In the eyes of some foreign-exchange students, the United States is a land of dreams and Southern California is simply heaven. However, according to three recent teen-age visitors, there is more to living here--even for a few months--than simply learning to surf and getting a tan.
Nearly packed up and ready to head home, Noriko Abe, Lars Andersen and Mike Wuerfel--exchange students from Japan, Denmark and West Germany, respectively--took time to tell of their experiences living and attending school in the Southland.
Noriko Abe, 18, is a senior from Tokyo and attended Corona del Mar High School the past year. She is affiliated with AFS International.
The process of getting to the United States was not all that easy, said Abe, who had to pass an English test and a Japanese common-sense test as part of her requirements. Those were followed by a three-day orientation, which included discussions on international relations.
Abe said that before she arrived in California last August, she was most curious about what it would be like to be an American high school student.
"I've been interested in American high school life ever since I was 13 because that was when I started to learn English at school," she said. "It was my dream to have the American teen-ager's life."
"In Japan, we get a lot of information on American teens from television shows, movies and magazines. I thought I knew what it would be like to live here, but actually, I didn't. It's more normal than I'd expected."
One major difference between the life of an American teen-ager and one in Japan, Abe said, is the school system.
In Japan, the students are not allowed to choose their classes. Usually, they are assigned 17 subjects each year and attend classes on a weekly schedule instead of a daily one. On Mondays they may have English, math, history and art, and on Tuesdays, their schedule could include Japanese, music, social studies and science.
"I like the Japanese system because the 43 students in my class would stay together in the same classroom all day for the whole year. At the end of the year, we get to know each other really well," Abe said.
"But on the other hand, we hardly know the people in the other classrooms. In this way, the American system is better" because of the social possibilities.
"If I would have visited as a tourist, I couldn't have gotten this much understanding about America. Through the exchange program, I met many students just like me who are from Europe and South America. I feel like I know somebody from every country in Europe and South America."
Lars Andersen, 17, lives with a host family in Huntington Beach. He chose to be an exchange student through the Youth For Understanding program because he wanted to leave his home in Odense, Denmark, and see other places.
"For me, America has always been the most interesting place," Andersen said. "All the small countries in Europe look up to America. I chose California because I liked it the best when I was vacationing in America with my family for three weeks during the summer of '87. Between me and my friends (back home), California was the state.
"We have some American television shows back home, like 'Dynasty' and everybody's rich (on the show), so I expected everyone to be that rich and to have that kind of a life style.
For Andersen, adjusting to his temporary family came easily. But, he says: "I think families are closer in Denmark. Here, you don't sit down at the dinner table together and talk."
Andersen explained that in Denmark, school classes are a lot smaller and much more permanent. "You have about 20 people in the same class for nine years of school. It's like having 20 buddies. In Denmark you really know the 20 people, but in America you get to know more people a little bit.
During his stay Andersen ran track for Huntington Beach High School, where he attended this past year as a junior.
Ana-Riikka Thitz, an AFS student from Finland, joined Andersen for a visit in Orange County.
Mike Wuerfel, 17 and from Bavaria, West Germany, spent this school year as a senior at Katella High in Anaheim. He is also a member of the Youth for Understanding exchange program, and, in fact, was a recipient of the YFU Germany Scholarship--a partial scholarship given by the program's German chapter.
Says Wuerfel about U.S. youths: "It's disturbing that a lot of American teens are only concerned about themselves . . . Teens aren't very concerned about the world. I only wish I could have met more socially conscious people who can carry on a serious conversation."
Wuerfel kept himself busy and still maintained a 4.0 grade-point average.
He traveled to Idaho, Nevada, Washington state and Oregon with his host family during Thanksgiving vacation, and toured much of California, including San Francisco.
Wuerfel seemed to voice the general attitude of these students when he said his stay had been a worthwhile experience.
"I'm really glad I did it," he said. "I think everybody should go for it. I met so many people and I learned a lot about myself."
Sebastian Papenberg, another foreign exchange student from West Germany, was able to spend some time with Wuerfel in Anaheim.
If your family would like to sponsor a foreign exchange student, contact Cindy Fischer of AFS International at (714) 786-4954, or Julie Rush of Youth for Understanding at (800) USA-0200.