Not unlike most teenage girls, the three Payson High School students giggled as they sat around the table, lollipops in hand. But these girls weren’t talking about boys or music, they were dishing about the differences between the United States and their home countries.
“I think I use a lot of sarcasm and they don’t get it sometimes,” said Mandy El Ebiari, a German foreign exchange student.
“I’ll say something and they’ll look at me and say, ‘Um, OK.’ My sense of humor is different.”
Urara Mikami, from Tokyo, and Hanna Sauer, from Germany, said they also have language troubles.
“I can speak English well, but maybe like something joking I don’t understand. I nod my head and say, ‘uh huh,’” Mikami said.
“They always say, ‘Oh Urara, she’s the nice one, we’re the mean ones,’” said Sauer, explaining how foreign expressions can get misinterpreted.
For the girls, communication is just one of the differences noted since coming to Payson.
The Education First Foundation (EF Foundation) exchange program placed the girls with host families last summer.
The EF Foundation program sets strict rules for the students to follow.
Among them, students must avoid speaking in their native language because, well, it is rude.
“The organization’s rule is they came to learn English, so they can’t speak their native language here,” said Edie Miller, the International Exchange coordinator for the Rim Country program. “We find it’s rude for them to speak their native language because we don’t know what they’re saying.”
Miller has helped place exchange students through the EF Foundation program for seven years. She looks for families that share interests with the students.
For example, El Ebiari loves playing trumpet in the marching band. She chose to come to the U.S. instead of staying closer to home in Europe because of this interest.
“First, I wanted to go to England but then I thought, no — I don’t like the food in England — no. I thought it would be better because it’s not so far away, but then I thought America has marching band and drum corps and that’s my life,” she said.
Miller placed her with the Buskirks family who run the music programs at the middle and high schools.
The Buskirks not only gave El Ebiari the chance to play in the band in Hawaii at the Pearl Harbor 70th Anniversary, they brought her to the Arizona Academy drum corps tryouts. Drum corps is an intense, choreographed musical group of young people, generally aged 18 to 21, and entrance into the program is highly competitive.
El Ebiari was accepted into the program, but must put her dream on hold to finish school in Germany.
“They said they really like me and I have enough potential. They want me back and I could march with them, but the season ends in August and I probably can’t stay because my school in Germany.
“It’s just complicated. In two years I will come back,” she said.
Miller placed Sauer with a family connected with horseback riding, an activity Sauer enjoys.
“My host family has friends who have horses so I can ride there. People in Strawberry come from Germany and they have a lot of horses and I can go there,” she said.
While the girls are learning about the U.S. and enjoying its diverse culture, they also offer the community a chance to learn something about itself.
When the girls compared their schools to Payson, it became clear Europe and Japan require a little more of their students.
“The teachers (here in Payson) gave us all the solutions to the tests,” said El Ebiari. Both she and Sauer said their teachers in Germany would never do that.
All three students found multiple choice tests elicited educated guesses, instead of thought provoking answers.
“Sometimes you don’t get the question (because of the English) and if you don’t, you just guess the answer with multiple choice — you just guess something,” said Sauer.
“With multiple choice you just go, ‘Dum dum da,’” said Mikami pretending to check off boxes on an answer card.
For the three, schools in their native country require more study time and discipline. If Mikami comes late to school more than three times, she risks the chance of expulsion.
“My school is not unusual. We need to get into school on time and if I couldn’t make it, they are strict. If someone does it everyday for a long time maybe someone say, ‘You need to get out of school,’” she said.
All three say they love the Rim Country lifestyle and people.
All have visited Fossil Creek, gone camping and made new friends.
“It will be so different to go back to Germany. You get a call (from Payson friends) and they say, ‘Let’s go do something.’ But the people in Germany — everybody on the street is running around because they have to get to appointments and stuff and here the people are really slow and they just talk,” said Sauer.
With another six months left in their stay, the girls have plenty of time for hanging out with friends.
Mikami’s family started the New Year by hosting a party for all of her new friends.
“It was fun,” said El Ebiari.
Families interested in hosting a foreign exchange student can contact Miller at (928) 476-4871 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The organization started in 1979 with the mission of promoting international understanding and global awareness. In its 30-year history, the organization has placed more than 100,000 students with host families.
According to the organization, the EF Foundation is designated by the U.S. State Department as an official Exchange Visitor Program Sponsor.