US provides new environment, experiences

This story was originally published in the first edition of The Lion’s Tale (October 6, 2020).

My dream is to see the world and meet new people and cultures. The best way to do that is to integrate with one. Different organizations allow students to travel to other countries, live with a local family and go to school in another language for a year. My mother was an exchange student in Australia when she was my age. She was my biggest inspiration for making the decision to come to the States about a year ago.

I applied for a program through an exchange organization, went on an interview, filled hundreds of pages of paperwork and was finally placed with a host family here in Florida about three months ago. I was so happy about my placement, since I wanted a milieu as far from what I am used to. My exchange program is about ten months, which means that I will be here for this whole school year. My goals for the year is to have an extensive American experience, see different parts of the United States, become fluent in English and meet new people. I decided to become an exchange student because I wanted to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone.

After a fifteen hour flight from Finland to Florida and a couple days of getting used to the seven hour time change and humid, hot weather, I started my year at Oviedo High School. I was shocked at the size of the school. Schools back home usually have about 400 students, nothing like the 2,000+ that go to Oviedo. The fact that there are multiple school buildings and over one hundred classrooms was completely new to me.

It is scary to be the new kid. I was more than nervous, but from the first class I had, I was met with the most welcoming and friendly people. Both students and teachers were understanding and helpful. I was amazed over how complete strangers could come up to me, and want to know more about me. The cultural difference was very prominent, right from the start. My first impression of Americans was very close to
the stereotypes that Europeans have gotten because of movies and TV. Everyone was so friendly, social and talkative.

I’m not sure if you know anything about Finland, so let me just recap. Finnish people are very quiet, introverted, and value their own space- the complete opposite of Americans. The first day of school, I felt like Cady Heron from the show Mean Girls on her first day of high school; I was very much overwhelmed.

School work here is done very differently from what I am used to. I am still getting used to only ten minute breaks and the bell ringing for class. The concept of bathroom passes is also foreign to me. The block schedule of course makes things different, and the pandemic in general is changing a lot of things. This year is different not just for me, but for everyone else too. It is not just me who is still learning and getting used to these new online systems. I knew that America is very different from Europe and that people here think differently, and often more conservatively. The fact that 16 year-olds can drive, but you cannot drink until you are 21, is very confusing to me. This year, with the pandemic and the election coming up, might be one of the craziest times to live here, and the political tension is almost electric.

I also assumed that everything would be a lot bigger here, and that is definitely true. Houses, cars and foods are all much bigger here. I of course expected Americans to be dumb, since that is the way Americans are often portrayed. Thankfully, most people I have talked to are a lot smarter than I thought. There have been some occasional questions like “where even is Finland?” and “do you have polar bears there?”, but I suppose that is understandable, considering that I come from a very small country that is rarely spoken of in global media.

American teenagers are not that different from Finnish teenagers, except for being a lot louder and more outgoing. That is very relieving for someone who wants to talk to as many people as possible.