Pre-Departure Orientation

Since my last post I have been gone for spring break in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio visiting colleges. More importantly, on Sunday I was in Monterey for our AFS pre-departure orientation. My dad and I arrived at the Monterey Institute for International Studies at 9:40 or so (it was supposed to begin at 10) and at first there was a fair amount of awkward standing around, as he had gone to find a Starbucks. I ended up meeting a girl who lives fairly close to me who's going to France next year. We ended up in a group talking to another girl who was going to Italy, and a girl heading to Turkey for the summer joined us as well. The only one who knew her placement was the future Italian.
Finally everyone else ended up arriving - I don't know how many, since I'm bad at counting, but there were 2 for Japan, a few for France, 3 or 4 for Italy, the same for Argentina, and one each for Finland, Turkey, and Egypt. (And of course, Latvia.) Aside from two summer programs, I'd say about half were going for the year and the rest for a semester. We had a great talk from a professor at the Monterey Institute, and demonstrations from some of their graduate students in simultaneous interpretation. I felt so inadequate after listening to them! The professor was amazing - I think he'd been to over 150 countries, and he could speak almost every language thrown out there - Arabic, Chinese, Swedish, Spanish, Russian, French... I don't know if he was fluent in Chinese and Arabic, but it was still incredibly impressive.
Anyway, the best part of the orientation was the international AFSers who were here in the US. There were 2 from Germany, 3 from Italy, and one each from Norway, Russia, New Zealand, and Japan. They each said something about cultural differences. The Japanese guy was hysterical. His mini-speech was essentially like this:
In Japan, we eat rice. I like rice. It's yummy. We also like fashion. If you like fashion, tell your parents you need money for Japanese fashion. And rice.
After all the exchange students had spoken we broke off for lunch, and we were told to sit with whomever was from a country nearest to where we were going. I sat with the Russian, Daniel. It turns out he applied to colleges in the US and is going to be attending the same school as my cousin. At first I felt very awkward approaching a total stranger and having lunch, but it was surprisingly easy to find things to talk about. We got along really well and by the end, it felt like I'd known everyone at the table for at least a couple weeks. The exchange students were pretty close to each other, even though they went to a few different schools and some of them hadn't seen each other for a few months. It was strange - some went to the $40,000 a year private school in Carmel, and others attended gang-ridden public schools in Castroville. Each were within ten miles of each other, but they lived in two different worlds. The biggest complaint from the European students was the lack of public transportation, and the fact that they had to ask their host parents for rides everywhere. (Welcome to my life.)

Only two of the exchange students had had unsatisfactory experiences. The girl from New Zealand was complaining about her family and her town (Castroville, which isn't necessarily the most exciting or pretty place in the world, but there's still plenty to learn there). Apparently she didn't even eat dinner with them - not because they didn't invite her, but because she just wanted to hang out with friends. I got the impression that she had just gone on AFS for a vacation. The other girl who'd had a bad family was Maria from Norway. Her first home had been with a single older lady who essentially had made her life miserable. Everything Maria did was wrong - she did the laundry wrong, she chopped the carrots too thin, etc. The lady also forced her to go to church every Sunday, and when Maria tried to compromise by proposing that she only go twice a month, the lady flat out refused. After three months, Maria contacted her advisor and switched to another family. She's had a great experience with the other family. 

It was great to see kids who had actually gone through the process. In organized groups we talked about everything from vegetarianism to homesickness to making friends. It was a bit nerve-wracking to hear how many years of English these kids had had before coming over here - I'd say two thirds of them were near-fluent before AFS. My reassurance came with one Italian girl who said she had only studied on her own for two years and realized she knew practically nothing when she came over here, and now she's speaking wonderfully.

While an all-day orientation after a week of nonstop traveling wasn't exactly something I was looking forward to, it was definitely worth it. I feel much more comfortable with the social aspect of being an exchange student - it's what I'd been looking forward to the least, and in a minor way I proved to myself that I could confront my minor social anxieties.

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