Moving to Alaska is an adjustment for many people, but even more so for the several foreign exchange students who arrive on the Kenai Peninsula each year.
The students, teenagers from around the world, are confronted not only with cold weather, small towns and big animals, but they also enter a completely new world, taking on a different language, culture and even family.
This year, Kenai Central High School alone has eight foreign exchange students, and other high schools on the peninsula host about 15 others. The students come from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, join local households and enroll in American high schools for a year of immersion in the language and culture of the United States.
Most of the KCHS students say they chose a year of study in America for the opportunity to gain a better understanding of English.
"We have to learn (English) in Thailand, because it is a very important language, but we don't have people to speak with," said U-nonda Yoopiam, who is called Care by her friends and family.
A young woman with a host of dreams for the future, Care said she wanted to see the United States and become more fluent in the English language. Her mother, a teacher at her 2,000-student high school in the south of Thailand, agreed that the study would be important.
"My mother thought it would be a good idea to come and practice every day," Care said.
That's why Care hooked up with Youth For Understanding, a program that arranges country exchanges for students all over the world.
Despite several years of studying English in school, Care said language has been one of the hardest transitions for her.
"When I first arrive here, I couldn't understand, and people couldn't understand me," she said.
U-nonda Yoopiam swaps books from her locker at Kenai Central High School during a break in classes last week. She is taking a full schedule of classes, including choir, history, computer applications, algebra and biology.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In part, that's because she was taught British English in her high school, Care's host mother, Carol Brenckle, explained. In fact, Care said the first time Brenckle called her on the phone in Thailand, she couldn't understand a word.
"I told my mom, 'I think my host family called,'" Care recalled. "She said, 'What did you say?' I said, 'Nothing, I couldn't understand.'"
Care said Brenckle has helped her improve her English skills over the past several months.
"Every night, we would read a story about Thailand. She takes me to (Kenai Peninsula College) for an extra English class, and we talk about my experiences every day," Care said. "She helped me very much."
Now, after nearly five months in Alaska, Care's English has improved immen-sely.
But for Care and her fellow exchange students at KCHS, the language is only the beginning of the lessons to be learned in America.
Care, 17, grew up in the south of Thailand with her mother and father. When she was 13, her father died, leaving her mother to raise the girl alone.
"My mother, she is both father and mother in the same person," Care said, with an note of admiration.
Despite her lack of brothers and sisters, Care said her family life is a close one. As is traditional in Thailand, Care's grandmother and aunts and uncles live nearby.
"In Thailand, family usually lives together. When my grandma cooks, she can teach me," she said. "We live near or together, so we can learn everything from family."
In America, Care said, things are somewhat different. In part, that's why she said she especially appreciated the American holiday of Thanksgiving, where family time reigns.
"Thanksgiving is something really neat, because they can have time with the whole family and eat dinner together," she said. "Some families don't have time to eat with family."
But while there are no family members nearby, Care's home life in Kenai has its similarities to Thailand. Like at home, Care lives alone with her host mother, Brenckle.
Brenckle, who said she has been suffering from "empty nest syndrome" since 1992, said she hesitated to sign up for the program due to her single-person home.
"I said I don't think I represent the all-American family," Brenckle said. "I'm divorced, I have no kids at home. I have a dog and a cat and a wild and crazy schedule."
Still, a friend persuaded Brenckle to look into the program, and the Kenai attorney took a chance.
"I never had a daughter before, and I always regretted that," Brenckle said. "I had an opportunity to have a daughter, and I'm so blessed that this daughter is so special."
Care said Brenckle has gone out of her way to make life in America comfortable.
"She's really nice. I'm never lonely," Care said.
"Every weekend, she usually has something I have to do."
Destiny Ables, Amanda Fruichantie and U-nonda Yoopiam look at snapshots during a break in algebra class.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Brenckle said she approaches hosting an exchange student the same way she approached parenthood: "Part of raising a child is exposing them to all sorts of sports and activities," she said.
"There are good things and bad things in American culture," Brenckle said. "If I were in Thailand, I would want to be involved in anything and everything."
That's exactly what Brenckle has helped Care do.
She encouraged Care to join Kenai Youth Court and says the girl is doing extremely well, despite her lack of background in the language and government of this country.
Care also participates in the KCHS dance team and the choirs at school and at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church, and she takes piano and voice lessons.
Brenckle also said she hopes to take Care ice skating and downhill skiing this winter activities not available in Thailand's warmer climate and plans on a few more trips while Care is in the country.
And, of course, Care has school, where she takes the same classes as American seniors and interacts with students from Alaska and from other countries.
Care and her fellow exchange students at KCHS said they have mixed feelings about the challenges of their classes. Care, for example, said the language barrier still makes homework hard.
But, she said, "If I am American, I think it's not too hard. If you just pay attention in class, keep doing homework every day, it's fine."
Anna Krismer, a 16-year-old from Austria, Manuela Leppert, 16, and Katharina Daum, 17, both of Germany, said school is easy. And, they added, the school day is much shorter in the United States than in their home countries.
Joanna Chui of Hong Kong agreed. She said classes in her country last until about 5 p.m.
But Andre Correa, a 16-year-old from Brazil, said the day is much too long. At home, he attends classes only until about 11 a.m. He added the homework is far more than he has in Brazil.
All the students, however, said the atmosphere of the school is different than what they are used to.
"We have many rules," Care said, describing her Thai high school, where students wear not only uniform clothing, but also hairstyles. "At my school, we have to have short hair. There are many, many rules. It's very different here."
Anna also said her Austrian school is much different than KCHS.
Hannah Watkins and U-nonda Yoopiam work together on a biology lesson in the lab at KCHS.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"They have another relationship to teachers," she said. "Here is more personal. (Teachers) are always nice."
Life outside school also is different for many of the students.
The European students, in particular, said they feel they have less personal freedom in the United States and are treated more like children than adults here.
"Here, in school, we have to have hall passes and stuff like that," Katharina said.
"I think going out is a totally different thing," Anna added. "At home, we go to a bar, it's no big deal."
Some of the students also said life is a bit slower even more boring here, where exchange students are not allowed to drive, activities are spread out and public transportation is far less common.
"I'm used to just getting on a train," said Mikael Mantynen, 17, of Finland.
And, of course, the weather was a shock for almost all the students.
Though all the students had their choice of country, they had no say as to which state they would be living in.
"I always wanted to go to Hawaii," Manuela joked.
"I wanted a warm country," Anna agreed.
"My friends asked if I was going to have my own igloo and take a dog sled to school," Katharina added.
Still, many of the students said they've gotten used to the weather. Mikael said he enjoys the opportunity to snowboard and ski. Even Care, who is used to the hot, tropical climate in Thailand, said the cold is at least tolerable.
"If I had my choice, I never would have chosen Alaska," Andre said. "Now, I would definitely choose Alaska."
The students said part of their growing love for Alaska comes from the people they have met.
Katharina said her host family is "awesome."
"I get along with my family really good," she said. "I love the way they treat me like everybody else in the family, like a normal family member."
And, she added, she has found people in general to be more friendly here than at home.
"They stop and say 'Hi,'" she said. "I like that."
It's not always perfect, though.
Some of the exchange students said they occasionally are teased at school for their accents or different behaviors.
And Katharina said it's been hard to find a close friend.
"You can talk with all the people, but it's difficult to get into their own groups," Manuela said.
"Maybe it's because they grew up together and stick together," Care said.
In fact, the exchange students seem most comfortable with each other, despite their different backgrounds, possibly because they have the shared experience of leaving home and trying to fit into a new place.
"You learn a lot about yourself," Katharina said. "You grow up, because, though you're not really on your own, you're without your family."
"You have to handle it yourself, start to do things on your own," he said.
"You take a lot more responsibility," Anna echoed. "I think it's good. You realize what your mom at home does. And your more prepared for living alone, like when you go to college."
Still, some students said they'd like to be closer with their American counterparts here.
"We have eight exchange students at Kenai Central. That's a lot," Care said. "We're like an international school."
But, she said, American students don't always seem interested in learning about the exchange students' cultures.
"Sometimes, I think, people forget that I'm from another country. They don't understand," Mikael said.
"Like when I do something stupid ... they just make fun," Andre said.
Care said she has tried to bring pieces of her culture to the school by cooking Thai food to share with friends.
"I wanted them to try my Thai food, just try it," she said. "I want to know their opinion, but some people don't open their minds."
She said she wishes her peers were a bit more interested in her culture.
"Some people try to introduce themselves to meet me. That's good," she said. "I want other students to want to learn other cultures.
"How else can we have peace in the world?"
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