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‘Far from home,’ Finnish exchange student discovers South Texas culture
Perhaps the most important message that Emmi Makkonen can deliver to her temporary classmates at Dilley High School is encouragement to explore the world.
At 17, the high school junior has transferred from Finland for the current academic year to South Texas, where she has found foods infused with many hot peppers, people far more talkative than she expected, and a population of youths unaware of diverse cultures.
Although this marks her first visit to the United States, Makkonen has traveled throughout Europe and Scandinavia, and has visited Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
While she has the advantage of a multi-lingual Finnish education that begins teaching English in third grade and then adds French and Swedish from the sixth and seventh grades onwards, she does not believe that language barriers should dissuade young people from traveling.
Funding, likewise, should not be a hindrance, she says, as thousands of teens from Europe and Scandinavia find ways to afford their world exploration through short-term work visas in the many countries they have explored. Her own siblings spent their year after high school in Asia and Australia, she says, paying their way by working on farms while they absorbed the languages and cultures of their hosts.
Makkonen is a native of Joensuu, several hours’ drive northeast of Helsinki. It is a sizable town with three secondary schools, each of which is comparable to Dilley High School. Joensuu is situated a short drive from the border with the Russian Republic of Karelia, a distance she compares to that between Dilley and the US border with Mexico. She recalls making day trips with her father to a river from which she could see Russia.
Although she comes from the other side of the world, from a different culture, speaking a different language, Makkonen finds many similarities between life in Finland and South Texas. Not least of those, she says, is the general demeanor of her peers.
“Kids, you know, we’re all the same everywhere,” she laughs. “We like the same kinds of things. I come from a large, blended family. My host family is blended, too. There are two school-age children at home, and others who are older and who have left. A lot of my classmates here in Dilley come from large families. Those values are strong, all over the world.”
Makkonen will have two years of high school left when she returns to Finland. This academic year in Texas, she says, will not count towards her credits back home. Nonetheless, she is keen to take advantage of the cultural experience of living far from home for a year.
She wishes her Texan classmates would have the same yearning to spread their wings.
“Some teenagers in Finland don’t have very strong English language skills,” she says. “That doesn’t stop them from wanting to learn more about other countries, other cultures. They will go to English-speaking countries and absorb the language by living with it every day.
“You know, after a while of being totally involved in a culture, you start to think in the language of your host country,” she grins. “I’ve started thinking in English. When I visit another country, I look forward to becoming so involved that I feel I am part of it.”
Makkonen is quick to notice that her American peers know little, if anything, about foreign countries, languages and cultures. She laughs at the old joke regarding Finland’s onetime female president looking like the American television host Conan O’Brien, but she notes with a hint of sadness that this might be the only thing people know about Finland.
“My classmates here have asked me to say a few words in Finnish,” she says. “I don’t know what they want me to say. Whatever I end up saying, they don’t know what it is.
“Finnish is actually a very difficult language,” she adds. “It’s hard to learn. I didn’t like it as a subject in school. I can understand why people will have a hard time picking it up.”
Her fellow students at Dilley have also quizzed her on the differences between the two far-flung countries and cultures. The first that Makkonen will point out is Americans’ willingness to talk to strangers.
“We don’t really do that in Finland,” she says. “We don’t just start talking to people that we don’t know. If we get on a city bus and there are only one or two other people on board, we will sit as far away from them as possible. If the bus is crowded and there are only one or two seats left, I think I will stand, instead of sitting there.
“Americans really like to talk,” she says. “When I was on the plane, flying to Texas, there were two older ladies who just started having a conversation with each other. They were strangers to each other. I thought that was a little bit weird.
“You could say that we are a very introverted people,” Makkonen says of the Finns. “We don’t ask people where they are going or what they are doing. We just stick to our own thing. We don’t get involved. We are silent.”
South Texas’ spicy foods came as a surprise to Makkonen, who says she was not expecting so many meals to involve hot peppers.
“There are a lot more spices in your food here,” she laughs. “I’m not used to that. The food in Finland is much more mild. There is a lot more flavor here. I think, if I could make any recommendation, perhaps I would say not to use so many peppers in your food. I can’t taste the rest of the meal.”
School schedules are also different between Finland and Texas.
“Your schedule here is the same every day of the week,” she says. “You have the same classes at the same times every day. Our schedule is a week long. It’s different from one day to the next, but each week is the same as the next. This is because we have such different classes. Over here, you go to class with the same people, the same age, all the time. Over there, I could be in a class with completely different people for one subject, and then other people for the next subject.”
If Makkonen is to leave anything behind in Dilley when she returns to Finland, she hopes it will be a lesson to her newfound friends that travel is vital to their learning.
“We have so many different cultures in this world, and I want to learn about others. I want to learn the different ways to live,” she says. “I have traveled all my life, and I love it. Travel makes me feel alive.
“I think it will be very important in the future for people to know more about other cultures,” she says. “It will be important for us to understand how people in other countries think, why they do what they do. Some of my classmates here have never been further than San Antonio, and I think that’s a shame. There is so much more to learn out there. We have to understand each other better, if we are going to get along and make the future better.”