Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Below is an essay written by my beloved friend Hart. This essay won the 2nd Place in the “Peace through Understanding Essay Competition”. My hostmum sent me a copy of her essay and I could hardly believe with what she had written.

By posting her essay here, I just want to show you a tangible proof that the love that we give will come back again for sure. Friendship is not created due to similarity but a process of mutual understanding. Even a small start and act can lead and expand into an enourmous impact.

To Hart: Hart, du bist echt bewunderswert !!!! :) :) :) Ich hoffe, wir koennen unser Freundschaft immer behalten obwohl wir ganz wenig (oder garn nicht) Kontakt machen. Aber ich glaube und erwarte, irgendwann in unserem Leben werden wir uns wiedertreffen und daran geben wir die Welt unser beste Laecheln weil wir schon etwas fuer die Friedenheit gebaut haben. Ich habe dich immer ganz doll Lieb !!! :) :) :)


by Hart Ford-Hodges

At the airport, it is easy to spot exchange students: teenagers lugging suitcases bulging with a year’s worth of underwear, dictionaries, and forty pounds of miscellaneous items. Most of the time, the exact contents are a mystery. I remember throwing half of my closet indiscriminately into a suitcase. There were surprises as I unpacked at my new German house. Some surprises were nasty and abstract: monsters with names like prejudice, stereotypes, xenophobia who must have slipped quietly out of the back corner of my closet and into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking.

After AFS orientations about the exchange year in Germany, I was aware that I had monsters that stereotyped Germans as stout mustached men with Bierkruegs. Germans might also stereotype me as AFS—Another Fat Student—who eats Big Macs and drives a gas-guzzling SUV.

I expected that my exchange year would widen my world laterally between Germany and the States by banishing monsters of German and American stereotypes. That was the full extent of my expectation. Looking back, I realize the actual experience overwhelmed my preconceptions. It transformed me, the average American teenager, into a global citizen by stretching me vertically, diagonally, and by expanding my chest like helium fills a balloon. Germany and Germans were only part of my year, a beginning that blossomed into much more. I met Italian, Australian, Indonesian, Chinese, Mexican exchange students. At school I learned Spanish and Dutch. At the Red Cross, I become friends with mentally retarded adults. With a vibrant new environment, I recreated myself. I conquered my monsters—prejudices against housewives, mentally-retarded adults, the French, and Muslims. My Muslim-prejudice monster lived and died especially quietly.

Before my exchange year I barely blinked when I heard “Muslim” caustically spat out. I didn’t condone prejudice; I just didn’t feel that anti-Muslim tensions affected me. Living in a neighborhood of majority, mainstream America vacuum-sealed me from minority issues. On top of that, society seemed to condone prejudice against Islam. The labels became “Islamic militants” and “Muslim terrorists” as if the religion and destruction were intimately tied together. Of course, I knew in my head that “Muslim” did not equal “terrorist.” But I didn’t understand that in my heart because I never defined Muslim by experience. Then I met Kiki.

She was like a fairy—that’s the only way to describe her. Less than five feet tall, Indonesian, long black hair, dark skin and a dark mole on her right cheek, and her Islam. Kiki carried her religion eloquently: just a white head scarf in her pocket. She wrapped her black hair in white five times each day to pray. I felt that she knew her God and loved Him. More than that though, I knew Kiki. She lived just a train stop away from me. We took the train together to AFS meetings. Then we walked to the Haus der Jugend, sometimes making a detour for ice cream and a chat with the Italian owner. After the meeting, all the exchange students wandered the city, embracing the night and loving Germany. Gradually, we broke off in twos and threes to take trains back to our host families. Kiki and I took the same train at 10:27—but usually we missed it. So we went for more ice cream or hot chocolate while we waited for the next train at 10:57. Or we would sit on the platform and sing John Mayer songs. Kiki loved John Mayer, but no Germans knew him. She relished our sing-alongs. Running through the halls of my high school. Screaming at the top of my lungs.

Quietly, I became friends with my first Muslim. It was a revolution. Suddenly Muslim ceased to be a group of those radical terrorists and suicide bombers that the media portrayed. Muslim became Kiki. The Indonesian fairy humanized my definition of the minority.
In the flight back home, I had one less monster to carry. My suitcases—even though they bulged with Milchschockolade and Gummibaeren—were lighter somehow. The exchange experience sent me home emptier, freer—and fearless.

Before, I was a little girl, scared of the dark and frightened by the monsters that lurked there. I believed them when they told me to keep out of strange places full of strange people. The world terrified me. Then AFS pushed me right into the middle of strange places and gagged my monsters. I met the world. I listened to my own voice and the garble of strangeness surrounding me. I learned to understand the language, culture, and myself. I fell in love with the exhilaration of the experience. Now I am fearless. I dare to embrace the wider world without monsters crowding around to whisper lies in my ears.