A Tale Of Two Exchange Students
Two exchange students — one from Denmark, the other from Korea — sit down and discuss their observations about life in America, including their thoughts on American dentistry, the myth about gun ownership, and the sheer number of drive-thrus.
By Jon Wick
Mia Pederson is a 16-year-old exchange student from Hinnerup, Denmark, a small town about three hours northwest of Copenhagen. She arrived in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, as a junior at Manitowoc Lincoln High School, in August, 2009. I had a chance to sit down and ask her about the experiences she’s had in her travels, as well as her first four months in America.
Can you tell me about life in Denmark?
I am from a small town, really small. We have only one grocery store and that’s about it. To do anything, really, we go to Arhus, a town about 30 minutes away and it has everything.
Generally, Denmark is a very family-minded place. We spend lots of time together playing games and hanging out. My dad is the principal of a school and, since it is a small school, our classes are only about 10 students. It’s so small that he is also is a teacher there. My mom is a nurse in Arhus. I also have two younger siblings, a 13-year-old brother, Tobias, and Laerke, my three-year-old sister.
Where have you traveled in your life?
I have been all over Denmark — it is a small country. Traveling in Europe is very easy; it is like going to different states. So I have visited much of Europe, including France, Spain, Norway, Italy, and Sweden. Every year my family would travel to a new place, so I have also been to Thailand, Malaysia, and America.
I think Bangkok, Thailand. It’s a big city, and I don’t get to too many big cities. It was just crazy, so that was cool.
Denmark is known as the “happiest place on earth.” What a let down coming the U.S., eh?
Ha! I do miss it, but it’s home. We don’t really think about being the “happiest place” very much. Since being in America, I realize how nice Denmark is, though. I think people who say that, look at our free health care and free schools. From birth to nursing homes, other than elective things like plastic surgeries, they are all taken care of. With school, you can go wherever, whenever you want. Actually, my mom went back to school just to get smarter, and many people do that.
There is also not a very big difference in economic levels like you see here; there is very little homelessness in Denmark. Along the line of differences, I guess we are a pretty neutral country, too. No one is really an enemy of Denmark. We just try to take care of our own business.
I miss it, but I know I’ll be back eventually. So I want to take advantage of the experience here.
What was the process like in order to be able to come to the U.S.? Are you going through an organization?
I may have been a little bit of a special case. I knew where I wanted to go and with whom I was going to stay. My host family actually hosted my father and uncle when they were students, too. The organization called STS (Student Travel Services) was recommended to me when I first started looking into this.
It can take a lot of time, and there is a lot of paperwork, but it is worth it to ensure a good experience. One of the neat things about STS is the meeting that is arranged with all of the exchange students coming from Denmark, so that we have contacts while we are here. At that meeting, we heard from old exchange students about their times abroad, all so positive, and I’ll have to do that once I’m home. Now that I’m here, they follow up with newsletters and information.
You said your father and uncle did an exchange. Has travel been a part of your life?
Yes. We always take trips. We have a family sabbatical provided by the government, maybe another reason we are so happy, right? Basically, before your children grow up, you can take a six-month leave from your work and you are guaranteed to have your job, no matter what that is, when you return. Some people pool all of their children’s time together and take a real long trip. That might add to the quality family atmosphere.
Most importantly, how is your time here going?
It’s going very, very well. Everything is just more exciting and better than I had imagined.
School was hard to get used to. It’s very different than what I’m used to, and it took some time. I’m from a small school where we all know each other like a family. Now my science class is larger than my whole school in Denmark.
There are so many differences. My school was much freer: we called our teachers by their first name, our classrooms have a big circle table and no desks, and we can talk and discuss more freely rather than raising hands and asking for permission. Oh, and if you have to go to the bathroom, you just go, there are no passes or bells. There are also no tests, only finals.
My school days are behind me, but I know which I’d choose.
I like both ways, really. Here, you have a set schedule. It’s rigid, but knowing what is going to happen all the time is nice. On the other hand, I also like the Danish environment with more freedom and equality with teachers. It’s more comfortable, but I would say I like both.
What are some of the strangest things you’ve come across?
White teeth, definitely. Everyone has them here. Maybe since visiting the dentist is free in Denmark, people do only what’s necessary. I didn’t see that coming. I would also say yellow taxi cabs. I know they’re not exactly strange, but they’re pretty cool, and I rode in one when I was in Chicago.
. . . and a blanket with sleeves. You just don’t have to do anything yourself. There seems to be an invention for everything.
Have any of your stereotypes of America/Americans changed?
I learned I’m a victim of the movies. I thought all Americans were going to be big, which they’re not, and gorgeous like the movies, but they’re not. It doesn’t even make sense thinking everyone is fat and beautiful at the same time. As in Denmark, though, everyone is an individual, but overall people do care more about how they look here. You just can’t judge people anywhere. I wouldn’t say there is a certain “American” look.
What are a few things you’ve learned here?
So much! Wow. I’ve probably learned more about myself than anything else. I’ve become more outgoing. I found out that I have to contact other people and I have to be a good conversation starter. Living and studying here is something special for me, but everyone else is just living their lives, so that has made me get over my shyness. You only learn things like this when you go out of your comfort level, so far away from your home and culture.
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Suji Shin is in the middle of her second year at Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The bubbly 17-year-old from Seoul, South Korea, spoke candidly about her life in Seoul, the vast differences of the schools, and living out her “dream” in America.
Now I’ve been to Seoul, and I can assure you it’s about the polar opposite of middle America. Can you tell me about your life in Seoul?
Seoul is a fun city. We love to go to Karaoke; that is most important. There is so much shopping, after finals at school we usually go to Everland Amusement Park, which is so much fun.
I have a family of four and we all live in the same apartment. There are almost no houses in Seoul, everything goes up. My dad is an importer/exporter who travels a lot. He finished working with Hyundai and is currently working with cranes. My mom is focused right now on learning English and my younger sister is in seventh grade.
School in Korea is difficult. Our finals are very important to our placement and count for almost 80% of our entire grade. People start studying for them months before they come. It is like we have no life, just studying.
Why the U.S.?
I had an old boyfriend in Seoul that went to Canada in sixth grade, and that made me want to go to another country for school. I had many foreign teachers in school and I would always follow them around talking . . . just to practice. They got me interested in America. I also watch a lot of movies and TV.
I didn’t want to go to Canada because I heard they have a bad accent, and I was studying American English, not British English.
When I was in ninth grade I found an exchange program called CCI, but I was too young to go then. It became my dream to go to the United States so I waited to get older and waited for my father’s permission and came to America in tenth grade. I have been living my dream here for more than a year.
How does your experience here differ from your expectations?
School is not what I thought it would be. People don’t seem to be as friendly as I thought. In Manitowoc there are many Hmong people, and I didn’t know about this. When I first came, I didn’t speak very well, and everyone thought I was Hmong. I would be separated from everyone and I didn’t want to be only with the Hmong students. That was very difficult for me, because I’m not Hmong, but it is better now.
I never expected to walk into my first class in America and hear a language I didn’t recognize. I remember thinking, “I don’t know that language.”
Sometimes I laugh because when I first heard I was going to Wisconsin, I was like, “What? Where?” I researched and only saw cows and farms. Maybe I was a little worried, but I said, “it’s my dream, so I’m going to do it.”
Beside that, it is only a little different from the movies.
Really? So everyone DOES carry guns?
Ha. That’s what my friends in Seoul asked me about when I went home. Of course not.
Overall, how’s it going?
Everything is good for the most part. I have made good friends.
I still have a little difficulty in school sometimes, especially with reading, studying, and in my literature class. This is my second senior year and I hope to attend one more year to improve my English before going to college somewhere in America, I hope.
What were some of the biggest adjustments?
You need a car all the time! You can do everything in a car: get food, go to a pharmacy, stop at a bank. I remember learning about McDonald’s drive-thrus in school and my class had to research to find out what they were. I thought it was crazy, but I forgot about them. I came here and will always remember the first drive-thru; I was blown away. I really like the banks, where you put the container in the machine and, BOOM, it flies away to the building.
Also, the school parking lot. There is just no room for that in Seoul. I thought is was so strange after my first snow storm when everybody was scraping their windows off. That was weird.
What are some of the strangest things you’ve come across?
There are many, like signs (at gas stations) where you can change the letters. I think Americans love their flags, they are everywhere. Food is very different here: it is very sweet and bland. When I went home, I couldn’t eat my mom’s kimchi because I thought is was so spicy after living here. I thought salads were weird. They are just a bowl of vegetables, but now I like them. There is also cheese everywhere. I like the white cheese.
Oh, also boxes at restaurants that you can take your food home if you haven’t finished it. I guess that is good because the portions are huge.
Have any of your stereotypes of America/American’s changed?
I didn’t think people here would be so open and willing to share information.
Not everyone is fat. They may be larger, but there are many healthy people. It seems that everyone drinks so much soda. That is very different.
Schools are so much freer. You have so much free time and it is very less strict. Homework is treated very different. You can still pass classes without doing the homework, like studying is overlooked. In Korea, the finals are sometimes over 80% of your grade. I like it better here. It is much more comfortable, but I notice less respect. Korea is strict, but respect is very important. I have seen people be very rude to teachers, talking back, and I would never do anything like that in Korea, especially to people older than me.
Sports are important here. I feel very fortunate to be able to play soccer here. Back home, girls are much less included in sports. My parents asked how many girls were on the team. When I told them it was a girl’s team they thought that was very special. Even getting into colleges, you must have good grades, but also do many other things to have a better chance at getting into a good college.
Everywhere is so clean. There is no litter. In Korea, you leave garbage everywhere, it is no big deal. When I was first here, I threw my wrapper on the ground without thinking and my host family said, “Suji, you can’t do that here.” Now, I know.
What’s the greatest thing you’ve done?
Easily going to New York was the greatest. It’s very different than Manitowoc, it reminded me of Seoul. It was very cool being there because everyone in the world knows New York. Plus, when I see movies I like to say, “I’ve been right there!”
I also think playing soccer is very special. I don’t have that opportunity in Korea.
If there was one thing you could do while in America, what is it?
I want to live in New York.
What are a few things you’ve learned here?
Oh, I don’t know. I know I am different. When I went home, so many people said things like, “Suji, you’re weird now, you are different,” or “you never did that before.”