American dream – American nightmare

By Lara-Sophie Buckow (1995), HPS Buxtehude/Germany

On August 20th 2011 I arrived in Seattle, Washington State (USA), to start the biggest adventure of my life. The best year of my life I would say, now that I have returned after staying in a host family in the United States for 11 months. But this is definitely not what I was thinking over the whole year:

I left the plane with my passport in one hand and the paper I had to fill out on the plane in the other. No, I was not a terrorist and I was not planning on bombing anything during my stay, but apparently that is what the American government wanted to know from me. With my little knowledge of the English language, I tried to get out of the airport as soon as possible. But there was still this line in front of an annoyed security guy who was checking everybody’s passport and their filled out papers. Well, I did not know about the little form on the backside and the security man was not happy to waste more time on me.
‘Why didn’t you fill this out?’
‘I … I didn’t know. Sorry.’
‘Then fill it out! Quick! There are other people waiting! Hurry up!’
‘Sorry.’ In the hurry I did not even think about what I was asked and just started writing. Family name: Bakke Name: ? ‘So which name do I have to put? My host mom’s?’
‘What? Just fill it out!’
‘Ok, sorry!’ Name: Lena, Date of birth: ?
‘Ehm, excuse me? I don’t know the date of birth.’
‘You don’t know your date of birth?!’
‘Yes I do! I know MY date of birth. But not the one of my host mom.’
‘So, your date of birth is June 3rd 1995. Write it down. Hurry up! There are other people waiting!’
‘Sorry! I am so sorry!’
After being totally confused and frustrated by this officer who hurried me up to make wrong statements on the paper that he stapled into my passport, I was so relieved that at least my baggage made it to Seattle. At the exit of the airport, my host family was waiting for me and I was about to enter my new life.

America, the land of freedom, liberty and equality. That’s what everybody thinks of America. That’s what I thought of America, before I spent almost a year there.

My new family could not even wait for the next day to present to me all of their ‘house rules’ they had written on a poster, so that I could hang it up in my room not to forget them.
1)  Before hanging out with any friends, we want to meet them and their parents.
2)  If you want to hang out with any friends, your plans have to be discussed with us and are not    allowed to be changed without informing us.
3)  Do not leave the house without anyone accompanying you!
4)  Do your chores: -do your own laundry
-keep your room clean
-wash one of the dogs once a week
-sweep the hall and the stairs
-dust the TV and the TV table
5) Do not use any drugs (unless prescribed by a doctor)!
6) Do not drink alcohol!
7)  Do not give out any phone numbers unless permitted by us!
8)  Put your phone on the table at 9pm every night!
9)  Go to bed at 9:30pm weekdays and 1am weekends!

I was shocked. But, I was confident it was not going to be as bad as it seemed to be for the moment. My organization had already told me that there were going to be some changes in my life, in my way of thinking and in my personality. Keeping up my faith into this family to make this year wonderful and unforgettable I was hoping for the first day of school: choosing my classes, getting to know new people my age and signing up for a sport. The first person I got to meet at my new school was my counselor who was also going to be my dream-crasher.
“You may not be a senior at this school, since you won’t be able to get all the credits you need to graduate. The teams for all the fall sports have already been put together and you should have come yesterday to choose your classes. Now you can only get classes that are not full yet, so you probably won’t get into the classes you would want to.”
Great, my self-confidence was lower than ever and I was supposed to talk to people in my third language that I have never met before. Let’s just say, I went through that first day getting to know some people but I was not sure if I would really become friends with any of them. The only teacher that introduced me to the class was my sixth period teacher –my favorite teacher for the whole year -to the only students I really became friends with.
After a couple of days it all got easier and better, but I was still terrified by the counselor, lost a lot of my confidence and was shocked by the fake American excitement.
What do I mean? Well, everyone was so nice and acted like they really wanted to be my friends, getting to know me and my culture, and wanting to hang out with me. Guess what – most of it was acted and lied straight into my face. I do not want to say that I should have talked to them more openly and more often, but telling me how much they liked me and then making up the weirdest excuses was quite weird.

Even though there were all these barricades put in my way, I still managed to hang out with friends and have an unforgettable time with my host family. I went through a lot of ups and downs, learned all kinds of new things about me and my beliefs. Learning what America really is, not the Hollywood version of it, has been the greatest experience in my life so far and will always remind me, that as shiny as things are, they are often not what they seem or pretend to be.

Have you ever experienced a situation like this, where you have been expecting something totally different from what actually happened?

posted on Tuesday 29th January 2013