Sonja Peterson: Taking in a foreigner is a tripI never know exactly what to call Maja. I want to just call her my sister, but that isn’t exactly true. Maja is at least six inches taller than me, has hair ten shades blonder than me, and has a heavy Danish accent.
By: Sonja Peterson, Lake County News Chronicle
I never know exactly what to call Maja. I want to just call her my sister, but that isn’t exactly true. Maja is at least six inches taller than me, has hair ten shades blonder than me, and has a heavy Danish accent. It’s not too hard to figure out we aren’t regular sisters.
But calling her a “foreign exchange student” sounds cold. “AFS sister” is OK, but not everyone knows what AFS is. It stands for American Field Service; but the acronym is mostly used for an organization that sends 14,000 students around the world every year to stay with host families and experience new cultures. Two Harbors High School had four students from AFS this year: Gabriel from Bolivia, Anna from Germany, Olga from Russia, and mine, Maja from Denmark.
She’s been with my family since August of last year. She left Monday. It took precisely nine hours for her departure to hit me, but when it did, it hit hard.
I didn’t cry when everyone else did, when all of the AFS host students, families and friends gathered in the basement of a church in Duluth to say goodbye on Monday. People around me had tears and eyeliner streaking down their faces. I stood there, eyes dry, feeling bad for not bawling like everyone else.
I never cry at the right times — I cry the next day while I’m making a sandwich or brushing my teeth. In this case, I was fine until right before I went to bed. Then I plunged into a horrible mood. For me, sadness like this just seeps into everything else I do, leaving an ache in my chest that takes weeks to fade.
In our frantic last week together, where we packed in every fun thing we’d put off the past year. I didn’t have time to think about her departure. Then she got onto a bus, we got into our car. And it all just … stopped.
On the way home, I paged through the packet full of the pictures and bios of AFS students coming to our area this year who needed homes. I realized that I would do it all over again in a second.
The year wasn’t always perfect. There was extra driving, extra food to buy, extra stress. Maja and I were different in a lot of ways: I can’t sleep past nine, and she woke up at noon or later whenever she could. She texts a lot while I’m always losing my cell phone and prefer to talk to people in person. She did soccer, basketball and golf while I did cross country, skiing and track.
But we got along. She laughed when I sang along (badly) with the car radio. We floated in Lake Superior together, screaming every time water got into our innertubes. My family and I took her on trips around the country, having fun showing the United States to someone with a different perspective. We both changed over the course of the year, I think for the better.
It was all so worth it, for both my family and Maja. I recommend AFS and other foreign exchange programs to any family — you don’t have to have kids in high school, you don’t even have to have kids (though it probably helps). Go to afsnorth.org to find out about hosting a student next year or volunteering for the program in other ways. Seriously. Just do it.
But don’t blame me when you’re bawling your eyes out next year when they leave. Just thank me when you’ve made an incredible connection with a new person and a new culture.
Sonja is the summer intern at the News-Chronicle. She can be reached at 834-2141 or chronicle@lcnews chronicle.com