Thursday, January 29, 2009


I was an exchange student in high school. I spent my junior year in Europe, drinking beer in bars and eking out passing grades and hanging around with all the other exchange students on weekends. It won't surprise you to learn that it was a life-changing, personality-defining experience for me. I had grown up surrounded by wonderful friends and family in my small town, but I'd never felt like I belonged there, and I had the sneaking suspicion that I was going to live my life as a bit of an outsider. So among the many, many lessons I learned that year was the revelation that not everywhere is like the place I came from. (I also learned just how long I could remain clothed without doing laundry, and the difference between apple cider and hard cider.) And as elementary as that might seem, it's a realization that happens to almost everyone when they leave home for the first time. I'd read about foreign lands in the newspaper and books (I practically morphed into an English schoolgirl during my obsession with Noel Streatfield's novels), but until I saw these new places or just met someone from somewhere else, the whole idea wasn't real at all. But, of course, after that year abroad surrounded by other exchange students from Croatia and Portugal and New Zealand and Liberia, I stopped thinking of those countries as spots in my eighth grade geography book and started associating them with real live human beings.

So you can imagine that last weekend's shooting in downtown Portland, where a group of Rotary exchange students waiting to get into an all-ages dance club was hit by multiple rounds of random gunfire, and where two of those students, an American preparing for her time abroad and a Peruvian student spending the year in the US were both killed, affected me deeply. And my sadness was compounded by what I remembered hearing from my European friends about their fears of American cities, about crazy people with access to firearms. I could just imagine what people in those exchange students' home countries were saying, that their frightened parents were already planning to fly straight to Portland and collect them all and take them home to safe places outside our dangerous country.

So when I heard a radio interview with the father of one of the survivors, an Italian girl who was shot approximately nine times and who is still unconscious, I almost wept right there in my car:
"We'd like that she continue the (exchange) experience," her father said. Cultural exchanges open minds and improve the world, and violence and tragedy can "happen anyplace."
He's right, and though I'm not sure I could have the same kind of faith and optimism if I were in his position, I'm so glad he said it, and I hope it's still true.


maggie's mind said...

Just mind boggling, isn't it? I just moved from Portland after 10 years of living there, so it struck home. I've also lived abroad for a few years. Imagining all of that together and what it must be like for a parent who sends a high school kid to another country and then getting this news... shudder. Amazing parent that can still see the world as he does. He's right. It's just hard to imagine being able to feel that right then. Wow.

Nicole said...

Wow, I hadn't heard anything about that shooting. How awful.

The more I think about my son's increasing independence, the more it makes me want to hurl into my shoes. One of the people I did a college study abroad trip with died right after the formal study portion had concluded, in a rock climbing accident in Spain. I just can't imagine getting that call...

Thanks for sharing.