We recently went on a road trip with our two 75 lb German Shepherds and Jan, our 16-yr-old German exchange student. We adults had business meetings in San Diego and San Francisco; the exchange student had California on his “bucket list.”
Jan had a bit of a setback halfway through our two-week trip when he discovered that his phone had fallen out of his pocket in the car and the display screen had broken. He was understandably frustrated, but showed a surprising ability to accept that life is what it is — surprising, that is, for a teen. But after almost a year in this country adapting to life in a completely different environment, living with people he had never met before who he was expected to consider family from Day One, and learning how to survive in a school system nothing like his school back home – well, maybe it’s not that surprising that he can now deal with many things in life in a more balanced way than we usually expect of teenagers.
He replaced his dead phone with a relatively inexpensive phone from Target that he could use back home in Germany and we moved on – to his next challenge, losing his wallet. Fortunately, he didn’t have much in the wallet so didn’t lose much of value. And with the gods and goddesses of road trips and exchange students smiling down on him, the wallet did turn up towards the end of our trip, hidden underneath the seat of the car.
One of the more valuable “lessons” of this trip, however, may have been a radical re-shaping for Jan of the size of this country and the nature of the state of California. Intellectually, he knew the U.S. is a big country. But “knowing” and really knowing are two different things, as anyone who has actually driven rather than flown can confirm. Flying to San Francisco or even San Diego takes a couple of hours from Portland; you leave after breakfast and you can be there in time for lunch. Driving brings the point home: 1,100 miles is a long drive.
And then there is California: the state that is the dream of so many exchange students around the world. Each year the exchange programs see hundreds of students pay extra to have their applications only shown to families in California. Students come to Oregon (and elsewhere) complaining that they did not get their first choice of California. Mention California to foreign teens and their eyes light up with excitement. They “know” it’s beautiful and exciting and absolutely the only place an exchange student can really experience America. They learn otherwise as they adapt and get to know their host community, of course, but the mystery, allure, and fantasy remain.
Driving through California, we could show Jan first-hand the immense diversity of the state, from literally one end to the other: from the north which still feels like Oregon, through agricultural fields much larger than anything he was used to seeing in Germany, through miles and miles of vineyards, through more agricultural fields, through miles and miles of freeway traffic, all the way to the other end. He saw that much of California, as in Oregon and elsewhere, consists of smaller towns and not big exciting cities. He could see that Los Angeles wasn’t all that pretty a place when you spend hours driving through it. He could see that northern and southern California are dramatically different, and that the north shares many attributes with southern Oregon, leading to not-quite-kidding suggestions for the 51st State of Jefferson. And he could see the impacts of drought and the need for water in a state that has converted thousands of acres to crops that need constant irrigation.
Who knew a road trip could be so full of life lessons?
We returned home to normal life – normal, that is, for the end of an exchange year. Because now that the road trip was over, we were that much closer to the end of this exchange year. Time seemed to rush up to meet us; rather the opposite from when you’re on the road, when things seem to slow down. So we returned, and Jan began to say goodbye to people he has met and become close to during his year in the U.S. Suddenly he felt time was moving too fast. Then he turned 17 the day before he left Oregon, and suddenly . . . he was on his way to New York.
Saying goodbye is the hardest part in life, but knowing that you have people you love all over the world is something unique. I’m truly thankful for this experience. . . . And coming to Oregon and calling it my home, that’s indescribable.
–Klara (from Sweden, in our 2014-2015 Portland area group)