Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Die andere Hälfte der Geschichte: der Austausch nach Amerika

[ The other half of the story: The exchange to America ]

For those that might remember from a few months ago, as I lived in Saarbrücken I had the chance to visit a German-French speaking high school and meet quite a few students near my age and later hangout together around the city. Back at the time, I was still struggling through the first month and a half of my German crash-course curriculum and the "quirky and odd German customs" hadn't yet become the norm for me and were still conversation centerpieces amongst my American classmates. As I met some of the Deutsch Französisches Gymnasium students for an evening of hookah and in depth conversation, many of the students were anxiously preparing and counting down the days for their class trip to the United States complete with tours of some major cities and a homestay experience with host families.

A few month later during my return to Saarbrücken, I told Adil, one of the students from the class whom I was in touch with since leaving, that I was in town and we planned to meet together for an evening. It was great, first of all, to see him and enjoy the fact that I made some nice connections when I lived in Saarbrücken. The other interesting aspect for me was hearing the variety of stories from Adil that he brought back from his very eventful experience in the US.

Trying to keep some timeline to the stories - since, as I well know, trying to capture any detailed event such as living abroad is filled with many side details and intersecting thoughts - we started talking about Washington D.C. . Now, I must mention that a few months ago, Adil asked me questions about racism in the US and how he might be treated as an Arab-German student studying abroad. I gave him the truth as I saw most realistic and told him that in school and the host city, I doubt it would be any problem - maybe a few strange questions from inquisitive Americans. The only place that I thought he would have trouble would be the US customs at the Airport, unfortunately, just because of his looks from national origin.

Sure enough, as declared by Adil - in a way that confirmed and somehow showed appreciation for my frank forewarning - he was momentarily separated from his classmates by an escort at the Airport and questioned because of his passport's stamps showing many visits to Morocco [to visit family]. Adil said the questions were brief, but he was asked why he visited Morocco so often, and also if he "had any connections or communication with known terrorist groups." Very direct, and a bit eyebrow-furrowing to be asked to a minor, but I think the situation opens many realistic views on the issue of Airport security and how this is handled in America - just or unjust, the good news is that Adil passed through fine and continued a very exciting trip with his class mates.

The students all visited Washington DC [ "I loved that city - maybe if there weren't so many people there, I could live there!" ] and saw some museums, the exciting historical streets, and - Woah! The White House! - everything that I was very happy to hear since DC is one of my favorite places as well.

The next experience of the 3 week exchange was the school/host family experience which took place in Allentown, PA. I didn't know anything about the city when talking to the students, but from hearing from Adil, the school was "extremely diverse - as if white people were a minority". A unique answer, but understandable coming from schools in Germany were a student like Adil is normally one in a large handful. If anything, I knew that the diverse - and from what I heard, huge - school would provide the German students with many interesting learning experiences.

After the small details - like students having lockers, switching classes [The hallways were SO full ], to WOW! I actually saw a yellow schoolbus! - I began to hear more about America under the surface.

Now, the students were only there for a little over 2 weeks with their families - a period to still be in a honeymoon phase in the States, but also enough to really become close to family members and meet some good friends. Adil shared with me the great long talks, and bonding experience he had with his family - "It was great, we talked all the time. They were a conservative family, but I was surprised how sensible and nice they were". [ Something I always find amusing, since "the conservative American" in many conversations in Germany is most definitely viewed as a crazy, ignorant person unless the German has actually met someone in the states. ]

[ Dare I post this photo?!... I pulled this one up from a few years ago from my first experience meeting many German exchange students that did a similar exchange like Adil's class and visited Troy Athens High School for a few weeks. It brought full circle my first experiences wanting to experience Germany, as well as understanding the rapid experience Adil had in the states going to high school and living with a host family. Note in the photo - the Germans are just the ones that happen to be taller than the rest of us. ]

Not quite sure from my point of view if it is good or bad, but Adil raved about the enjoyable get-together's the host families had with all the students together - they love to have parties, order some pizza's, watch sports, and eat off paper plates... From the sounds of it, the host families were just as generous and caring as the families in Troy were when I first met a similar large group of German students a few years ago in high school. Adil commented on the different English at school - poking a bit of fun at the seemingly comical usage of "like" and "eww" to convey a large array of personal thoughts amongst the girls in the high school, as well as the "school uniform" of American Eagle and Abercrombie clothes - but some of these real life stereotypes made me laugh, because, lets face it, they are true - and some I knew that, if the German students spent a few more weeks in America and soaked up an even more in depth experience, I would hear more polarizing views on the "culture" - something that I am learning myself about my country living abroad.

The conversation with Adil went quite long into the evening - we talked more about his host family, the sports [ There is ALWAYS football - friday, highschool, saturday, college, Sunday and Monday Pro... and the other days have baseball, basketball....] and the final trip to New York to wrap up the experience [ I didn't like it - too big. Way too big. I could never live there ]. Of course it was just one coversation, and I always enjoy hearing varied stories of Germans visiting America - they are always so different, but a few similarities always arise. I am very glad Adil and his classmates had "the time of their lives" and truly enjoyed the experience. For now, they are finishing up the school year, and later in the year, about 20 Americans from Allentown will come visit Saarbrücken, which should also be a very cool experience for the Germans to pull together about two weeks to showcase their city and summarize their culture for their foreign guests. A task that is always interesting to take part in. It was great to see Adil, and I hope to catch up again with him soon if I get back to Saarbrücken later this year.