Cultural Exchange Programs

Sohaan Swaminathan in France.

       Globalization notwithstanding, to truly understand another culture you still have to visit a foreign country, and speaking the language helps. That’s the conclusion three local students have come to after their recent travels abroad.

    When Andrew Dowd was in seventh grade, one of his family friends gave a speech at church about Nicaragua. “It instantly seemed like something I wanted to do,” he says. “I wasn’t really interested in foreign affairs, and I’d heard a lot about Nicaragua in terms of the Contra war, but hearing of this opportunity to go to a village, it just sounded wonderful.”

     This was Andrew’s fifth year traveling to Nicaragua. Though technically run by the presbytery, the trip doesn’t have a strong religious affiliation. “It’s a lot more about the people,” he reports. His group of 15 flew in July to Managua, the capital, then drove in a bus for eight hours to the Northern region and a community called Plan Grande Dos. “It’s way up in the mountains, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful,” he recalls. “We stay in the community for about five or six days and while we’re there we spend a lot of time with the community members and committee members who govern. We work on a scholarship program for the youth. We’re working on developing a source of potable water for them. They grow fair trade organic coffee and we help them with that,” he says. “One time I carried coffee plants up the base of the mountain.”

  The best part of Andrew’s experience was the conversation. “I now have more Spanish skills than I had previously. I was able to talk in depth with people my age and even older about their life and work. The people there have an average income of about $300 a year, less than a dollar a day. They are in extreme poverty, but they have this innate happiness. Other people don’t have the same vigor and excitement about life as they do. For example, when you walk into a committee meeting with them and talk about the projects they’re working on, they may be sitting there with holes in their jeans, but they all have composition books and binders out, ready to take notes. They almost do better in their meetings than we do in ours.”

  Twelve-year-old Sohaan Swaminathan visited France in the middle of June as the culmination of a year studying French art, music and culture at Oak Hill. “Probably the Eiffel Tower was the best part,” he says. “When I was at the top I got a view of Paris. I saw a lot of buildings and the river. I’d seen so many pictures but I was really impressed to actually stand there.”

    Swaminathan has studied French since the age of 5 at Oak Hill school. “Being there for 10 days you get used to it, more than studying just for a half hour a day.”  He also got used to eating the food, he admits.

    Part of the experience for Sohaan was traveling with classmates and his art, music and French teachers. “I want to go back again. Maybe it would be different if I went just with my family,” he says. “When school started I was thinking about it. When I go to high school, I’ll probably take French.”

    Andrew Aul stayed in Beijing for seven weeks this summer, learning Chinese through formal language classes with other Americans. “The best part was going to restaurants with food names like “mouth-numbing hot pot,” the 17-year-old recalls. “These were local places, not touristy. Being able to go to places like that was wonderful.”

    Andrew believes he had a hard time understanding Chinese culture because he was surrounded by Americans. “I learned little things, the very tip of the iceberg,” he says. One day he asked some people to share some common stereotypes about Americans. One man told him many Chinese think Americans are very physically fit. “I didn’t ask enough people to determine that. But I think different people have different perspectives,” he says. “If you want to really understand a culture you have to speak only that langauge. The biggest barrier to understanding another culture is language. Once you get past that, you’ll understand the culture much better.”

    As for the buzz about China generated by the Olympics, Andrew has some advice: “Don’t judge them based on whatever you hear in the U.S. you’ll have incorrect, stereotyped perspectives of them,” he warns. “Think about how they live, how they think, how they really are.”