Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Foreign Exchange: Part 3, the Daughter We Never Had

So we had two successful experiences with foreign exchange students and were looking for number three. I really wanted to find a student from South America, but none of the student profiles seemed right. We looked into getting a young lady from Moldavia, but another family had already invited her. So we invited Anett.

Anett was a 17 year old HS junior from Hungary, with a wide smile and seriously fashionable looking glasses. Her English skills seemed good enough for our local high school, and she projected an outgoing personality and ability to make friends in a new setting.

Anett turned out to be the daughter we never had. We enjoyed our years with Chan and Anders and still keep in touch with them, but with Anett we really bonded. Unlike Chan and Anders, who had a lot of complaints about American high school academics (with which I could sympathize), Anett seemed to accept things as they were. 

While I was helping Annett unpack and settle in, I saw a picture of her with a young man. She indicated that that was her boyfriend. “How old is he?” I asked. “Twenty-six.” She laughed at the expression on my face, and told me her parents were unhappy when she started dating him, but were okay with her dating him once they got to know him.

While we were talking privately later on, John said her parents probably sent her to the U.S. to put some distance between her and the boyfriend, figuring he’d give up and move on. If that was the plan, it didn’t work. They’re still together seven years later and talking about marriage once she graduates from college.

Of course, they talked every day via our computer, a mode of communication Anett used to keep in touch with her parents and friends back home as well. AFS recommends that students write home only once a week and call home only once a month in order to be able to bond with their host family. Anett bonded with us just fine, though, so I gave up worrying about how often she called home. She’s still the one who emails the most and whom we visited twice. Not only is she my Facebook friend, but her mother and brothers are as well.

All of our students inspired upgrades in our mode of living and Anett was no exception. One of her activities at home was going to the gym so we looked for a gym to join, and finally settled on the YMCA. We’re still members. I had a problem with classes there, though. Any time I found what started out as a low impact aerobics class, the teacher would quit or switch class times and be replaced by someone who had us running and doing jumping jacks. I finally settled for using the walking/running track and sometimes the weights, although I had weights and a power cage at home. Anett enjoyed the classes and the treadmill. 

Anett’s English was amusing. In Hungary, they apparently do pronouns differently from English because everybody was “he”. Even when she learned the word “she”, Anett would apply it to men as often as to women. It took months for her to get them sorted out and even then, she still made errors. She had what I considered a charming Hungarian accent, but like most people speaking a foreign language, she didn’t hear it. While we were shopping for her prom dress,  a saleswoman asked her where she was from. Later Anett asked me how the woman knew she was from somewhere else.

Actually, I thought even without opening her mouth, Anett looked European. Her style was more polished, her hair and glasses had a high fashion look, and she preferred her clothes to fit a little more snugly, although not in a way that looked trashy. I always joked that if you could get a quarter between Anett and the waistband of her jeans, she would complain they were too big.

Of course, a few months of American cuisine took care of that problem. Chan was the one who taught us that AFS stood for “another fat student”. Neither of them got anywhere near close to what you would call fat, but they both lost weight once they got home to their own countries. I could never understand that in Anett’s case, either, because Hungarians eat paté and cold cuts for breakfast, and think ice cream is a perfect snack at ten in the morning. Of course, they have walkable cities and probably just move more than we do. 

While Anett was with us, we took her to New York to spend Thanksgiving with my family and to Hawaii on a cruise. She also spent a week with John’s sister in Tennessee after school was out, in addition to going on a trip to Colorado with Young Life. School in Louisiana ends in late May, so our students have about a month after school ends before they have to go home. Chan used some of the time to go to Florida with friends. Anders hung around with us. 

The summer after she left, we went to Hungary to visit Anett and her family. We spent a week with the family in Eger and then a week at a hotel in Budapest with Anett and her family visiting us each day to take us places. Several of their friends joined in to entertain us: we had dinner at one of Eger’s best restaurants, a joint welcome dinner and birthday celebration for Annet’s father’s business partners wife. Unfortunately, the birthday girl only discovered that it was a shared celebration when she got there. We’re not her favorite people. Other friends and family variously held a dinner party for us at their wine cellar (or as Anett put it “wine celery”), had us as guests at their summer cottage, or fed us home made sausage for dinner. We also got to attend a wedding (not the reception, but we got goodies to take back to the hotel) and were serenaded by gypsies in a wine bar on the Street of Beautiful Women. A week later I was back at work being drooled on by three year olds and reciting, “I think of this as a temporary exile”.

It’s a good thing we had such a wonderful time with Anett, because the next two experiences were, well, educational.

(Part Two of my experiences as a host mom is here. Part Four is here.)


  1. In Hungarian, we have one pronoun for humans (ő) and another pronoun for things (az). In Hungarian, if you want to specify that you are talking about a female, you can add the word "nő" (woman) to specify, and in some cases "úr" (man) for men, but the base word is still gender neutral. so, "tanár" (teacher), "tanárnő" (female teacher) "tanárúr" (male teacher). And doktor, doktornő, doktorúr for doctor. Of course, words like "anya" (mother) and "apa" (father) have gender assumed into them, but otherwise...gender isn't something that is important in Hungarian. You can talk at length about a person and until you mention their name the audience has no way of telling whether you're speaking of a man or a woman. It usually comes to light eventually, but it's not a required part of a sentence, not the way it is in English.

    Consequently, I've been talking my love for over two years now to various people. The people who know I'm a lesbian know that it's a woman. People I'm not out to, like my landlady, just assume it's a man and I don't have to do anything special linguistically to keep up the pretense. I've /even/ told my landlady that my partner is feminine, but of course she assumed I meant effeminate, which I knew she would -- the Hungarian word is the same either way. A woman who is feminine wears a lot of girly colours and dresses. A man who is feminine is gentle and refined. A woman who is masculine is a tomboy. A man who is masculine drinks a lot. So, stereotypes are there still, it's just not, or doesn't have to insult to call a person the wrong gender word.

    I'm another person who gains weight when I visit the US. I honestly think it's something in the food, and my guess is high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar and food additives. Coca Cola here is made with sugar, not corn syrup, for example. Did you know that some of the additives put in the food at fast food companies contain chemicals that trick your body into thinking it's hungry, to make people consume more? In Australia, they're thinking of outlawing a lot of the chemicals that companies like McDonald's add to food. Hungarians eat a lot of foods that Americans think of as fattening, but Hungarians don't tend to be fat. Some are, of course, and generally Hungarians don't want to be stick-thin, which is seen as unhealthy. It helps that places like McDonald's are seen as fancy restaurants here -- they charge as much for a hamburger as they would in America, but people here earn a tiny fraction of what Americans earn. $5 for a meal is seen as exorbitant, so McDonald's is a special treat, a sometimes food, not an everyday food.

  2. One thing I have been sorry to see in my travels is how the US seems to be exporting our bad food habits to the rest of the world. I did notice that Hungarians look thinner on the average than people in the US. When we visited there the first time, the airline lost our luggage and I had to buy some clothes. It was hard to find any the right size. It was even worse in Thailand. Something I noticed about both countries is that more food seems to be cooked up fresh than in the US. There are also a lot of vegetarian options which I expected in Thailand but it surprised me in Hungary. I love Hungarian food. I have some cookbooks Anett gave us (in English) but the amounts are given in pounds instead of cups and I don't know how to convert them.

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