By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL, COKATO, MN Each year, Dassel-Cokato High School students have the opportunity to get to know several students from foreign countries who have come to the US to learn more about its culture.
The students who come to DC from foreign countries have left behind their family and friends not only to learn about the US, but also to learn more about themselves.
The adventurous students who have made that journey this year are Olivia Hirt of Austria, Kaner Avsar of Germany, Pacharamai “June” Boongird of Thailand, Lisa Falck of Norway, and Seongwon Lee of Korea.
When asked why they chose to embark on the journey, the students said they wanted to learn more about themselves and about American culture.
“I wanted to learn more about myself, gain experience, and learn about a new culture,” Hirt said, adding, “It’s an adventure escape from the daily routine.”
Some of them brought up American television shows as reasons they chose to come.
“I wanted to see how other people lived,” Avsar said, noting he thought it would be more like “The OC,” an American television show on the CW network about teenagers ant their families living in Orange County, CA.
Lee said her friends had been to the US before as exchange students, and they highly recommended it, and she liked the show “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Falck admitted she had decided to be a foreign exchange student as an impulse, and that she had really wanted to go somewhere in the south, where it was warm.
Avsar, who had wanted to go to California, admitted all the snow and cold was a “serious shock in [his] life.”
“I watched the thermometer drop to minus 35, and thought, ‘Why do people want to live here?’” Avsar said. “And, we had school that day.”
Foreign exchange students do not choose which state they will live and attend school, only choosing to go to the US.
Not all the foreign exchange students disliked the cold weather and snow, though.
“I really like the snow,” Boongird said, adding that she is very proud she learned how to ski while at DC.
All of the exchange students, except for Hirt, have been at DC since the beginning of the school year. Hirt came in January and stays with Brett VanOvermeer’s family of Cokato.
Right after being interviewed for this article, Boongird moved with her host family, Billy and Lori Wallace, formerly of Dassel, to Louisiana to finish her stay in the US.
She could have stayed with a new host family at DC, but decided it would add to her experience if she moved with them.
Avsar stays with Steve and Becky Nelson of Dassel; Falck stays with Donna and Jim Hughes of Dassel; and Lee stays with Scott and Cindy Barth of Coakto.
Another reason the foreign exchange students wanted to come to the US was to improve their English skills.
“I wanted to learn the language. English is a world language, and there is an advantage to knowing it,” Avsar said.
Differences in school and culture
When comparing schools in their home countries to DC, the students note many differences.
“My school is bigger than DC; about 2,000 people,” Lee said. “In Korea, I’m a middle-school senior. We have 15 senior classes, each with about 35 middle-school seniors.
In South Korea, along with Norway and Austria, the students stay in the same classroom the entire day, and the teachers move from room to room.
In that type of school system, students do not have a choice of which class they are taking.
Extracurricular activities in other countries are also very different than in the US.
For instance, in Germany, students wanting to participate in sports and arts join private clubs or organizations.
“You are more in school to get your education, and at the end of the day, you go home and do your thing,” Avsar said.
Austria is very similar to Germany in that there is less emphasis on sports. “Sports are not taken that seriously in our school,” Hirt said. “We have sports, but we usually only practice once a week for fun, and hardly have any games.”
Because sports and arts are not connected to the school, there is less school spirit in those countries.
“In my school we do not really have school spirit. No one wears sweatshirts or sweatpants with the school logo on it,” Hirt said.
Both Hirt and Avsar experienced school spirit by participating in some of the extra-curricular activities DC has to offer.
Avsar was part of the football team, and received an award, letter and jersey for his participation on the team.
“It made me proud to win the junior varsity most valuable player award and letter in wrestling,” Avsar said. “Especially because the MVP award was voted on by the guys on my team.”
Hirt participated in DC’s choir, sang in a concert, and participated in a choir competition in which she received a superior rating.
In Norway, students barely have any homework, and teachers do not care if students are late or miss class, Falck said.
Students also receive their own laptop in Norway, and most students spend their time on Facebook during class, and the teachers don’t care, she added.
“We simply don’t have respect for our teachers,” Falck said.
Although most of the students said their lifestyle in their home country is similar to the lifestyle here, there are some differences.
“There are only small differences in culture, because I think the USA is actually European,” Hirt said. She did note that the food and how people speak to each other was different.
“People are very religious here; it surprised me,” Falck said. “I only know, like, one Christian person in Norway.”
The major difference for Avsar was living in a rural area compared to living in a city of 600,000 people.
“The food is different, as well,” Avsar said. “It is more mixed up here, and there’s more fast food.”
Although Lee thought the lifestyle in her home country and in the US were similar, she thought traditional culture was very different.
For instance, in South Korea, the way people address each other is very formal. “We respect older people, so we do not call them by name,” Lee said.
An older sister would be called “Un-ni.” If there is more than one older sister, they are called first sister, second sister, and so forth.
Also there, all children born in the same year are considered the same age, and all turn a year older on the new year for that reason.
Lee gave a good example, saying, “One of my friends was born in May 1995, and I was born in July 1995. If she [turned a year older] in May, she would be older than me by two months, and I would not know what to call her.
“If I called her sister for just two months, and two months later, call her [by] name, it is really weird.”
Learning about oneself
One of the things all the foreign exchange students agreed they will be taking with them from this experience is learning more about themselves.
“I’ve learned to live by myself, and learned more about myself,” Boongird said.
“I think I learned about me,” Lee said. “I’m an only child, so I always want my parents to help. So, I thought, ‘I don’t like me. I grow up every day, but I can’t do everything by myself. It’s so stupid.’ But after I came here, I know I can do everything by myself.”
Avsar learned to be more independent and a self-starter, rather than having his mom forcing him to do stuff, like he was used to in Germany, he said.
Some of the exchange students have dealt with shyness, and either learned to overcome it, or learned it was something they could live with.
Hirt is more self-confident, knowing she can handle things on her own.
“I have learned that I have to be really open to people in order to make new friends and come out of my shell,” Hirt said.
Both Boongird and Lee admit being really quiet. “I don’t really know what to say, so I’m a quiet girl,” Boongird said. “But I have some good friends!”
“At first I was so nervous, I couldn’t say anything,” Lee said. “I understood them, and wanted to tell them something, but my mouth wouldn’t open.”
She is now able to talk, but still gets really shy sometimes, Lee said.
Each of the foreign exchange students had some embarassing moments, some with miscommunication, and some for being placed in the spotlight.
On her first day of school at DC, Boongird missed the bus to ride home after school, which she thought was pretty embarassing.
Flack was embarrassed when she was introduced at church by the priest.
Avsar did not know what DQ or Mountain Dew meant when he started out the school year. “People looked at me like I was the stupidest person they had ever met!” he said.
It did not take him long to understand that DQ is short for Dairy Queen.
For her birthday, Hirt went out to eat with a group of friends, and her host sister made her wear a pink birthday crown and a pink feather boa.
When she got up to go get her food, the server suddenly had everyone sing for her birthday, as Hirt stood awkwardly in the middle of the restaurant.
When Lee first arrived in the US, it was a day she will never forget. She had been up for 21 hours, and was very tired and nervous.
Her host mom, sister, and cousin met her, and asked, really slow and loud, “Hi, how are you?”
Then, in the car, they were dancing and singing, and asked, again really slow and loud, “Do you like this song?” But Lee could not hear them over the music, and did not know the song.
“Their voices were so loud, and they were so hyper, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m so scared, oh my god.’ But now I think it’s the funniest story for me,” Lee said. “And I’m not scared of them anymore.”
Although the foreign exchange students have missed their family and friends from their home countries, they have also made some very good friends here and will take this experience with them the rest of their lives.