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Learning in America : Portuguese Exchange Student, in Tradition of Her Country, Explores a Strange Land

November 19, 1987|SUSAN HEEGER | Heeger is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Let's try another beginning in another place . . . --from a poem by Helena Goncalves

Like an old-time explorer, Helena Goncalves treasures her first memory of novo mundo .

It was early August; the setting, a flight from Lisbon via Brussels to New York, on a plane loaded with exchange students. As the flight neared its end, a cry rose from the Portuguese contingent: "America! My God, it's America!"

Helena laughs as she remembers "the tiny piece of land we saw--a little speck, a nothing!"

But the story tells why the 18-year-old honors student is sitting in a living room in Van Nuys, discussing her second senior year of high school.

"The Portuguese," she explained, "are very romantic, very adventurous. From our little country, always, we are excited to discover more."

Excitement has been a constant in Helena's life since she left her home in Lisbon for a sojourn with the Gorsey family in California. Tucked into a chintz couch and with Rosie, the family's cockatoo, at her feet, she describes hiking with the Gorseys in Yosemite, learning Israeli folk dances at their temple and relaxing in their Jacuzzi. She mentions parties with Andrea Gorsey, 17, and football games at Ulysses S. Grant High School. Then, of course, there was the earthquake, and her first Halloween. She has also become a poet.

Small and quick, with restless, expressive hands and formal English honed at the British Institute in Lisbon, Helena (pronounced Eh-leh-na) seems older than she is, on her way to becoming the judge she aspires to be. Her black hair is already threaded with silver. Yet her clothes--black sweats and purple suede shoes--might belong to any teen-ager, and her enthusiasm is understandably girlish. She's got three months of strong opinions to share, in and around her multitude of activities.

Helena's American story began a year ago in Lisbon as she and a friend pondered the future during their second week as seniors. At the time, Helena's mind was on law school and her chances of being accepted at one of Portugal's few universities.

Her friend, however, had applied to an exchange program called AFS.

"AFS!" Helena cries, remembering. "What was that? I had to know!"

On the day that student applications were due, she rushed to the local office of the American Field Service. Founded in 1947 by volunteer ambulance drivers from both World Wars, AFS has student exchange programs in 74 countries. Helena, her head teeming with visions from "Moonlighting" and "Dynasty," her favorite TV shows, put in promptly for America.

Once Helena's application, which included several photos and an essay about herself, reached the Gorseys in California, "something clicked," said Andrea, also a Grant High senior.

Being the host of an AFS student had been Andrea's idea. The Gorseys had once lived in Spain, when Walter Gorsey, an accountant, was with Price Waterhouse in Madrid. Andrea herself has a strong interest in international relations. An exchange student, she reasoned, would "help show us how big the world is; how different, yet how similar we all are."

A Handshake, A Kiss

On the night Helena arrived, her first words to the Gorseys were, "We kiss. You shake hands, but in Portugal, we kiss."

Immediately, Andrea remembers, she and her sister, Leah, 11, "pounced on Helena. We wanted to see what she had--her clothes, all her things."

The two older girls stayed up talking, discovering shared tastes--"The Great Gatsby" and Billy Joel--and shared dislikes--"For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Different People

The close relationship with Andrea, which developed further during a two-week family trip to Yosemite, proved particularly important to Helena as she began her first days at Grant High.

"It was such a shock! So big! So many different people--Chinese, Mexican--I might tell someone, 'I'm from Portugal,' and the reply would be, 'Big deal. I'm from Vietnam.' "

Indifference to where she is from was just one early obstacle to her adjustment. She had a host of foreign attitudes to contend with. There was the baffling female obsession with makeup (see accompanying column). There was apathy among students toward political issues, an utter mystery to a girl who calls herself "so opinionated that if I don't have an opinion on something, wait--I will make one up."

In her government class, she recalled, her teacher once asked the students who among them was against sex discrimination.

"I was the only one who raised my hand," she said, frowning about being the only one in class to venture an opinion. "In Portugal--never. We mark out our decisions strongly."

Despite the strangeness, American school, Helena says, is more fun. "In Portugal, it's an obligation. You learn from books, that's all. Here, you watch films, you play sports and there's a close relationship between the teachers and the students."

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