MHS culture a shock to foreign exchange students

Shrija Shandilya | The Chronicle

Popular teen TV shows do not quite accurately represent American high school life. 

Junior Stella Polsler is originally from Brazil but is staying in Mason for the year as part of the Education Travel and Culture (ETC) foreign exchange student program. Polsler said that she grew up watching shows about American high schools and wanted to experience the real culture.

“I used to love watching High School Musical and Mean Girls,” Polsler said. “I wanted to experience [American high school], but it’s not like what I expected.”

Polsler said she felt many culture shocks upon moving to Mason; one of the biggest was how people interacted with each other in school. At Polsler’s old school, the teacher-student relationship was very informal and students stayed together throughout the school day, creating a very tight-knit school community. In Mason, she said that the size of the school made it more difficult to form that same community.  

“In Brazil, we would be friends with the teacher, gossip and tell them what’s happening in our lives,” Polsler said. “Everyone knows everyone, [but] at Mason, I see a new face in the hallway every day.”

Polsler said that she also struggled to relate to American pop culture, especially music, due to the language barrier. Mainstream music in Brazil includes genres such as Pagode, funk and Brazilian trap. Polsler said she misses having friends who understand the same music. 

“I don’t listen to the same music my friends here listen to,” Polsler said. “It’s harder for me to understand the songs.”

In 2022, Qatar hosted the 22nd FIFA World Cup. Soccer, or football, is a large part of Brazilian culture. On game day in Brazil, people paint the streets and Brazilian flags are placed everywhere. Polser said it is hard to miss the game in Brazil, but soccer is not as relevant in America.

“In Brazil, the energy is different,” Polsler said. “You’re walking on the street and you hear people screaming about it. We stop school to watch it sometimes.”

Polsler said that she appreciates the opportunity to experience a different culture but misses her family, especially her younger sister.

“I’ve always been an example to my sister,” Polser said, “I’m wondering how she’s doing back home without someone to look up to.”

While Polsler is a part of the ETC program, sophomore Amina Tasbukat and her family moved from Kazakhstan to Mason permanently by earning a grant from her school to move. Tasbulat said she will always have a connection to her home country but is grateful for the opportunity to move.

“I grew up [in Kazakhstan]; I had my childhood and my friends and family there,” Tasbukat said. “[But] Kazakhstan is still a developing country, so that’s why I think that it was good we left.”

Similar to Polsler, Tasbulat noticed many cultural differences, especially in school. She said that there was less reliance on technology and online platforms for learning in Kazakhstan. Tasbulat also said there was a major cultural difference in people’s overall behavior.

“In my culture, we respect each other, we love each other, but we don’t show a lot of emotions,” Tasbulat said. “Here, people are emotional and that’s really good.”

Tasbulat said she saw this emotion through how her teachers communicate with students about both school and their personal lives.

“I like the teachers here because they are kind, well-minded and understanding,” Tasbulat said. “They are always ready to help students with any problems in and out of school.”

Junior Yago Toledano is part of Rotary International, an organization that sponsors exchange students in more than 100 countries and seeks to help students learn new languages and cultures. Toledano decided to participate in this program in order to learn about a different culture and improve his English language skills. He arrived in early August 2022 from Spain and will be spending a year at MHS. He said that he sees American culture as a mix of many traditions and people from different places, leading to much more diversity than in Spain.

“There’s a much greater variety of people here from all different places,” Toledano said. 

Toledano said he has been trying to live as an American teen and that experience is very different from being a Spanish teen. He said that in Mason, many extracurricular activities are affiliated with the school, which not many schools in Spain have. 

“You would only find school clubs and sports in very, very nice schools in Spain,” Toledano said, “But generally, in order to do something like theater, you would have to find an organization outside of school.” 

Toledano said that a difficult part of being away from home was having to leave his friends and family. He said that seeing his friends on social media made him miss them more. 

“My friends are now in their junior year and they’re having lots of fun,” Toledano said. “I would love to be there with them doing whatever they’re doing.”

With a wide variety of professional sports leagues in America, Toledano said that he thinks Americans are lucky to be able to experience all of these different events, as Spain’s major professional sports leagues are mainly in soccer.

“I love sports and I was able to experience an NBA and NFL game,” Toledano said. “That [was] one of the most exciting parts of being here.”

Tasbulat said it is a very big change to move to a different country and adjust to a different culture, but she is glad to gain the experience that Mason provides.

“It’s not easy because it’s another country, culture and people, but I really like it [here] and my future at this school,” Tasbulat said.

Graphics by Alisha Verma