"I feel out of context. Other Italian students have told me, 'At the end of the year, I felt totally American.' But I don't feel American at all."
Sitting cross-legged in a North Avondale sun room, Federica Fabretti is looking back on her year as an exchange student in Cincinnati — Middle America, vanilla city, home of Marge Schott and the referendum that repealed the portion of the city's Human Rights Ordinance that gave fair housing and other protections to gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
For years, I have been hosting exchange students in this Midwestern town. Finally, I am cranking up my courage to ask a group of foreign teen-agers, on the eve of their departure, what it feels like to be an outsider here. It's a question with special urgency for me this year. The month that Matthew Shepard was fatally beaten, our 18-year-old Swedish son told us that he's gay.
The shock of being alien — and alienated — has given Fabretti razor-sharp clarity on the values this culture really holds. She's also getting a bead on what she values in her own.
Friends surround her, knees and shoulders touching lightly. Four are fellow American Field Service (AFS) students, from Japan, Germany, Thailand and Australia. One is an American host sister. While their perspectives on America vary, reflecting the radical differences among the cultures they came from, all six have shared the bonding experience of seeing this society through outside eyes.
And what they see here is a culture where all kinds of diversity exist, but understanding is rare.
"I'm avoiding to say that Americans are ignorant of being aware of others than themselves," Thai student Yarng Seanglai says carefully. "But Americans are very intolerant. I would have to say that it's not a lack of awareness, but a lack of knowledge. They are exposed to diversity on TV, but they don't take it in. They don't think about anything but now, and about themselves."
Thinking for a minute about what he has just said, Seanglai smiles ruefully.
"It's not that we are totally tolerant in Thailand," he acknowledges. "There are people we would not say a word to because they are different."
All five exchange students spent the year at the School for Creative and Performing Arts with Emily Hill, whose home this is. Her family was one of three on a single block in North Avondale to host AFS students this year. Of all the neighborhoods and schools in this city, these are arguably the most multicultural. Surely, I ask, your school was one of the places here where it was least scary to be different?
"It's a diverse school," says 17-year-old Milford McArthur from Australia. "All we could see is diversity. Probably, if we had been in another school, it would have been much harder."
But when I ask "is it an oasis?," the young outsiders laugh, astonished.
"It is true that any kind of people is there," Fabretti explains. "That doesn't mean they can all get along. People who look the same stay together."
It's a neat summation of American high school dynamics in the year of the Columbine High School massacre.
Suppose kids in your country felt outcast, I ask, would they resort to violence?
"I think teen-agers are the same everywhere, but the societies they grew up into are different," Seanglai says.
Anne Binder elaborates: "Here you can just get guns — you can't in Germany. You are not allowed to carry a gun with you in Germany."
McArthur says, "It's sad the way people seemed to enjoy the news of the Columbine shootings. They soaked it up. It got so much attention that the coverage was almost a reward. Then there was the copy-cat incident a few weeks later."
This brings an unexpected challenge from Ayano Oride, a gentle girl from Japan.
"If a similar thing happened in Australia, how would people react?"
"In fact, there was a massacre in my city, Port Arthur, in 1996," McArthur responds. "One man opened fire, wounding 50 people and killing 35. Sure, there was a lot of media coverage. But then the whole country came down on guns. All guns that could hold more than four bullets were confiscated and destroyed. I think the gun owners were compensated slightly. That's how they handled the problem: They got rid of the guns rather than sitting around wondering how it happened."
Oride is not satisfied with the easy contrast.
"We're not supposed to have guns in Japan," she says. "We have a different scary thing — that new religion that released nerve gas into the subway a few years ago. My family worries about what would happen if they took over the country."
Oride goes on to dissect some myths prevailing on her side of the ocean.
"In Japan, we have lots of affection for American everything," she says. "We believe that America is perfect world, with everything under control. But this country has lots of problems, like other countries: economic problems, young people who are not interested in improving things or trying to do things from themselves."
So what do Americans really care about?
"Cars," Oride says promptly.
McArthur says, "Respect from others."
Fabretti says, "They care about the country itself. They think it is the best country in the world."
Binder shares a story.
"I was on this bus trip to the Air Force Museum with my history class," she says. "A boy from the class asked me if we have a czar or a king in Germany. He told me he had such an excellent world history program here, but that all we learned about in Germany was Germany."
Fabretti says, "And Americans care about money. Of course, everyone cares about money, but here it's a value in itself, not just a way to get through life. How much you have says a lot about your value as a person. In Italy, we don't have so much high-class, low-class. I think most Italians are middle-class."
Hill, whose Australian brother McArthur is the second AFS student her family has hosted, listens attentively, without contradicting a word her friends are saying.
Does any of this criticism upset her?
"It does change the way you see yourself when you hear what they see happening," she answers. "I've become aware of a lot of stuff, particularly in the family. A lot of exchange students come with different views about Americans, like a student from Finland at our school. Her famous quote was, 'Stupid Americans!,' but we still got along. A lot of the things she was fed up with, Americans were fed up with among themselves. We used to commiserate about fast food culture and consumerism. We really hit it off. We had a lot in common."
Oddly, despite their alienation from the culture, these young outsiders found their Cincinnati year affirming and even liberating. Oride in particular marvels at the contrast between Japanese family life, where unity means all doing the same thing, and her experience here, where her host parents accepted and respected that she might want to have her own activities.
For all of these students, being uprooted from their usual context gave them the chance to see their own identity and potential with objectivity and freedom.
"I discovered I was not as unusual a person as I thought," Oride says. "The Japanese want to be the same as everyone else. The uniform is everything. When I was in my school in Japan, I didn't look physically or dress like other Japanese girls. People saw me as totally different and did not understand me. I had a friend, but I was isolated. But here, people have different ideas, so they try to understand me. It's easier to live in my own style."
Has the year away made her more at home with herself?
"Yes," she says. "My dreams got clear."
Fabretti, who plans to go to medical school, says, "In Italy, I was far too busy to step back and examine my situation. Here, I could see my problems clearly from the outside.
"You kind of know who you really are, because you have time to think about it during a year away from home," Seanglai agrees. "My parents have an expectation and they respect me more because they think this year shows I have more maturity and ability to make decisions."
He takes a deep breath. "My mind has never been clearer. Fashion designer, that's what I will be. It seems so strange to say it out loud." ©
Can You Help?
Teen-agers undertaking a year in any cross-cultural setting face multiple challenges and opportunities. They gain a tremendous amount from being able to share their emerging identity and values with empathetic host families. AFS is one of the largest non-profit foreign exchange programs in the world, and was founded after World War II by American volunteer ambulance drivers who aimed to help prevent future wars by building family ties that transcend nationality.
AFS Greater Cincinnati has a delegation of 34 students arriving the first week in August, and several have not yet been matched with host families. AFS counselors work directly with schools to place these students and stand by to help families and students throughout the year.
In addition to hosts for the academic year, adults are needed to fulfill a variety of supportive roles. Non-traditional families are encouraged to apply in addition to the usual mother-father-sibling configuration.
For more information, call Mary Ann Roncker at 321-2515 or Linda Pavey at 561-5251.