Foreign exchange program offers unique relationships, new cultural insights

Zach Cepeda, staff reporter

From the existence of drive thrus to saying “bless you” after someone sneezes, there are many aspects of everyday American culture that do not exist in other countries. Through South’s Foreign Exchange program, students taking Spanish, French, German or Japanese have the opportunity to discover the many cultural differences between the United States and other countries.

World language students participating in the exchange have the option to host a student visiting from a foreign country, or travel to the country themselves. However, some students, such as senior Jacqueline DeWitt, decide to do both. Her choice enabled her to witness Spanish culture not only through hosting her student, but also by visiting Spain.

“[The trip] was the best experience of my life,” DeWitt said. “I’ve never been outside North America, so that was really cool. I know everyone says, ‘It’s a whole new way of life,’ and it really was. The way they drive, the way they dress; everything is just so different.”

According to DeWitt, because the trip took place during the Spanish students’ spring break, they had a lot more free time to absorb the culture.

“Our [trip] was constant fun,” DeWitt said. “We would just vacation with [the students]. We could stay out late, because in Spain they don’t have curfews. We would come home at like four in the morning, it didn’t matter. It’s not even a scandalous thing to do. That’s the norm.”

According to Yasuko Makita-Discekici, Japanese exchange supervisor, the first interaction between the hosts and their students stands out the most to her.

“I think it’s amazing how they can connect to each other so quickly,” Makita-Discekici said. “It doesn’t matter how [well] they can speak the different languages, they always connect to each other.”

While many participants immediately grew close with their exchange partners, DeWitt says it took her and her student longer to build that connection.

“Everyone called each other [siblings], like this is my Spanish sister, this is my Spanish brother. When [my exchange student] came here, it was homecoming week, and since I’m on Student Council, I was super busy and barely spent anytime with her, which kind of stunk. […] So at first I wasn’t able to say that. But when I went to Spain she totally showed me the way. I got to spend every waking minute with her and got to know her better.”

Participating in an exchange program and connecting with someone from the other side of the globe is a very powerful thing, Makita-Discekici says. It teaches students cultural and social differences, which in turn, broadens their overall perspective of the world.   

“The age during high school is very meaningful,” Makita-Discekici said. “If they are too young, [the students] maybe could interact with each other, but eventually they will forget each other and not really sustain the good relationship they established. But in high school, if they get connected to each other, they can still keep the communication going.”

Junior Rory Villa, Japanese exchange host, did exactly that after her student left last March. According to Villa, she and her student, Mai, text each other over a Japanese texting app, called Line. Although they were still able to stay in touch, Villa says saying goodbye was the hardest part of the experience.

“For three weeks after they left, I felt like I had the biggest hole in my life,” Villa said. “I would talk to the other kids that had hosted, and they felt so sad that their students were gone. They left when we were at school, so at 11 a.m. on the dot every host family realized they were gone […] They really become a part of your family by the end of the trip.”

DeWitt claims she was taken aback at first by the contrast she encountered in the country. Staying in her exchange student’s small town of Orihuela, Spain, it took her a little while to adjust to the changes.

“When we went out to dinner the first night, the town was abandoned,” DeWitt said. “There were stray dogs, kids playing in the street. It was really late when we got there. There were people driving around; a car here or there with loud music playing. […] We went to this restaurant and there was no one there. We just sat and watched the news, and ate ham sandwiches. It was weird. It was awkward. That was [my] first night in Spain.”

According to Villa, there weren’t any major culture shocks she had to explain to her student, but hosting enabled her to have a better insight into the minor differences between their two cultures.

“We had to explain ‘bless you’ at the dinner table,” Villa said. “After someone sneezes, we always say bless you. After awhile she asked, ‘why do you keep saying bless you after someone sneezes?’ I told her I didn’t know why, we just do it.”

Similar to Villa’s experience, junior Dan Martin, German exchange host, says his student was taken aback by some aspects of American culture.

“We had to explain a drive thru to him,” Martin said. “He was really confused when we went to a drive thru. He just didn’t understand why we were eating food in the car, or why I was driving and eating a burger. He wondered why we just didn’t sit down and eat.”

Reflecting on previous experience of foreign travel, German teacher Lauren Fraser believes language learning paired with travel can lead to a broadened perspective, and can show students the practical use of knowing a second language.

“I think it’s a big world that’s getting smaller, and it’s important for students to make connections outside of their towns,” Fraser said. “I think world language in general is a very important skill to have in the marketplace and the world [today]. Exchange is a motivating factor for many kids to really latch on to the language and culture.”

Hosting in the last week of October and the first week of November this year, Martin says drive thrus weren’t the only part of American culture that was odd to his student.

“The day he was leaving, we went to Elly’s Pancake House and sang happy birthday to him, even though it wasn’t his birthday,” Martin said. “He got a cheesecake with a candle in it. He was so confused. We all started singing to him. He was smiling, but didn’t know what to do. […] He didn’t understand why he was getting the cake for free.”

According to Makita-Discekici, she too has experienced cultural confusion after she first moved here from Japan.

“It was very strange at the airport when I first came to [the United States],” Makita-Discekici said. “I went to ask something at the information desk and the guy says, ‘Hi, how are you?’, in English, you say [this] to anybody, but [in Japan] the phrase is only used for those who know each other.”

According to Fraser, just taking a foreign language class isn’t always enough to fully experience that particular culture.

“Language is just a window into the culture,” Fraser said. “There are things that you don’t understand, or jokes you don’t get, but just knowing the way [others] express things, gives insight into the way that they think. When you see the different ways to express [yourself through language], it gives you a different perspective on how to think about things.”