Local exchange students – young ambassadors

So, there were these two highway workers and they were busy working at a construction site when a big car with diplomatic license plates pulled up.

“Parlez-vous français?,” the driver asked them. The two workers just stared.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” The two continued to stare at him.

“Fala português?” Neither worker said anything.

“Parlate Italiano?” Still no response.

Finally, the man drove off in disgust. One worker turned to the other and said, “Gee, maybe we should learn a foreign language.” The other worker answered, “What for? That guy knew four of them and what good did it do him?”

Forgive this rather lame joke, but I thought it would be fun to introduce Pagosa High School’s five foreign exchange students with a bit of foreign language humor.

It is true that each of the five students lists learning English as one of their main reasons for coming to the United States, and the above joke, anecdotally, perhaps sheds a bit of light on why learning English is a priority for many people around the world.

I met with Ina Meininghaus, from Everswinkel (near Muenster), Germany; Henning Boman, from Norrkoping, Sweden; Martin Zippel from Berlin, Germany; Marian Kromer, also from Berlin; and Bonnie Lin, from Tai Pei, Taiwan, last week during their lunch break at the high school.

Ina and Martin came to Pagosa with the Pax exchange program, Henning with American Field Services (AFS), and Marian and Bonnie are both Rotary exchange students.

In excellent English they shared with me some of their impressions of living in the United States, so far. All five of the students have been here since before the start of the school year this fall, and they will stay on in Pagosa through the end of school year in June.

Coming to America

“I wanted to come to English speaking country, and I wanted to have fun. The people here are fun,” Ina said.

For Henning, what started out as disappointment turned into delight: “I was originally supposed to be in Los Angeles for the year — and when you hear about America in Sweden its place like New York and Los Angeles that you hear about, so at the beginning I was disappointed, but now I know that I am in the perfect place for me. I love skiing, I love outdoor sports, I love the hot springs, I love the people,” he said. “And I’m so excited for Wolf Creek skiing,” Henning couldn’t resist repeating.

What’s different?

When I asked about the differences they’ve noticed between their cultures and ours, I got a wide array of answers.

“Some people here are much more strict with their religion than most people in my country,” Marian said. “And here, it seems like your life is all about school when you’re young. You’re in school all day, you play sports for the school teams.”

Ina agreed, “In Germany we play on town leagues; you go to school until about one o’clock in the afternoon and then, if you play sports, you go play them with a town league. Here it is different. Your school is your life.”

Bonnie had a long list of things that are different between American and Taiwanese culture. “Girls wear more makeup here than in Taiwan. And everyone wears what they want to wear. In Taiwan, we wear school uniforms. At Halloween everyone dresses up here, even the adults; that’s different than in Taiwan. School is much harder in my country, here the homework is not that bad. It’s very different for me too to be in a small town because in Tai Pei you look out the window and see tall buildings and many cars and many people; here, you look out and see not so many people and cars. I like it here, here is good,” Bonnie said.

Martin discussed the different attitude that the German culture has towards drinking. “In Germany, you’re allowed to drink at age 16. Parents are not afraid of kids drinking,” he said.

Henning said, “Since drinking is forbidden here, when kids do drink they drink way more than in Sweden. In Europe, drinking is part of our culture, most people drink responsibly and they drink for the taste, not just to get drunk.”

Ina agreed, “Teenagers do drink too much in Germany, too, but in America it’s a big problem.”

The group went on to describe some of the benefits of American culture that they’ve enjoyed. Like technology. Martin and Ina agreed that the technology in schools here in the U.S. is more advanced. “In Germany we still write on chalkboards. Here, they have these smart boards in some of the classrooms, and the computer labs have lots and lots of all the best computers,” they said.

The people in America have surprised this group of five students.

“When I thought of America before I came, I didn’t think about a lot of thin, athletic people, but that’s mostly what there is in Pagosa Springs,” said Marian. Henning added: “The people here are very friendly, they come talk to you. Even when I was in New York for a few days before I came here, it was the same way. I feel welcome here, people welcome you, even if you’ve never seen them before.”

Staying busy

One possible reason that people in Pagosa have been so welcoming, is that the students, for their part, have so heartily involved themselves in the school and community. It is clear that these students are doing a whole lot more here in the U.S. than just learning English.

Bonnie said she loves singing in the school choir. “We got to go visit churches with the choir and sing for them,” she enthused. “I like singing.”

Ina is looking forward to visiting the elementary school and giving a presentation about German culture. “I will read them a German children’s story and translate it for them, and maybe bring some kind of special German food, and teach them about our culture,” Ina said.

Martin, Henning and Marian all played soccer with the Pagosa High School soccer team this fall. With huge smiles on their faces, they each recalled those golden games and golden bus rides with the Pagosa soccer team earlier this year.

A few of their favorite things

I asked the students about the best memories they’ve made so far here in America. Martin answered that it was awesome getting to ride a dirt bike with Henning. Ina said she loved the Four Corners Folk Festival and she also loved being here for the first snow fall “That first little bit of snow we got here is as much as we usually get the whole year where I live in Germany!” she said.

Henning enjoyed a trip to Denver with other AFS students.

Marian confirmed that the best thing was being on the bus with his soccer team, shooting the breeze with his teammates.

Bonnie said she liked Homecoming Week. “It was fun and crazy,” she said. And she said again that she loves singing in the choir.

Each of the students also spoke highly of the support they’ve gotten from their host families and the fun they’ve had with them.

Looking ahead

Since exchange students play something of an ambassador’s role when they travel abroad, I was particularly interested to hear what these students’ hopes are for the future, either on a personal level or a global one.

Bonnie said she hopes to come back to the U.S. to study English and American culture even more.

Ina said she hopes it will get easier and easier for people to travel to America.

Martin hoped that the war in Iraq will end.

And Henning said he hopes that we all can learn to understand each other’s cultures. “That can bring peace,” he said. “There’s a reason people believe what they believe and we have to try to understand them even if we believe in different things.”