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Rosenblum: Exchange students comment on our quirks

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • September 15, 2012 - 7:20 PM

More than 160 students from 60 countries are settling into Minnesota life as participants in the Youth For Understanding (YFU) high school exchange program.

Thanks to the program's students who have come before, this crop is well-prepared to deal with our quirks. Don't think we have any?

Well.

For many years, YFU field director Robyn Lee-Dobbs of St. Paul has compiled a growing list of exchange students' observations about American -- and, more specifically, Minnesotan -- life. The list is a hoot, and a reminder that, as global as the world is becoming, we still enjoy luxuries and odd behaviors that we likely don't consider luxuries and odd behaviors.

Before students leave after spending the school year with host families, the program asks, "What can we do to help prepare the kids for next year? What surprised you the most?"

Their amusing and astute responses:

Fast food (they were amazed by the portions and super-sizing). Free refills. Huge refrigerators.

Doggie bags. "After eating a full dinner at a restaurant," one student explained, "we then ask for a doggie bag to take the rest home for later!"

Water fountains: "A place for everyone to drink and spread germs."

The ages for driving and drinking. Most exchange students find it "backward" that youths learn to drive before they learn how to handle their drinking. "They unanimously felt that 16 was way too young to drive a car," Lee-Dobbs said.

Clutter. They were especially entertained by Rubbermaid bins used to store more of our stuff that we're not using.

Showers. Most of the students are accustomed to baths. One student used cold water for four months because he didn't know you could turn the dial to a warmer setting.

Two front doors. Definitely a Minnesota thing, Lee-Dobbs said. "We have a storm door and then a main front door. They could not understand why we need a second door."

One-stop shopping at Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart.

Road kill.

High school sports. This is a thoroughly American concept, Lee-Dobbs learned. "In other countries, sports are played outside of the school day as part of city programs."

Attached garages. Frozen food (to keep in those huge refrigerators. Their families tend to buy fresh produce daily).

Lack of public transportation. Exchange students typically walk to school, or ride the train or their bike. American parents, they marveled, drive their kids everywhere. (Have you ever heard of such a thing?)

Many were surprised by school buses. They'd never seen them.

Cliques were tough for some who found it challenging to make friends. When, they wondered, are you supposed to socialize? For many, up to two hours of social time is built into their school day. That American misnomer, "lunch hour," doesn't suffice.

"They spend half their time waiting in the food line, then they shovel it down," Lee-Dobbs said.

If students aren't involved in a sport or other after-school activity, they can feel isolated. (Note to Minnesota students: If you have an exchange student at your school, please reach out.)

Also notable: Stores open on Sunday. Unlocked bathroom doors. This cultural difference apparently has caused embarrassing moments for both host families and exchange students.

Electric pencil sharpeners. Hand sanitizer. Hall passes. ("We have to get permission to go to the bathroom?")

The abundance of American flags flying in front of homes and businesses. The abundance of guns in homes.

And the appeal of attending a house of worship. "They talked a lot about church," Lee-Dobbs said. "They'd say, 'If church was like this back home, everyone would go.' They liked how accessible it seemed."

They especially liked going to religious youth programs, "which always seemed to apply to them and what they were going through in their lives," she said. "Teenagers are teenagers no matter where they're from."

And, teenagers being teenagers, they evolved over time until what seemed weird and strange started to grow on them.

A Russian student, for example, was perplexed about why everyone in Minnesota seemed so chipper. "Why do people talk to me?" he asked Lee-Dobbs early in the school year. "Why are they so happy?"

After returning home 10 months later, he e-mailed Lee-Dobbs with a new observation.

"Nobody says 'hi' here," he fretted. "No one smiles!"

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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