Exchanging the Norm for the Foreign: Brazil

It began innocently enough, both times, with a phone call–but isn’t that how life changing things often occur?

A routine day suddenly explodes into a change that alters your life and rearranges your schedule  the very next day.

Fortunately, we’re flexible, which is a key component to welcoming foreign exchange students into your house.

Three years ago we got Giovanna–a lovely girl with excellent English skills from Brazil. A friend recommended us and a week later Giovanna arrived. She spent four months with our family and we learned a lot about Brazilian culture and food (For example, they consider avocados a fruit like strawberries, and Giovanna made us an avocado slushie. We had trouble getting past the sugar).

One night she put together a Brazilian barbeque, cooking a terrific meal of delicious meat–she made sure the local butcher did NOT cut the fat off the tri-tip. She put together a bread-like souffle filled with cheese and baked a chocolate cake riddled with cinnamon and sweetened with condensed milk.

I never cook with condensed milk; this was a new experience.

Giovanna had learned her English with Harry Potter. “I wanted to be able to read the books myself,” she explained. “I started with Harry Potter’s first book in one hand and the English-Portuguese Dictionary in the other. By the time I got to the last books, I could read them easily.”

Harry Potter wasn’t the only popular English-language culture she enjoyed.

Three years ago  Twilight and its sequels were popular. Giovanna loved the bookand was delighted to purchase a copy of the movie within weeks of arriving in America.

I laughed the first time she watched it. “Is this what your idea of American high schools were before you came? Have you seen anyone looking like a vampire at Montgomery High School?”

She laughed.

“That also explains why you like garlic so much,” I continued.

Giovanna shook her head, puzzled.

“Don’t you know vampires hate garlic?”

She laughed again. We could joke with her from the first week.

Even though the high school had expected her, they had a problem with her school transcripts when we enrolled her in classes.

“You’ll need to get this translated.” The school secretary flourished the transcript. “We can’t read it.”

I don’t speak Portugues, but I have a working knowledge of Spanish and Italian. These words didn’t look that complicated to me: Física, Biologia. Álgebra.

Any guesses?

“Can’t we just have her translate it for you?” I could figure them out.

“Of course not. How would we know if she translated correctly?”

I glanced at Giovanna out of the corner of my eye. “Do you need this translated by an official translator, or can I use a friend?”

“A friend will do. We just need to be able to read it.”

“No problem. I’ll have it back in a couple hours.”

We went home and Giovanna translated everything. I typed up her words and we returned translated transcript later that afternoon.


Giovanna had things to learn in America. She had never done much manual labor since her family had a maid. She wasn’t familiar with a washing machine and had not seen a dryer before.  The dishwasher and trash compactor were new appliances as well.

More than anything, she liked to go shopping.

I hate to shop.

I decided, finally, it was a bonding experience between us and at least once a week sallied forth after dinner to hit the stores. Everything mesmerized her–she was sixteen–and often needed to purchase items for school.

We surprised her the week before Christmas when we took her to Disneyland. Here, truly, was a dream come true for her: meeting Mickey Mouse. We even mailed a pair of ears to her mother, another true fan!

The best part of having a foreign exchange student in our house was seeing our normal life  through foreign eyes.  She had questions about many things and shared astonishment about much in American life. We loved having her and were happy to do it again.

Have you ever considered having a foreign exchange student in your home? Why or why not?

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  1. I would LOVE to have an exchange student live with us. Just about anyone from South America would do. But after living in and around Oklahoma for two weeks? I wonder how someone from there would do here? The language *might* be a problem.
    I LOVE that she did her own transcript translating!

  2. J. Voss

     /  August 9, 2012

    It has never worked for Ken and I, but my parents had 8 students and I am still friends with 3 of them. In fact, I just took one of them to Disneyland with her 15-year-old son. So fun to reconnect!


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