A Culture that Opened My World
Her name was Viviane, she was from the Alcase region of France and she was going to live with my family for my entire junior year of high school. When my Mom first introduced to my family the idea of hosting an exchange student, my initial instinct was, “Good idea Mom, but no thanks.” It sounds selfish, and it was, but I was worried I would have to take her everywhere with me, I didn’t want to share my room and I was secretly afraid we wouldn’t like each other. But in the back of my mind I knew without a doubt, that this was something I needed to do. I knew would change me and make me a better person regardless of whether we became close friends. Taking this risk has led me to believe in exposure to other cultures.
When I first met Viviane, she walked in our door and I was struck at how beautifully stylish she looked—dark eyes, a sleek hip haircut and classic French attire: all black. The first thing we did was take a walk together. Crunching through the grass of my backyard to the Elkhart River, we chatted about movies we liked (we both love Brad Pitt), trips we had taken, and what our high schools were like. Many of her sentences came out choppy, all of her sentences were pretty heavily accented, and sometimes she just gave up because she couldn’t remember the right word. It was as it should have been—friendly, slightly awkward, and exciting.
As the year went on, we learned things about each other’s personality and culture in both hard ways and funny ways. For instance, the first thing I did when I met her was give her a hug, and I unknowingly exposed her to an American type greeting. I had no idea that people rarely hugged each other in France. She resisted coming to church with my family because our church was so much more formal than her home church. Viviane also had to get used to the talkative and loud nature of our 3 pet, 3 kids family; she was the youngest in her family and was a pretty calm and quiet individual to begin with. It was amidst of, not in spite of, these differences that we became so close.
My year with Viviane turned out to be incredible. Had I chosen the safe path and chose not to open myself up to this new individual, I would have missed out on a great amount of fun, experiences and broadening of my knowledge regarding other cultures.
We discovered throughout the year so many things we did have in common: we were both teenage girls who loved hanging out with friends, shopping, playing tricks on boys, and eating chocolate, real European chocolate I might add. It broadened my world view to realize how far away she was from her own country, yet she was working so hard to make good friends here and get good grades in school. When our family, which now included Viviane, would talk around the dinner table, she would help us see our culture through a new light, explaining things she really liked and things she missed about her own culture in northern France. For example, Viviane’s table manners were so refined that she even folded her lettuce into bite size pieces on her fork when she ate salad. I mean, nobody in our family has even considered doing that, we just stab at our lettuce randomly with a fork and stuff it in our mouth. And she absolutely hated Jell-O, there was simply nothing like it in France and she thought the consistency of it was just disgusting.
One can gain a greater perspective about the culture they are a part of, when given exposure to other cultures and I experience this to be priceless. I am now not so quick to make assumptions about exchange students, I am generally more open-minded, and my heart has grown bigger and more loving after reaching out to Viviane. Each moment I spent with Viviane, whether happy, annoying, laughter filled, or insightful, has led us to become so close that I and three friends went to visit her in her home this past summer. After a nearly 20 hour trip from Goshen to Chicago to Manchester to Frankfurt and finally Hegenheim, France, Viviane and I saw each other after more than a year apart and ran to each other in a full embrace. I found tears running down my face. Exposing myself to her and her culture truly opened my world. I look at a picture of Viviane every day and know this to be true.
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