With all the increased media and political attention lately being focused around the topic of immigration, I have started to think a lot about where I grew up.

This may seem like an odd train of thought, but I grew up in a small, rural Maine town with the interesting relationship that small, rural Maine towns have with people who are “from away.”

As a kid, I lived in a place that was remarkably loving and giving. In a town where everyone knows everyone, it is hard to go anywhere without being recognized. Any new person who came into town was immediately recognizable, and people liked to say they were suspicious of strangers. But the community that I grew up in was also incredibly welcoming when it wanted to be.

Through the years, my family has hosted exchange students five times. The program brought teenagers from other countries to families all over the United States for a period of 10 months. These kids were integrated into families and my family was lucky enough to welcome new family members three times. What I found in my small town that claimed a playful distrust of people “from away” was an amazing penchant for being welcoming and loving.

I remember one particularly interesting evening around November. We were hosting a girl from Thailand, and she wanted to show us a ceremony that she celebrated back home. The celebration was called “Loy Krathong,” and my new sister from Thailand explained it to us as a way to give thanks for the beautiful, clean water of the river. Luckily, we had access to a river right down the street from us. For a week beforehand, my family’s exchange student carefully crafted floats called Krathong, each decorated with beautiful flowers and containing a single candle.

The night of the celebration approached, and the event had blossomed from a small ceremony with just our family to a big party with friends of ours from school and people in the neighborhood. We were accessing the water on my mother’s friend’s property, and they had built a fire to roast marshmallows as we gathered.

The more people who heard about it, the more people who were interested in attending and learning more about Thailand.

As we gathered around the fire, my exchange student explained the procedure and gave out the floats to everyone. Traditionally, people participating in the ceremony would make a wish as they pushed their floats out onto the river. One-by-one, we approached the water and let our Krathong go. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this ceremony without using cheesy lines about how the candles looked like stars by the light of the full moon. But even those kind of clichéd phrases don’t fully capture the essence of Loy Krathong.

What was most special about that moment was that everyone could make it what they wished. For my exchange student, this was a ceremony she grew up with. She was honoring the river and everything it had brought her. I’m sure someone took that moment to pray to their God. Others simply enjoyed the natural beauty of the moment. But everyone who spend the time to learn about the ceremony and to float a candle and flowers on the river went into the day with an open mind and an interest in Thai culture.

After we’d floated our Krathong, we returned to my family’s house with all of our friends. Our exchange student taught us ceremonial dances and songs, and my house was alive with the joy of sharing.

As I listen to the latest political rhetoric about immigration, I can’t help but think about that night. I think about the candles floating on the river, carrying our wishes to wherever they needed to go (although we did gather the Krathong once the candles went out — we couldn’t just leave the candles and flowers in the river). I think about the fun that a group of high school kids had dancing around my dining room.

Most of all, I think about the love and acceptance that my exchange students found in the amazing community that raised me.

Kimberly Carter is an English student at the University of Maine at Augusta with an expected graduation in December 2016. She is also involved in many other activities on campus including working as a representative in the Student Government, tutoring in the Writing Center, playing the guitar and singing at campus events, speaking at academic presentations, and giving campus tours.

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