Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Foreign Exchange Students in Homer

Saturday evening Douglas and I headed up to Harmon's Barn, the local meeting place for fundraisers and other local events, for an ethnic dinner made and presented by local foreign exchange students. Sponsored by AFS Intercultural Programs, five of the six local exchange students helped decorate the barn (a crude word for a delightful and tastefully decorated place), prepare and serve the food and give presentations about their countries. Four of the students present were with AFS, here from Indonesia, Egypt and Kenya (2 students). One was through Cultural Homestay International (CHI) from Mexico and one from Japan through another program. The Rotary exchange student from Saudi Arabia was not present. Many of the 40-50 attendees were past or present exchange student host families or support host families.

Izzy from Kenya was the emcee for the evening, dressed in his traditional garb. He displayed an amazing finesse in that role, particularly considering that he'd volunteered for the position only a week before and didn't even know what an emcee did before he volunteered! Each course of the meal was presented and the students from that country explained the food and gave a PowerPoint presentation with photos and highlights from their countries. A ten minute intermission between each presentation allowed us to eat and chat.

Zumma from Kenya started off the evening, sharing about the shocking high prevalence of AIDS in Kenya. Sambusa was one of the appetizers, along with fuul from Egypt and ikura from Japan.

Next Selma from Egypt presented, sharing pictures and perspectives on life and politics in Egypt.

Ella from Indonesia shared a bit about life in the 4th most populous country on earth, a country that is composed of 17,000 islands. She had full traditional garb on, and treated us to satay: gado-gado, coconut milk rice and dendeng.

While we ate dessert (basbousa from Egypt, chai tea from Kenya and halawa labanieh from Saudi Arabia) Eri from Japan and Elisa from Mexico presented about their countries, and on request by the audience our MC, Izzy, spoke about his life in Kenya.

Selma presented a belly dance, sharing that 'all the girls' in Egypt 'know how to do this.'

Finally, Ella sang and danced a traditional dance that is done at weddings and other special occasions.

It was a fun and fascinating evening, with tasty food and enjoyable company. Part of the fun was watching the exchange students and pondering how 'American' many of them seemed, despite their accents. Many people have told us that Elisa, the girl from Mexico that lives with us, looks 'just like an American.' When people say that I puzzle over it, wondering just what an 'American' looks like. To me, American is any and every culture, yet these students are proud of their heritage as much as they love Alaska.

Most students commented about the adjustment to a "small town" and "cold", laughing about what these terms meant and how their families back home couldn't conceive how cold it gets in Homer and what snow is like. It wasn't necessarily an easy adjustment. All of the exchange students who were at the dinner skied on Homer High School's cross-country ski team and a couple had raced in regionals earlier that day, wrapping up their season. Their willingness to try something different that would push them out of their comfort zone is one thing that sets exchange students apart from others who don't uproot themselves for a year. Without that willingness to experience things, it would be a long, long year.