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August 2, 2011 > Cultural exchange in Germany

Cultural exchange in Germany

Essays written by Mission San Jose High School students

As a Fulbright Germany Commission recipient, I was encouraged to approach my school's principal about establishing a partnership with a school in Gottingen, Germany. We were invited to bring Mission San Jose High School students to visit the school and experience German culture. Principal Sandra Prairie and I stayed with teachers there; students were paired with German students according to their hobbies and age. There were nine students who traveled to Germany: Shiwen Chen, Shravya Sanagala, Sonia Krishna, Bisma Baig, Sabina Kapur, Darien Lo, Nikhil Krishna, Christopher Lo and Raashi Goyal. The following essays recount experiences by four of the students. --Risha Krishna, MSJHS Ethnic Studies Teacher--


By Shravya Sanagala:
Europe. It is a continent that Americans flock to in hopes of enjoying fine food, artistic beauty, and cultural exploits as the travel brochures describe to us. But the cliche paragraphs we read on paper can never truly convey the multiple facets of a country. We are hindered even further in our conquest for aesthetic pleasure when we stay in chain hotels and dine at easy fast food options because of accessibility and affordability. But a lucky nine of us Mission San Jose students got the opportunity of a lifetime to truly experience the customs and traditions of the rich, historical nation of Germany, in a summer cultural exchange program.

The program, from June 17 to June 27, was proposed by Ethnic Studies teacher Risha Krishna after her visit to the country in 2010 in relation to the Fulbright Commission. After being invited back to the city of Gottingen, Germany by the teacher she stayed with, Ms. Ursula Kramer, Ms. Krishna decided on her own initiative to take nine students for a pilot cultural exchange program. She pitched the idea to Mission San Jose High principal, Sandra Prairie who approved of it and asked to attend as well.

In preparation, we learned German phrases, tried German food, and made contact with our exchange partners. Communication was limited to email and social networking, but we tried as much as possible to learn about the lives of our German counterparts before the trip. We learned about their school, the Otto-ban Gymnasium, their sports activities, and daily activities. But just like travel brochures, emails did not give us the full scope of the truly beautiful and stimulating small town of Gottingen.

The quaint city captivated us in the first moments as we walked through the trees. But the beauty of the town was only a small portion of the many wonders we enjoyed because the families we stayed with were the times we really enjoyed. Their kindness and hospitality never ceased to amaze us and rumors of cold and the calculating behavior never materialized. Instead, we noticed how organized and efficient they were, trying to keep us all entertained at every moment.

The day after we landed, a hike was planned for us near one of the oldest German castles called Burg Hanstein. Every second of our trip was culturally rich with a castle tour, meeting with Gottingen's mayor, and a visit to the town hall; proof that the German people we met were kind and ready to take care of us at every step.

In conclusion, the highlights of our trip were all the cities we were able to visit including Hamburg, Berlin, Hanover, Dudershtact, and Gottingen; but in the end our trip was made special by the people we met and connections that were made. Ms. Krishna summed it up best, "Theoretically the partnership was established by the Fulbright Commission, and was expected to work perfectly. But for me, it went beyond theory and practicum. I saw the students with different backgrounds and different home environments come together in a way that was beyond expectations."


By Sonia Krishna:
It's not every day you find yourself with another mom and dad. At the beginning of summer, all I expected was playing tennis and volunteering, but I got so much more... I got the chance to have a whole new family. This summer, I had the opportunity, along with eight other students from my school, Mission San Jose High School, to go to Germany and live with a host family.

We were placed with our exchange partners based on hobbies and interests. I was paired with a 16-year-old girl named Caroline Bolte. Throughout my time in Germany I attended school and participated in after-school activities with her. We went hiking, biking, shopping, sightseeing, and hung out with friends. My time with Caroline led to an epiphany. I realized that in "Fremont culture," kids come home and jump on the internet to socialize but in Germany most kids hang out face-to-face. Also, the food there was amazing; I'm going to miss having currywurst on the street corner. Public transportation is a major way of travel, in Germany, unlike the "California car culture" which involves being driven everywhere. Everywhere we went, we walked or rode the bus and train. Overall, the entire trip was fantastic. Traveling to Berlin and Hamburg and seeing major historical cities could have been boring if done with parents, but going with peers my own age made the experience so much more interesting.

Hanging out with the other students from my school was an added bonus. It was great to have them around when I felt frustrated that I wasn't able to communicate fluently with my new friends. When it came to my new friends, I felt that although it may appear on the surface that we are two totally different cultures, if you really get to know us better you can see we are quite similar. I loved this experience because I got to meet people that I related to so easily, and I got a chance to experience their unique culture.


By Christopher Lo:
In the time span of nine days, eight American students and I took part in a cultural exchange that not only enriched our knowledge of German culture but also formed the foundation for potentially long-lasting friendships with our German counterparts. After several months of preparation, which, aside from the usual itinerary review, included establishing online contact with our German hosts, we flew from SFO to Hannover International Airport (with a brief stop in Zurich). Rita Engels, Principal of the German Otto Hahn Gymnasium (German school), and several host parents, greeted our group of students, a teacher and our principal. We were whisked off to the school in a three-car convoy to meet our host partners and their respective families.

By a matter of luck (or in my case, misfortune), my car arrived first at the school parking lot, and I was given the responsibility of breaking the ice with a group of Germans staring curiously at me. Much to my own surprise, I waved and began shaking hands with as many host families as I could and worked my way to my host partner, Tom Rouenhoff, and his family. Taking me in with open arms, the Rouenhoffs were an extremely friendly group (including their Labrador) and surprisingly, not very different from the typical American family. They loved Apple products, had movie nights in the living room, and loved sports (basketball in their case).

Upon arriving at their small but beautiful home in Bovenden, a smaller town ten miles from Gottingen, I promptly dove onto the bed in the room my host family had set up for me and dozed off for the night. It wasn't until the next day that I was able to fully appreciate my surroundings. The architecture of my house would have been considered odd by American standards: The front entrance/atrium measured only a few feet by a few feet. If one were to close all the doors, it would seem as if one were in a large closet. There was only one living room and an incredibly small kitchen with a fast-heating electric stove.

Stepping outside, I was greeted by a beautiful neighborhood, with bright, red-roofed houses and roads paved smooth with neat little, multi-colored bricks. An assortment of Volkswagens, BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis lined driveways. The station wagon style seemed to be the Germans' car of choice for family excursions, as every host family used a station wagon vehicle to drive us on our excursions. Our first landmark was a castle, Burg Hanstein, situated near the old west-east German border. Almost in ruins, the castle dates back to medieval times and was a sort of eye-candy for my brother and I (both of us being history buffs and me being the engineer type). After touring the castle and taking a hike on one of the surrounding forest trails with the whole German-American group, we had our first German meal of bratwurst and sauerkraut. Although the bratwurst was fairly tasty, the sauerkraut was somewhat unpalatable for my taste buds. The afternoon and subsequent evening involved Tom and the German kids taking several of the Americans (myself included) to an indoor pool.

The second day consisted of my first day of German school. German education is organized much differently than the American education structure. Instead of the standard K-12 education involving elementary, then high school, German students have to take a test in 4th grade that determines what type of "high school" they will attend. Students showing the highest potential for success are sent to a Gymnasium, which offers the best education, while lower-scoring students are sent to trade schools. Tom put things in a different light: "It's really easy to get in a gymnasium, and almost everyone makes it in." Taking fourteen classes spread throughout the week, Tom's first class was biology, equivalent to my A.P. Biology class. After the two-hour class, Tom and I took off with the rest of the German/American group to walk to the town hall, meet the vice mayor of Gottingen and take a walking tour of the town.

The third day was a full school day consisting of geography, philosophy, and history, with a two-hour meeting with my fellow Americans and lunch in-between philosophy and history. Although the third day was fairly uneventful, the subsequent one was to be the complete opposite... the Berlin trip.

Taking the 200 mph high speed rail from Gottingen to Berlin, we arrived at the Berlin Bahnhof train station after a three-hour trip. Stepping out of the train station, we were greeted by the largest building in the city off to our left: the Reichstag, the German parliament building. With its old, World War II structures juxtaposed by a brand new glass dome on its top, the Reichstag gave me an awe-inspiring feeling reminiscent of the U.S. Capital building. Since one of the German student's mothers was working in the Reichstag, we were given a special VIP tour of the building that included underground passageways used by the parliament members and various meeting rooms used by the different parties.

After the tour of the Reichstag, we stopped at a nearby park for a lunch break, and then headed toward the Brandenburg gate for our walking tour of Berlin. The tour guide, Carlos, took us all over Berlin, showing us various landmarks such as the Adlon hotel, the World War I Peace Memorial, Museum Island, the Russian Embassy (which was the largest and had still had Soviet markings), several memorials to the Holocaust, a once-abandoned ghost train station, and finishing at Checkpoint Charlie. By this time it was evening. We made it back to Gottingen around 10 p.m.

The following days consisted of school with Tom, and at one point I was asked by the principal to give a brief lecture on California to a group of fifth graders. Friday consisted of a visit to the ex-East German checkpoint museum and lunch at the quaint, serene town of Duderstadt.

On Saturday, the German-American group split up for the day, with six of us (Tom, two other Americans, their hosts, and I) taking a three-hour drive to Hamburg. Possessing the same hustling pace as Berlin, Hamburg seemed to focus less on the history and more on the modern age, as the harbor was brimming with cargo vessels and military warships, while the city center was a mix of convention centers, skyscrapers, and modern architecture. Our group of six kids and four adults took a boat tour of the river Elbe and hung out at a mall before having dinner at a restaurant and driving home.

Five kilometers from home our car (with Tom. his brother, two parents and I) stalled and came to a sudden stop at the side of the road: We had run out of gas, and it took another hour or so before the second car came to our rescue with a spare gallon (or should I say liter?). Needless to say, I became very familiar with the phrase, "schiesse" after this mishap.

On our last full day (Sunday), our Hamburg group hiked around the neighborhood forest, stopping at a castle for a quick bratwurst and ice cream for lunch. We then hiked down to one of the German girl's houses for a BBQ party in the evening and partied the night away. The next (and saddest) day, Tom, his parents and I woke up at 5 a.m. to drive to the Gymnasium to say goodbye. After thanking the parents for their hospitality and inviting them to come to California anytime, Tom and I said farewell for now. We ended it how we started it, with a bro-hug, and a smile. Then my classmates and I boarded the taxi for Hannover.


By Darien Lo:
As I look back now; it's difficult for me to understand the way I felt when I first considered taking this exchange trip. I'll admit that I'm not exactly ambitious to try new things and I truly didn't feel like wasting part of my summer for this, even if I was going to Germany. Nonetheless, I was beginning to feel excited a couple days before we left. I had never been on an exchange trip or to Germany.

On the day we arrived in Lower Saxony (central Germany), we were able to meet our respective partners at the school we would be attending, Otto Hahn Gymnasium of Gottingen. I spent most of this first day introducing myself to my partner, Lea, her brother Julius and her parents Tatiana (mom) and Bernd (dad), as well as adjusting to my new surroundings in the small town of Dransfeld. In comparison to my house and the neighborhood around it, Lea's house emanated a truly homey feeling with its colorful interior, large garden and design.

On our first day, the entire exchange group made a hiking trip to the partially ruined Burg Hanstein Castle, near the River Werra. As a history fanatic, I would say that this trip to Burg Hanstein was truly fascinating. In the late afternoon, most of the exchange group (including me) went on a bonding trip to a nearby indoor swim park.

We started day two, a Monday, rather early at 6 a.m. to go to school where I attended a physics lecture (Germans take up to 14 subjects or about two or three a day). We left our lecture a little early to join the rest of the exchange group for a walk to Gottingen City Hall where we met the mayor and other officials. Afterwards, we took a tour of the old part of Gottingen, going to many renowned sites such as the George August University, the Ganseliesel fountain, St. Jacoby's church and the old city hall. It was after the tour that I had my first currywurst (a representative German fast-food consisting of sausage topped with ketchup and curry powder). My host family and I spent the later part of the day hiking near the Gauss tower in an extinct volcano.

Day three was spent mostly at school; our first class was a morality of class, something unheard of back here in the U.S. Afterward, we attended music theory class. My partner spent the rest of the day teaching me basic German so I could be less of a Chinese tourist. The next day was our greatly anticipated Berlin day trip. We took the three and a half hour ride on the ICE train to the impressive Berlin Banhof (train station). However, we became even more impressed when we saw the imposing Reichstag five minutes later.

We were able to enter the Reichstag via a series of underground passages that led to government offices and eventually spent some time on the roof and glass dome. After lunch (in a beer garden) we walked over to the Brandenburg gate to begin our tour of Berlin. Our splendid tour guide showed us many prominent Berlin landmarks such as: Museum Island, the Berlin Cathedral, Humboldt University, and Checkpoint Charlie. Berlin was a truly magnificent city; it gave me the sense of being in a classical 18th century European city. The weather was surprisingly sunny that day, a respite from the constant rain we had experienced throughout the week.

Owing to the fact that we got back to Gottingen at around ten o clock at night, we were allowed to sleep in a little longer the next day. Once again we were back at school and this time I attended a physical education class as well as an English class. The latter part of the afternoon, I spent with Lea and her mom in the medieval town of Hann Munden. Since Lea's mom is actually from the town, she served as an excellent tour guide. Personally, I found this city to be the highlight of my trip; we toured the little town and went to its numerous landmarks such as the city castle, town hall, medieval walls, and church. At the end of our tour, we stopped by the renowned Knight of The Red Sausage, rated the best bratwurst stop in Europe, where we indulged in some truly delicious bratwurst sausage. Evening was spent with the rest of the exchange group at a movie night, where we sampled some German cinema.

Day 6 began at six in the morning. The American students and I went to the Duderstadt Borderland Museum Eichsfeld, which gave us some insight and knowledge about the West German-East German Border. We also spent some time in the center of the medieval town of Duderstadt. Like Gottingen and Hann Munden, Duderstadt featured the typical medieval German architecture of Gothic churches and half-timber housing. Upon returning to Gottingen, I had some free time back in my room to study German before all the host families and exchange students convened at the Gymnasium for a dinner potluck and go to the school musical. The actors and cast in the musical displayed some true talent, singing and performing well-known Michael Jackson, Beyonce, and Bee Gees' songs.

The next day was Saturday and my host partner and I went with half of the exchange group to Hanover on our own. Due to a train strike, we left about an hour later. We took the regional train this time, not the ICE and arrived at Hanover Banhof at early noon. Lea's boyfriend was kind enough to give us a tour of Hanover starting from the magnificent Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen. From the grand and baroque gardens we took the tram system to the Staatsoper Hanover (opera house), new and old city hall, and the marktkirche (Hanover market church). In general, Hanover can be considered a downsized version of Berlin with its grandiose architecture and 18th century style. Unfortunately, the train strike derailed our original plans to return to Gottingen and we were forced to stop at Goslar and switch trains before heading back to Gottingen.

Our final day happened to be a Sunday and even though I'm not Christian, I requested to join my host family in church just to get a feel of what Church is like. The experience could have been more enlightening if I understood what the pastor what saying, (obviously it was all in German), but in general the experience seemed very much like an American church. My family recognized my pronounced love for the town of Hann Munden so we decided that my last full day in Germany should be spent exploring the other half of the town. Before we left however, I said my final goodbye to Bernd who was starring in a T.V. show in Cologne and was leaving that day. On our second tour of Hann Munden, we explored the inside of the city church, walked around the city rotunda and climbed up the extremely tall city watchtower to get a panoramic view of the city and its three rivers.

Returning home, we ate dinner and spent the rest of the evening playing a board game before going to sleep early for my 7:30 a.m. flight back to the States. Upon boarding my flight, I had already begun to experience a feeling of longing and nostalgia. To call this trip profound would be an understatement; there aren't many adjectives to describe a trip of this caliber. This boring money-wasting trip had turned out to be something a lot bigger, it allowed me to establish a bond, not only with the German students, but also with my fellow American students.

This experience exposed and enlightened me to a culture I had never before dealt with; it expanded my worldview, and made me more cosmopolitan. Taking in all the sounds, sights and smells gave me an experience that I could not have imagined when I was first asked to go on this trip. Finally, I would simply say that this trip was just a whole lot of fun.

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