NORTH TONAWANDA -- No matter how many years go by, foreign exchange students who spend a year attending Niagara County's public high schools seem to be surprised by the same four things:
How little many American students know about other countries.
The lack of public transportation.
The lack of foreign language instruction in elementary schools.
How nice Americans are to them, and how much they enjoyed their stay in the United States.
Twenty-six foreign exchange students attended nine of the county's 10 public high schools this year.
Of the six who attended North Tonawanda High School, four recently spoke to The Buffalo News about their experience in Niagara County. Each of them brought up those four subjects.
"The most shocking thing was how little some [American] students know about other countries," said Thun Huyvo, a German student of Vietnamese descent. "Some wanted to know if we have TVs and telephones -- things like that -- in Germany. Some even asked me what language I speak in Germany. I was pretty surprised."
Ibrahim Askel, of Ankara, Turkey, said he was surprised so few of his new friends knew where Ankara is.
"Sometimes I think Americans don't know much about other cultures," he said. "I think the exchange program helps them because now the kids know more about me, where I'm from and what I'm like. And they know more about the kids who came here from other countries."
And that's what the program is meant to do.
School administrators and those who organize exchange programs say they are designed to break down barriers and build understanding between people across the world. The education goes well beyond the classroom, and it runs both ways.
North Tonawanda High School is a case in point.
If the exchange program does anything, it destroys preconceptions, said Irina Tikhonova, of Moscow.
"Most people have much more in common than differences," she said. "You learn it all depends on the person really. If you see one person doing something, it doesn't mean every single person in a particular country does the same thing or acts the same way. This experience helped me to understand that."
Askel said he thinks exchange programs are a good way "to make the world a little smaller" and to promote international understanding.
Tikhonova said she was surprised at how everything is so decentralized here and at the unavailability of public transportation.
"I'm from the [Russian] capital, so we have everything you want in the center of the city, like theaters and movies and museums," she said. "You don't have much [to do] around this area, and you don't have buses to take you places. We can get to where we want to go [in Moscow] with public transportation. But it's OK. It's how people live here. I think it's better to have public transportation, but maybe that's because I'm used to it."
She also said she was surprised teenagers have access to cars in the United States at such a young age.
"Some kids in Russia have too much freedom, but you start driving when you're 16 [in America]," she said. "I personally think that's too early. You're still a kid. How can you drive responsibly? I know my mom says she's sure I'll be a good driver, but I'm not sure about it. But in the morning when they turn 16 here, they say, 'OK, I can drive now.' "
Annabel Smet, of Antwerp, Belgium, said she needed someone to take her places because of the limits to public transportation.
"If you have to walk anyplace, it's usually a pretty long distance, especially if you live far away from the center of town or from school," she said. "It can be difficult to get there."
All four said their host families have been great about driving them wherever they need to go.
The students said they believe American students would know much more about the world and do better in mastering foreign languages if they began language studies in elementary school. They said they do that in their countries.
"I started taking English when I was 4," Tikhonova said. "My dad found a teacher for me."
Aside from the minor surprises, all four students said they enjoyed their stay here.
"I really liked playing sports at school," Huyvo said. "I played volleyball and tennis for North Tonawanda High School. In Germany, we don't have school sports leagues where schools compete with each other. German schools are just for learning. To do sports you have to pay to join a club.
"I enjoyed meeting the people on my teams and making them my friends. I met a lot of nice people. I made a lot of friends, and the teachers were nice. I had fun and really enjoyed my year here. I would do it again if I could."
Tikhonova said she was surprised to see people were so pleasant here, "because in Russia we are not like that . . . "
"Here sometimes you use your fake American smile, but still, it's better to look at the person who's smiling than someone who's always upset about something and complaining," she said. "It's a little more carefree here. And people will talk about anything. It doesn't matter. You can say whatever you want, and no one will care. I like that. It's very different from what I'm used to. I've had more freedom here, and I've learned to be more self-confident."
She said that her confidence surprised her.
"I've made so many friends here. That was very nice because I was a little bit scared at first," she said. "I didn't know what to expect [from Americans], but they were very nice to me. So it helped me a lot, and I really appreciate it.
Tikhonova said she most enjoyed spending time with her host family, David and Susan Stitt and the couple's children.
"It's like my real family," she said. "They are so nice. I know I'll always stay in touch with them. They are coming to see me in Russia in July. It was nice staying with them and their kids, Alexa and Ryan. Alexa's one day older than I am, and Ryan is 8."
Askel said he made a lot of friends and was impressed at how nice American students are. He even liked the way they teased him.
"I'd always get turkey jokes because my country's name is Turkey," he said. "Kids would joke: 'Oh, we ate your country for Thanksgiving.' Things like that. I got a lot of corny jokes, but it was fun, and I didn't mind it."
Smet said she arrived last year with a curiosity about America and a mission to see if a lot of the negative things people say about this country were true.
She discovered that the stereotypes she had seen on American TV in her home country generally didn't apply.
"Americans are really not all like that," she said. "People are nice, and I found a good friend. She's practically a best friend, and we're going to stay in touch. Hopefully, she'll be visiting me [in Antwerp] someday."
One thing Smet said she really loved were the stores that were open late at night.
"Our stores close at 6 p.m.," she said. "And they say American people are lazy."
>Opening the world
A majority of the exchange students who come to Niagara County schools are brought in through the American Field Service, which sends about 11,000 exchange students to different countries worldwide every year.
Ingeborg Gabel, the organization's housing coordinator for Western New York, said she brings as many foreign students to the region as she can find host families for. She said she had 43 this year but used to get as many as 65. Gabel has hosted 10 foreign students here during the past 11 years.
She said Niagara Falls High School has always supported the program and was willing to take on six exchange students this year, but no host families could be found in the city to participate.
Niagara Falls High School Principal Mark Laurrie said he hopes to have some exchange students back in Niagara Falls High School in September.
"It's a great program not only for the education of individual students, but I really feel it opens up the world to people and promotes world peace," Gabel said. "By just meeting these kids, it lets everyone know that other countries are not as bad as some people make them out to be.
"And for kids who can't afford to travel anywhere, it opens up the world to them by giving them an opportunity to meet kids from other countries, find out about them and make friends with them. It gives our kids exposure to the world, and [they] learn these kids from other countries are just people like everyone else -- that we are basically all pretty much the same."
Anyone interested in hosting a foreign student next school year can call Gabel at 694-5302.