International Flavor

Last night was the 10th annual International Dinner at my high school. It’s a carry-in. The food is prepared by the students, and all of it is fare from the cuisines of countries other than the United States. This year’s spread featured beignets, potato latkes, pico de gallo with tortilla chips, borscht, rice and bean and zucchini casseroles, fajitas, German chocolate cake, and cookies and sweets from around the world.

The foreign exchange students proudly offered food from their home countries. This year the most exotic dish was Giorgi from Georgia’s khachapuri – dough stuffed with cheese and “fried” in the skillet in olive oil—a sort of stuffed crepe. He’d never made the dish before. Apparently, it was quite a feat. Two Chinese cooks on YouTube, speaking Chinese, provided a demo, and his host mother, my colleague, gave him a hand once they found the recipe in English.

After the dinner, there’s entertainment—sometimes a talent show, sometimes performances by World Languages students, sometimes games or simulations teachers have set up. This year, the French teacher—who plays the fiddle and the guitar—led the crowd in French and French-Canadian songs and taught the students a folk dance that involved a broom and dashing in pairs down an alley of other students lined up to take their turns doing the same thing.

These dinners began ten years ago as a social activity connected with the exchange program I sponsored then with a secondary school in Russia. Each year, 9 American students welcomed 9 Russian students into their homes and into our school. In June, we switched—I took the Americans to Russia. But in the fall, the Russians were with us. In those days, the American host families came to the International Dinner, too, and the Russian students provided the entertainment after the meal.

When the exchanges ended, the dinners continued. In fact, it was while the exchanges were active that my colleague (Giorgi’s host mother) and I initiated the International Club, an extra-curricular service and learning organization that is now the largest club in the school.

My colleague taught Spanish then, and she was the mother duckling around whom our slim number of Hispanic students flocked. During the years of the exchange, she and I took the Russian students, their American “brothers” and “sisters,” Spanish Club students, and Hispanic students on field trips to Chicago. Other students in the school became curious about and then interested in all our “doings.” The spirit of appreciation for other countries and cultures was growing in our school, and when the exchanges ended, we wanted that spirit to continue.

To do that, we founded the International Club. The first year, the membership was small—mostly the few kids who had been with me to Russia and a few others from my colleague’s Spanish classes—but today, the membership crowds 100.

The International Club, we decided, would have three purposes: Service, Learning, and Fun. Since then, the students have
• Made greeting cards for Russian students in Beslan following the terrorist attack there
• Contributed money and person power to clean-up efforts in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina
• Electrified a school for the deaf in Isiolo, Kenya
• Raised the money for playground equipment for an elementary school in India
Furnished a school library in El Salvador with books and computers
Paid the secondary school fees for 6 years for a girl in Rwanda
• Raised money to send 10 secondary students to school in Burundi
• Made flags and alphabet posters for primary schools in Rwanda
• Collected toys for an orphanage in Haiti that was destroyed by the earthquake
• And this year, they are raising money for an elementary school in Cameroon

Fun we have had; learning we have done. But most of all, the students’ horizons have expanded and their interest in global affairs has increased. More and more of them are eager to travel to other countries during Spring Break; more and more of them tell me they plan to study abroad while they are in college. Friendships with international students have been forged and sustained. Best of all, most important of all, appreciation of other countries and understanding of people from afar has had the contagion effect I had hoped for when I first took kids to Russia.

My thought then had been this: If my students could get to know and genuinely like just one other person from somewhere else, if they could come to understand that we are more alike than different from those from afar, then that attitude would generalize to people everywhere. My students would accept differences; they would embrace diversity. They would not fear “the other.” The kids I took to Russia did more than “genuinely like” their sisters and brothers from Russia; they fell in love with their Russian families. The same thing happened to the Russian students—they grew to love their American families.

And such has been the experience of so many other students during these past 10 years. American students who have hosted exchange students have gone to European countries to see them again and meet their families. This year for the first time, one of our boys has gone on a year-long study abroad program. He’s in Germany, living with the family of the boy who lived with him last year in Indiana.

So, watching the students last night—Sylvie from Kenya dancing down the gauntlet with her friend from rural Indiana; Victor, whose family is from China, dancing with Lili, whose family is from Iran—I marveled and rejoiced at what has happened in 10 short years. Organizations like the International Club are usually personality-driven. They don’t have national charters, like Future Farmers of America, or an established purpose, like the Student Council. They aren’t recognized high school entities like the National Forensic League. They usually die when the sponsor withdraws.

But our International Club—unique in Indiana as far as I know—continues to thrive. In part, that’s because of the committed efforts of my colleague and two other teachers, who are now the sponsors, but it’s also because the Club itself has become institutionalized. It is a recognized entity in our school community. The activities are fun, the service projects are meaningful; the learning is measureable. Look how many were there last night!

And I was there, too—savoring international flavors and celebrating amazing friendships that extend beyond national borders.

How sweet it is.