Stepping onto Foreign Soil

Ryan Jurik

Stepping onto foreign soil can engulf those in a sense of unfamiliarity, making them feel outcasted amongst the inhabitants of the region. Encountering strangers with various cultural backgrounds makes it challenging to find a common ground with one another. However by debunking the cultural barrier that separates them with others and understanding the different fundamentals that make up their culture, a connection can be established and interaction can be made possible. Not only would one comprehend the character and mindset of a foreign visitor, but would also realize that those in this massive world are not so different from you and I.

Schools nationwide, including Bentonville High School, allow foreign exchange students the opportunity to visit the United States and experience the American lifestyle. There are several organizations, such as the AFS Intercultural Programs, Ayusa International, and ISE (International Student Exchange), that work with schools all over the world to send students into areas with various backgrounds different from their own. At our school in particular, a small number of foreign exchange students have attended this year, with nationalities stretching across European and Asian countries. They brought with them their cultural identity, all which they have grown up with by living in their homeland, where it would be contrasted with the newly found, unfamiliar setting of Northwest Arkansas. They soon discovered the complexities of how American society works in comparison from their own as well as the many beneficial features offered by living in the country.

“So far my experience here has been amazing. I’ve started fencing which is kind of a unique sport. I live on a lake so I go kayaking and also go to the gym every once in awhile,” Ajda Rak, who is from Slovenia, said. “My host family also loves to travel so I will be going to Wisconsin, Chicago, Kansas City. I’m really lucky.”

One of the conditions foreign exchange students have is that they must live with a host family during their stay. People can volunteer to host students by signing up with the organizations, where they must feed, shelter, and care for their foreign guest living with them as part of their own family. Although it is a different feeling for foreign exchange students to be living with another family, they are grateful to have direct caretakers that can always look out for them. Ways the families can positively influence their host siblings are by assisting them with their English, taking them on trips to show them around, and providing special care however it feel necessary. Foreign exchange students are free to make experiences through activities and sightseeing and can build strong relationships with their host family and with friends they meet along the way.

“I feel that people are much more easy going and talkative here,” Emmi Veijola from Finland said. “Since I got here, I’ve just had a lot of fun. I think the biggest difference with the United States and Finland is that when you walk into a store you have someone smile at you. People are nicer and more outgoing, while Finland has this reputation that people aren’t so outgoing.”

Not only do the foreign exchange students get to learn about American culture, but Americans as well can have a glimpse of what other cultures are like in different parts of the world. They can interact with these students and pose questions regarding their diverse nationality, building a greater understanding on the rest of the world. This leads people to rethink their impression towards other ethnic groups, realizing that different cultures share many of the same similarities.

“We don’t have Halloween in my country. We do experience Christmas and we open a lot of presents. We have Thai New Years and the Songkran Festival that goes with New Year,” Lily Likitwattanaviboon said about her homelife in Thialand. Songkran translate to Astrological Passing, where traditions include pouring water onto Monk Statues as well as people as to purify them and wash away bad luck. “Teenagers really like to celebrate and play with the water. Thailand is so different from here because I’m from a big city. I go to school at about 7:00 A.M. and afterwards go to mall, hang out with my friends. On weekends we go to cafes and take pictures as well as try some sweet desserts. We have transportation and can go everywhere.”

Some foreign exchange students carry their traditions along with them on their trip to the United State to maintain their cultural identity while they are away. Depending on their background, they may have different interpretations on certain ideas or issues since they developed differently from our own society. In some cases, they have more credibility than Americans on many discussed subjects since they are directly affected by them.

“I live with a Mormon family and I come from Atheist country. I started going to church with them and it was a big thing for me. It’s something I’ve never done before when I grew up. I wasn’t around religious people which means I didn’t know how they see why things are happening, which is totally different from my mind,” Katerina Kotikova, who is from the Czech Republic, said. “We were religious before the Second World War, and then during the time the Nazis were there so the church were run by the Nazis. People saw the church as part of the Nazi party. After the War, we were then taken by Russians and Communism [which were against religion] and they tried to destroy it. We didn’t have a purpose to stay in the church because they felt the church betrayed them.”

However, some of these thought processes are not always political and up for debate. Foreign exchange students can be set apart simply by their talents or interests. With the Western spread of ideas across the world, many countries have adopted English customs among their own society. Whether it’s wearing sports products from big company titles or listening to English bands or singers, they are fascinated by how it works. The most notable English speaking country, recognized or favored by most European countries, is the United States. They are known for providing opportunity and freedom for those who integrate as a citizen, it’s affluential prosperity through strategic business management and largely known accomplishments, and it’s image, developed overtime by the world’s notion of how they see Americans.

“Back home I usually play Basketball and then whenever I’m with my friends we play soccer for fun. It is way more competitive here in the United States in every sport,” Javier Novoa, a track team member from Spain, said. “In Spain you can go into any team you want without even trying out. You just sign a paper and you’re on the team.If you are good you’ll play more, and if you’re not you’ll play a couple of minutes a game. People here take it more seriously, they just live for the sport.”

Students from various countries are sent as Junior Ambassadors, so that they can act as a representative for their country. This role encourages students to get along with those around them and enable dialogue to be exchanged between the two nationalities. By engaging in this type of interaction, they contribute to stepping towards a world becoming gradually more unified and cooperative with one another.

“At first view, the United States and Germany seem similar but when you look deeper into it they are completely different,” Jenny Joy Schumann, a Junior Ambassador from Germany, said. “I’ve joined six school clubs and I went to the United Nations Conference. I’m interested in the Young Democrats club, and I’m also joining the Young Republicans club to see how both parties work and I don’t really agree with either of them. (Chuckles) Everything I thought was impossible I have achieved. This is a really good program for anyone who is interested with politics. It’s good for me because I’m trying to become an Ambassador. I could be member of Congress if I wanted to.”

Foreign exchange programs place students in a completely new perspective of their own, which gives them the chance to branch out of their comfort zone and experience all that the world has to offer. Though it may seem daunting, those willing to take this opportunity may find it as an asset to the betterment of understanding the world.