North Coast Journal


by Marie Gravelle

Saying goodbye

Iceland is covered with ice, right? What language do they speak in Australia? Is Costa Rica an island?

These were but a few of the silly questions asked of a group of foreign high school students by their American counterparts during their year-long stay in Humboldt County.

The teens gathered one day last month in the Montgomery Ward parking lot in Eureka, surrounded by piles of luggage and souvenirs, to say tearful farewells to their local host families. The students - from South America, Japan, Russia, Australia - and Iceland - then boarded a chartered bus headed to Los Angeles, where the students will board planes for home.

Learning about relationships, cultures and just fitting in, the students also learned how to deal with prejudice, boredom and the ever-present stupid question.

One girl was asked if people sacrifice sheep in New Zealand. And a Russian native was asked if she knew Boris Yeltsin - personally. Some Hispanic students were questioned about their legal status in this country. Others were asked about cooking skills.

Hatsumi Aoki, a 17-year-old native of Japan, spent the past year living with a Fortuna family and finishing high school. Like most foreign students, Aoki said she found American schools "fun - and easy."

In Japan, she said, school is not for socializing. "I didn't study much here," she admitted.

With her heavy accent, it was obvious to all she was a visitor. When the questions flew at her, Aoki would try to answer but she was amazed by the repetition.

"Everyone asked me, åCan you make sushi?' "

Many of the students came from large cities and found the rural, small-town life in Humboldt County quite a shock.

"Here, I lived with a bunch of animals I'd never learned about," Aoki said, to laughter from her family. She covered her mistake quickly. "I mean the horses, donkeys and chickens in the backyard," she said, not the people in the house.

Brett Payne, a 16-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, was also surprised by what he found in Humboldt County.

He grew up in a city of 300,000, full of nightlife, arts, theaters and cultural events. Thanks to the American Field Service, a program started in 1947 to promote cultural exchanges between countries, Payne landed in one of the most rural regions of Humboldt County, the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

"It was a big adjustment," Payne said, a bit wide-eyed even after 12 months.

Boring compared to the big city?


But Payne also got to work on Yurok archeological projects when he wasn't floating on the Trinity River, or - with his tall, muscular frame - helping the Hoopa Warriors to the basketball championship playoffs.

"People did ask me if kangaroos hop around my backyard," he said with a laugh. "The best (question) was when they asked me what language I spoke at home."

Surrounded by his huge CD collection and making some last-minute trades, Kjartan Sigurjonsson, a native of Iceland, said he, too, was eager to get home, but he plans to return.

"You people are amazing," laughed K.J., who adopted the nickname early on. It was readily apparent to his American friends and family that pronouncing Kjartan, let alone Sigurjonsson, was going to be too strenuous.

"People were always asking me if Iceland was åbehind' Europe," K.J. said. And he spent a lot of time fielding questions about music.

"People asked me all the time, åDo you listen to music?'

"Someone asked me if I knew who Michael Jackson was!" he added.

There were a few other adjustments and surprises in store for K.J. during his visit.

"I thought I was coming to California for the sunshine," he said, as it began to drizzle on this particular July afternoon. And K.J. had never heard of the American tradition of curfews.

"At home I get home at 5 or 6 in the morning," he said, amazed that his American mom required he be home by midnight.

The exchange visit, which corresponds to the September-to-June school year, was more difficult for those students who first had to learn English, then deal with American customs, stereotypes and prejudices.

Monica Morales, 18, of Puerto Rico, spoke no English a year ago. Now she is fluent enough to talk at length about the teenaged agonies of boredom in Arcata.

"At home in Puerto Rico, it's discos every night," she said. "Here, it's movie ä or movie ä or movie."

When she wasn't bored, Monica was creating waves at Arcata High School.

"They didn't like my clothes," Monica said, wearing a tight, striped shirt, bare midriff and jeans, referring to adults on campus.

"I tell them, åYou don't wear my clothes.'"

Morales was also struck by prejudice against Latinos.

"Many people asked me if I was legal here," she said, adding that even her high school counselor didn't want her to graduate unless she provided him with a "green card."

"Not everyone was like that," Morales added, saying she plans to return soon, perhaps even enroll at College of the Redwoods.

The jokes drifted away when the bus pulled into the parking lot and the students began loading their luggage. Then came the hard part.

Tears streaming down her face, Aoki managed to hug her American mom and dad good-bye several times. Her host father was just as teary eyed.

"I didn't think I could find such a good family, and such good friends," said Marina Shibanova, a 17-year-old from St. Petersburg, Russia, as she boarded the bus.

Obviously the travelers learned that America is not all big cities, fast cars and money. Humboldt County is just a tiny spot on the world globe, but it now carries significant meaning for these teens. They will remember the redwoods, the ocean - and people like Joan and Leonard McLaughlin.

The McLaughlins have taken in a foreign exchange student every year for the last six years.

"We never had kids," said Joan, dabbing her eyes after saying goodbye to Paula Moreno, 17, of Brazil. "These are our kids."

"The first student we had will be here this month with his new bride," Leonard McLaughlin said, with pride. "They're going to have their honeymoon here."

But for this day, there was only the sadness of parting.

"Paula was the best," Joan McLaughlin said, speaking like a true parent.

"She was the only one of all the kids who kept her room clean."


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