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The Innocents in America

You know, like “The innocents abroad” by Mark Twain, but in reverse. One of the greatest things about travel with kids is exposing them to different cultures where people may think a bit differently, and it doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. That has being my goal: To get our children out of American bubble now and again.

Many years ago, I was a kid living in “Belarus” bubble in a far flung corner of Eastern Europe. I couldn’t wait to get out of it! Through combination of good grades and sheer luck I was selected as one of 50 students in the former Soviet Union to visit USA as part of an exchange program. Before that trip I only went to Russia as well as few cities in Belarus.

Naturally, my mom was frantic about selecting gifts for my host family. Gifts are a huge part of my culture. If you don’t bring them, you may as well not show up. A problem: my family was broke. Sure, we bought a few trinkets here and there, but it didn’t seem like enough for such a big occasion.

So, my mom started looking around the house. Hey, there is a crystal vase! Let’s clean it up and repurpose it as a gift. Hmm, deer antlers… Why the heck not! Yes, I brought deer antlers (family heirloom) to America. My mom said that my host family will love them (they didn’t).

And so, off I went at only 16 years of age. None of us have ever flown on an airplane and didn’t know what to expect. So, my mom has packed me some sausage and a can of soup. That was before 9/11, and somehow all that cr#p made it through security, even the deer antlers. She also put a spoon in my carry-on (aka plastic bag), and it started making a racket in an overhead compartment of the airplane.

So, our group finally made it to Washington DC. The next day, we were touring the White House, after that FBI headquarters and so on. We were all given an allowance of $200 for 2 weeks. Our food was provided, so this was mostly for souvenirs and miscellaneous items. I have never had more that $5 in my possession before, so was very careful with my newly found treasure. In fact, I brought  $190 back to Belarus. Years later, I learned about my Jewish heritage, and it finally made sense!

I couldn’t believe how big everything was: The malls, the roads, the food portions. It was overwhelming, to say the least. I remember how my friend and I needed to get someplace and ended up crossing the interstate on foot. Where I grew up, we walked everywhere, so we thought this was a totally acceptable way of doing things. You should have seen some of the looks on drivers’ faces.

After visiting DC, we went to Florida. First, we were to stay in a rural area with our hosts, and after that we would be off to Miami. Small town was boring as can be. I thought to myself, I would never want to live in a place like that (20 years later, this is where I live). They really did go out of their way to make us feel welcome. We went to Disney (which at the time, I absolutely loved) and Space Center where we had a special tour with access to the launch room.

The school that hosted us organized a gathering where they invited their best and brightest students. We were the stars of the party and people took turns asking us questions about Belarus. This is where I had one of the worst faux pas of my life, though it was totally unintentional. One of the students asked  if Belarus has any black people living in it. My response: We don’t have any ne$%os in our country. Let me explain. I did not realize it was an offensive term, I really didn’t. I honestly thought it was the term for black people. Cheapblackdad, please, don’t leave my blog!

Later in the day, a black guy came up to me and out of the blue, told me that he was offered several full scholarships to top universities in the country. I congratulated him, though was a bit puzzled why he would volunteer such information to a total stranger. Eventually, they informed me of my slip-up.

Needless to say, I was very happy when we left for Miami. Now we are talking! They placed us in a beachfront motel. It was seedy and there were quite a few roaches, but we didn’t care. We were in freaking Miami! At some point, several guys struck up conversation with my roommate and I. Apparently, they wanted to pick us up in the evening and take us to a club. They said we were supposed to wear bathing suits and there would be foam coming down from a ceiling. Huh?

No, I didn’t go. Are you kidding me? I’ve shown a photo of what I looked like at 16:

Leana1

I was the nerdiest nerd you would ever come across in your life. Of course, I didn’t think so at the time.

This trip truly changed me. In fact, it completely changed the trajectory of my life. That’s how I ended up meeting my husband, and that’s why I’m now blogging for you, fine people. But if you asked me if I would let my daughter do the same thing at 16 years of age, my response would be “No way!”

Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

10 thoughts on “The Innocents in America

  1. It’s nice to read your first experience in America. I have a 3 year old myself and I can’t imagine her being on her own 15 years from now. But one part of me says I will eventually come to terms with it whether I like it or not.

    • Kenny, I totally agree. I can’t imagine my kid going on her own like that. Thinking back, I can’t believe we were given this much freedom in a foreign country. We were just kids and on our own for a good part of the day. Some guys in our group were caught trying to steal in Walmart. Yikes! I guess they didn’t realize there were cameras watching, no such thing in Belarus.

  2. Thanks for telling us more of your story! It sounds like a wonderful program. What a great experience.

    My parents let me go on a school trip to Spain for one entire month when I was 14. If they only knew the shenanigans that most of the kids did on our trip…they probably would never have let me go!

    • Shoesinks, wow, you went to Spain at 14! That’s very young indeed. Yeah, it was definitely an amazing experience for me. I ended up coming back for an entire year to stay with that same host family. That’s how my poor husband ended up falling for me. If he only knew what awaited him!
      I actually got emotional just writing about it. I can’t believe how many years have passed. It seems like it was yesterday. I feel old!

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. I am always interested in hearing about people’s experiences visiting the US when they were not born here. I work for a European company and I was fortunate enough that they sent me all over the world an average of once a month over a 10-year period (comfortably too, in biz class!). So, I have a lot of experience working side-by-side with people from other cultures and spending extended amounts of time in several countries where I was able to get a deep understanding of day-to-day life nuances. It has really changed me as a person because I can appreciate that people do things in different ways and can still reach the same objectives – not only in work, but living life in general. Some of those things I like, some I do not – but it’s cool because I’m able to see the whole rainbow of options and apply the best approach for a given scenario. Metaphorically speaking, sometimes it seems like Americans who have never traveled outside of the US can only see a limited range of colors. This is one reason that I do international travel with my kids: to expose them to other cultures so they can develop their own rainbow and hopefully see the world in a different way. I would consider doing an exchange program in the future, especially with one of my trusted colleagues who have children of similar age.

    • @Erik Thank you for your comment, as always. Wow, your job sounds amazing. I would have killed to have something like that! Of course, being away from family had to be tough, I’m sure.
      I agree with you on other cultures: I like some things, others not so much. In fact, after living in America for quite a few years, I think overall, I prefer our way of life. 🙂 Like not having to pay to use a toilet. What if you don’t happen to have any cash on you? But yes, it’s important to expose kids to other cultures. It also helps us as parents to be more easy-going and accepting. I remember something Rick Steves said: “Pack light. You should be able to find everything you need when you land in Europe. If you can’t find it, ask yourself how 500 million European Union residents can live without it?” And the same goes for every country, really.
      As far as letting your kids participate in exchange program, overall, I think it’s a good thing. Just wait till they are closer to 18!

  4. Great reading about your experiences. My parents always valued travel highly over fancy cars or expensive clothes, and those experiences have made such a difference in the way I view the world and my day to day life. When I was 14, I didn’t want to go to summer camp so my mom stuck me on a plane and sent me half way around the world to spend 2 months with my aunt and uncle in Australia (my uncle was working there and my aunt is from New Zealand). Aside from the 24 hours of travel each way, it was truly life-changing. I very much hope that my kids will have the same opportunities to learn about and appreciate travel. That’s why I am so excited to have discovered “the hobby” :).

    • Doug, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It sounds like your parents are very wise people. To me, travel is worth much more than fancy cars or expensive furniture. Most people underestimate the value of experiences. My husband has been trying for the longest time to purchase me some expensive jewelry. I said no way! We can go on a cruise instead. It’s not wrong, of course, to love nice things, I just don’t assign huge value to material obsessions.
      Your trip at 14 sounds amazing! I would love to visit that part of the world.
      P.S. I’m also glad you found the hobby! Just please, don’t let it take over your existence.

  5. Hah! Well, I’m sure you are considerably more culturally attentive after that experience. I bet your kids would be horrified to learn about your first experience with a Black person…

    When I am on Mexico, I always try for speak the language. One time I mixed up a normal napkin you would have at a meal with the word for a feminine hygiene product. The waiter looked at me horrified and confused.

    If you don’t have an embarrassing story from one of your travels, you aren’t living right.

    • @Cheapblackdad Phew! I was so afraid this would offend you, I almost didn’t include it. But ultimately, I thought it was an important part of the story. And the story is: I suffer from a serious case of “foot in mouth” disease! 🙂 Not really surprising if you’ve been following my adventures in blogging. Thanks for being so cool about the whole thing. Let me know if you would like me to include some stock photos of black people to make up for it!

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