Most of us are familiar with foreign exchange students.
We know from our own high school days — and characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” — what it’s like to enter a new classroom, try to find the right seat in the cafeteria, live with a family you can’t always communicate with.
At least, we think we know.
Alex Nitkin has no doubt.
After graduating from Staples last June, the former managing editor of the Inklings school newspaper is spending a gap year as a Rotary exchange student in Venezuela.
Next fall, he’ll enter Northwestern’s Medill journalism school. Now, he’s honing his writing skills through an intriguing blog.
“Alex in Venezuela” covers everything an exchange student encounters, from food and family to the opposite sex and swear words.
For example, here’s what happened after his host sister invited him downstairs to meet some friends:
I could sense in her unenthusiastic voice that this invitation was her mother’s idea…. I crept down the steps to find ten-or-so teenagers sitting on assembled couches and chairs in the living room. I could swear they were literally all talking at the exact same time. When they saw me, they got quiet and shot me some confused looks, until I just timidly smiled and waved and sat down on one of the couches. What else could I do?
When my host mother passed through the room and saw me sitting in the presence of this crowd, she gleefully announced my name and why I was there. “He doesn’t know very much Spanish,” she cautioned them all. “So remember to all talk slowly to each other so he can understand everything.” Thanks, new embarrassing mom.
I sat there uncomfortably for a little while, understanding almost none of their loud and excited jabber, until they started to sporadically turn to me and ask me questions about where I’m from or how much of their talk I could understand. When I answered them with confused shrugs or otherwise made it clear I didn’t follow, they all laughed and went back to chattering amongst themselves. I felt patronized.
So the next time they asked me something, I made sure to answer in a complete sentence, using the most complex words I knew in the best accent I could muster. I think I even unconsciously deepened my voice an octave or two. I really wanted to fit in.
It worked. From that point, the ice was pretty much broken, and we went on to do the first thing teenagers from different cultures always do when they meet: teach each other insults and vulgarities in their respective languages….
We stayed and talked, me talking about my country while they taught me colloquialisms and made fun of each other, for what felt like hours. A few of them took a pause to cook up a big pot of pasta for all of us. When they left, they said that the next day (today) they would all go to one of their houses and watch movies all day, and that I was invited.
This, unfortunately, did not happen. Why? I’ll never know. But unless someone comes and fetches me and says “we’re going now,” I have no choice but to stay in this house. And no one fetched me.
After going to a movie, and then out to eat, Alex wrote:
Long after we finished our cheeseburgers, we stayed in that McDonald’s exchanging stories about our respective countries. I told them about how cold my town gets in the winter and how it has its own beach. I told them about Americans’ low standards for food quality, as long as there’s a lot of it. I told them about all the things you can see and do in New York, and how we all make fun of New Jersey.
It was the first time since I’ve been here that I really felt genuine and funny and interesting rather than just being a confused third wheel that has to be dragged along with my family everywhere they go. I was even surprised by how comfortably I could speak Spanish when I was able to talk so casually.
And at the same time, all the talk had made me a little nostalgic. The movie set in New York City and the McDonald’s food sitting in my stomach didn’t really help either.
I don’t really miss my house, or my hometown surrounding it. And while I miss my family and friends, it isn’t enough to make me feel sad or lonely. But what I miss most of all, what I long for and sometimes wonder why I left behind, is the United States of America.
The next day, Alex blogged,
when I looked down at my Facebook page open on my computer in front of me, I was reminded that sundown tonight marked the beginning of Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that I would not be observing for the first time ever. And it occurred to me that if I were still up there, I’d be fasting. And even hungrier.
I imagined myself at home, in my uncomfortable suit and tie with the collar loosened, having just gotten back from Kol Nidrei services, watching a food show and longing to be somewhere else – longing to start a new exciting life in an exotic, faraway place.
Well, here I am. I’ve realized that dream I’ve always had of getting away–so it’s foolish to idolize the idea of the home I’ve left behind, or to wish I could go back. Because after all, it’ll still be there in a year.
And I have no doubt that on Yom Kippur next year, I’ll be wishing I were back at that McDonald’s with my new friends and my greasy Venezuelan cheeseburger, laughing and sharing stories together.
Alex is having a remarkable, varied, special, unique, wonderful and uncomfortable time in Venezuela — the goal of any exchange student, from the U.S. or to here.
Whatever he does, in college or afterward, the coming year will be part of him forever.
And his writing experience won’t be too shabby either.
(To read more of Alex’s blog, click here.)