What does a person who has never set foot in America notice first? Is it our melting pot culture and sense of democracy and freedom? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
For Finnish foreign exchange student Eveliina Salminen, 16, who landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in July, her first impressions included: it is hot, everything is huge, but the shopping looks great.
After resetting her bearings in a country nearly 97 percent bigger than her own, Salminen met her host family, Rod and Janelle Burba and their daughter Natalie Black.
Since Salminen had never visited a modern shopping mall or a Walmart (currently, there are no Walmarts in Finland), their first order of business was touring the sites.
“The mall was great,” Salminen said.
“Its her favorite thing I think,” Janelle said jokingly.
Beyond shopping, Salminen came to the states to experience high school in a whole new way. What she discovered during her first four months in America included: we dance and hug more, school work is easier than in Finland and Mexican food, especially tortillas, are great.
Salminen grew up in the small town of Jamsankoski with her parents Saku and Hanna-Kaisa, two brothers Anttoni and Simeon and sister Karoliina.
After completing the ninth-grade last year, Salminen wanted to study abroad in the states to improve her English, meet new people and learn more about the American culture.
“There are so many things that I don’t know,” she said. “When I come to other country I think that I can see the things the other way.”
For the Burbas, who had never hosted an exchange student before, the idea of caring for a stranger for 10 months took some convincing.
Luckily, the Burbas’ daughter Natalie was convinced they should invite Salminen to stay with them.
“When I read the application for Eveliina I said we had to have her,” Natalie said.
“I liked that she was a Christian.”
Salminen is a Seventh-day Adventist and the Burbas attend church regularly. From Salminen’s application, Natalie also realized that she had a lot in common with the teen including dance, music and soccer.
“I said lets get her,” Natalie said to her parents.
The Burbas agreed and told Edie Miller, international exchange coordinator for Education First Foundation for Foreign Study, they would host Salminen.
“We had never thought about doing this before,” Janelle said.
“It is a blessing to have her now,” Rod added.
During the day, Salminen attends Payson Center for Success in the mornings and Payson High School in the afternoons.
Salminen made the soccer team, varsity volleyball team and became the star server, Rod said.
“She had 13 aces in a row,” he said.
Salminen has also improved her English speaking skills considerately. When she first arrived, Rod offered to take her on an ATV ride.
Rod reminded Salminen to put on sunscreen and she said she had. Halfway through the ride, Rod noticed Salminen was turning bright red and he asked her again if she had brought sunscreen.
Salminen reached in her pocket and pulled out a pair of sunglasses and said yes.
Rod laughed and explained he meant sunscreen not sunglasses.
In school, Salminen said she is enjoying spending time with other teenagers, but admits it is easier than in Finland, where she studied more subjects.
She loved attending her first football game and high school dance.
“We have discos (in Finland) but no one dances,” she said. “Here everyone dances.”
It took her awhile, but she also became accustomed to American teenagers’ ways. These include hugging friends at school and saying “I love you.”
In Finland, Salminen would only say, “I love you” to her family, but in America she discovered it is common to say it to close friends.
In terms of food, Salminen is a vegetarian. This posed a challenge for the Burbas who were used to cooking meat.
It took Janelle a few weeks to realize Salminen would not eat anything that had been cooked with meat, even if the meat was removed, such as in a stir fry.
Salminen said she sticks with cheese crisps, chocolate milkshakes and French fries.
Besides experiencing new foods, Salminen visited the Grand Canyon, Mexico, and Show Low via a private plane and traversed the state from top to bottom.
After she leaves in June, Salminen plans to complete her 10th year of school in Finland and eventually attend college where she hopes to become a pediatrician.
“This has been a great experience, she has been an amazing girl,” Janelle said.