For now, let’s simply call them “Kitty” and “Tookta,” the second name pronounced with a long “o,” as in Tuke-tah.” We Trujillos have done it again; we’ve accepted two more foreign exchange students whom we understand are the only two such students in Las Vegas.
Two years ago we took Phaedra, from Belgium, and Ana, from Spain, into our home and “adopted” them for 10 months while they completed their 10th and 12th school grades, respectively, at West Las Vegas High School.
Each time we’ve dealt with their sponsoring agency, AFS-USA, Bonnie and I have wondered, “Why are we among the few in town to host foreign exchange students? It is so much fun and so enlightening, and besides it keeps us in touch with the school community.”
We’re proud of the caliber of students who’ve joined us. Yet we continue to wonder why geography has been scratched from the curriculum almost everywhere. Ana and Phaedra were surprised to learn that several students regarded them as sisters even after being told that they were from different countries and ethnic groups.
Some Vegas-based students seemed to have no idea that Belgium and Spain are separate countries and not adjacent. One student asked Ana if they spoke Spanish in Spain and being assured they did, she queried, “All the time?”
Another student insisted that “ We have two new students in school: one’s from Bernalillo and one’s from Espanola.” Well not quite. Phaedra and Ana crossed the Atlantic to join us, and their place of origin is a wee bit distant from these two New Mexico communities.
That’s only half the story. Just this week we returned after several trips to the Albuquerque International Sunport to greet a new pair of foreign exchange students. To save time, I’m skipping their full names, using only the names the girls wish to be called.
The first to arrive is a senior, Tookta, from Thailand. The other is “Kitty,” who must have been in several planes and airports, as it took her four days to arrive. Each delay was the result of extreme weather conditions in China. We’re happy that both are with us now. Their school calendar differs from ours. They’ll attend Robertson High School.
Kitty was due here Thursday evening, but that ETA was pushed back four hours, then eight hours, until about 10 p.m. Saturday.
We hope that once the girls are introduced as natives of Thailand and China, their origins won’t be assumed to be Tucumcari and Chimayo.
We spent much of Sunday helping our new family members get over their jet lag and shopping for items they couldn’t squeeze into their travel bags. We hadn’t realized how anyone of any age could sleep for 14 hours straight. When they awoke, they seemed to have recovered from having crossed a dozen time zones.
Before even the first student arrived, Bonnie and I spent some time deciding for whose benefit the girls’ trip is. For example, I believe these two girls, from halfway across the globe, need to embrace our customs. Accordingly, we’ve invited them to join us at church each Sunday, an invitation they gladly accepted. We hope to immerse them in the customs of us Las Vegans, and that includes unremitting doses of southwestern cuisine: beans, chile, tortillas, tacos and the rest of what we New Mexicans enjoy.
But never menudo. We’re neither that sadistic nor masochistic.
Accepting two girls from Asian countries presents multiple issues. Bonnie and I disagreed a bit about who benefits more by the visit. Of course, we’d like for them to receive a high-quality education at Robertson and to pick up American customs but not to include multiple tattoos that resemble the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Where there was departure in our otherwise agreed-upon plans came in the question of “who’s really benefitting?” Really, we enlarge our own worldview and the size of our “family,” and to illustrate this point, our son, wife and grandson, who live in Denmark, will visit our previous guests, Phaedra in Antwerp, Belgium this fall. The other part of the duo, Ana, will fly to Belgium when my family arrives there.
I believe the current girls’ visit here is intended to benefit us as well. Despite my addiction to southwestern food, I think we can be enriched by eating food Tookta and Kitty prepare. Rice is a big favorite, with each girl offering — really, insisting — that they do some of the cooking. Good, but will you also try some of our dishes?
We’re hoping they enhance their grasp of English and even Spanish, while we pick up basics of their native languages. I made an error in assuming that Mandarin Chinese would be Tookta and Kitty’s common language. In Thailand most people speak Thai, not Chinese.
On Facebook, I’ve mentioned the arrival of our “family” and hope that not only will their time here be productive, but that others will get to know and appreciate them and enjoy communicating with girls who look somewhat different and speak somewhat differently from our native populace.
We’ve also been assigned two of the United World College’s “get-away” students, from precisely the countries Tookta and Kitty come from, in hopes of giving more grounding to our foreign exchangers.
• • •
There’s been much coverage over the violence occurring in Charlottesville, Va., where white nationalist and white supremacist terrorism exploded . . . Some of the chaos has taken place on the campus of the University of Virginia.
In light of the vandalism, injuries and even a death as a result of the demonstrations, I’m still proud of my having received a master’s degree in English from Thomas Jefferson’s university, located in that city.
Bonnie and I and our then-one-year-old son Adam spent a year in Charlottesville and believe we came back richer for the experience.
But yet . . . racism persists.
Already, Bonnie and I and our own next-door-neighbor family have grown attached to our two new students. And we hope our very small part in fostering world brotherhood and sisterhood amounts to something.