There are few experiences more unsettling than being a foreign exchange student.
I had the opportunity to spend five months in Costa Rica last year, and every day was a mash of awkward exchanges, misunderstandings, and the anything-but-secure feeling of, “I wish I knew where this car was taking me.” (In the Costa Ricans’ defense, I often feel this way in the U.S. too.)
It wasn’t until two weeks ago, however, that I again began to experience the difficulties that time abroad can bring. Only this time, I was on the outside, looking in.
Vicky is a 17-year old girl from Spain. Technically, she’s my younger sister’s foreign exchange student, staying with her for three weeks.
Untechnically, I get to spend as much time with Vicky as my sister does, bringing her to class with me and showing her around the town in an effort to acclimate her to American lifestyle.
At first, I tried to make Hopkinton seem like stereotypical America, attempting in vain to point out some type of chain restaurant as I hoped not to disappoint Vicky’s visions of the U.S.
Even my family put on a show of “Americana” for the first several days, the act quickly deteriorating when we realized that we had run out of hamburgers. In resignation, we decided to take Vicky to New York for the annual family Passover Seder, figuring that if we couldn’t show Vicky mainstream America, we would have to show her parts of our culture, namely, my relatives, too obscure to have ever been seen by foreign eyes.
We walked in the door to my aunt and uncle’s house and a rush of people poured from the kitchen shouting greetings.
My entire extended family was there, including our relatives from Israel, who I hadn’t seen in eight years.
Vicky stood behind me, a look on her face not unlike the one I used to see on the class hamster during first-grade show-and-tell. (The hamster disappeared under mysterious circumstances about two-thirds through the year.)
I quickly ushered Vicky to the sofa, both to give her some distance from my milling relatives and to avoid an injury on her part in case she fainted, a situation that seemed more likely with every passing moment.
Luckily, she maintained consciousness through the introductions, after which she sat on the couch, unmoving, probably wondering if she could catch the next flight back to Spain. A glass of water and half an hour later, however, Vicky was back to her normal self, curiously exploring the house.
Vicky, while not speaking much English, has memorized a surprising amount of phrases, her favorite being, “What is this?”
In her case, it’s the all-purpose Swiss Army Knife of the English language.
Regardless of the situation, those three words appear without fail, always followed by a polite and solemn nod.
I believe that if I accidently impaled myself while making lunch Vicky would calmly approach me, eye the knife sticking into me, and ask, “What is this?”
With these thoughts in mind, my relatives and I sat down to begin the Passover Seder. Vicky wedged between my sister and I in an unsuccessful attempt to shield her from the overwhelming presence of my extended family.
My grandfather started the reading, and I watched Vicky bite her lip in concentration, trying as she always does to get the general gist of the conversation.
Vicky always seems to be putting forth an incredible effort to comprehend what people are saying. In this instance she grudgingly accepted defeat after my sister quietly told her my grandfather was speaking in Hebrew.
I watched her throughout the rest of the meal, as closely as I could between bites of matzah and my aunt’s tomato soup. She seemed strangely at peace with the situation, looking comfortable despite the surroundings being foreign in every way.
Maybe this wasn’t the America she had expected, with all its neon signs and picket fences, fast cars and malls. But as far as I could tell, she was alright with that.
- Evan Katz is a senior at Hopkinton High School