Far from home but closer to new culture

POULSBO — While at a football game this fall, North Kitsap High School exchange student Stephanie Koop encountered some of the most unusual perceptions of Belgium, her home country, that she’d ever heard.

“Belgium? Isn’t that near Spain?” One student asked her.

Another student asked if she meant she was from where “Belgian waffles” come from — but assumed there was no actual country bearing that name.

Likewise, NKHS exchange student Dominik Büren, from Germany, had his own perceptions of America: big cars, big houses, big meals, big everything. But Büren learned that some ideas he’d learned about the U.S. were true; others however, he found were false.

Such is the life and part of the beauty of being a foreign exchange student in the United States — the misconceptions they face from Americans about their homeland — but also their own pre-conceived notions of what it is to live here.

It is undoubtedly a learning experience for all involved.

And tomorrow, Koop and Büren, along with five other North Kitsap High School year-long foreign exchange students, will experience yet another piece of the American culture pie — Thanksgiving, a holiday almost exclusive to the United States.

Coming to America

Büren, from Nuremberg, Germany, came to the U.S. through exchange program STS Education.

“I wanted to improve my English and see America,” he said of his reasons for becoming an exchange student. “I wanted to see how Americans live.”

Koop, from Welkenraedt, Belgium, near the Belgium-German border cited similar reasons in coming to America — to learn English and discover the U.S. She utilized exchange organization the World Education Program.

Büren’s first stop in the U.S. was a layover in Chicago, and it was there that he discovered that one of his perceptions of America — that the U.S. has a reputation for being “large-scale” — held a lot of truth to it.

“The people were big and the houses were very big and the cars were big,” he said. “But really friendly.”

Koop said she discovered initially that in general, Americans keep an open-mind and are “crazy in a good sense.” She also noted the casual-dress of Americans in Washington state, though she said her host-parents told her that could be simply a Pacific Northwest phenomenon.

Going to school in America was definitely an eye-opener for both students, and they discovered quickly that North Kitsap High School was nothing like their schools back home.

To begin with, laws for teens in Belgium are very different — the age to drink alcohol is 16 yet the age to drive is 18, a sort of reverse to the American system. A parking-lot full of students’ cars came as a shock for Koop.

“You’re lucky because you can drive before we can (in Belgium),” she said. “It really surprised me that all the students here have a car.”

She said her home country relies more heavily on buses and trains for transit. Plus, gas prices are much higher in Europe on whole, she added.

“In Belgium, you often take the bus or train,” she said. “Here, there’s no buses or just a few of them.”

She said she’s noticed that non-legalized drinking in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily stop NK students from drinking — but it does change where the drinking takes place.

“In Belgium, we can go out (to bars and clubs),” Koop said. “Here, there is only house parties.”

School is very much different, she said, especially because her focus in Belgium was all academic at school — there are no interscholastic athletics.

“In Belgium, you have to go to a sports center and pay (to play),” she said.

As part of her exchange, she said she’s decided to take advantage of the fact North Kitsap offers free sports, and is trying out for the gymnastics team.

Koop’s first experiences with “American” football — as football in Europe is soccer — were a bit confusing, but she learned to enjoy it.

“I don’t understand the rules,” she said, “But I went to three games and I think it’s fun because you meet with people and watch the game.”

In terms of how hard high school in America has been, Büren said the classes are “less challenging,” requiring fewer hours of study and in class as well. But having to learn English to study everything in a second language, is very difficult, he said.

Büren also said that a challenge in North Kitsap is getting together with friends, and that his home town is much more centralized than the more dispersed North end community.

“Poulsbo is not too big, but I would say its more difficult to meet friends because they live more in the countryside like Kingston,” he said, “and that’s more difficult to get around than in Europe.”


“Turkey day”

Tomorrow, both Büren and Koop will experience a cultural phenomenon unique to the United States and both said they were looking forward to it.

Koop had never known anything of the holiday, though she knows that her Indianola host family, the Littles, will be having a feast. Büren, too, knows little of “turkey day,” but will also be having a feast with his host family, the Winslows of Poulsbo. But given their almost four-month long experiences in the U.S. thus far, both said they were expecting the unexpected.

The winter season, too, will give way to one holiday that is universal, and Koop said she’s eager to compare between countries.

“It will be interesting to see the difference between Christmas here and in Belgium,” she said.

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