February 28, 2008

Exchange student woes

I caught this AP story via AOL: Exchange Student Starved While in Egypt.

Jonathan McCullum was in perfect health at 155 pounds when he left last summer to spend the school year as an exchange student in Egypt.

But when he returned home to Maine just four months later, the 5-foot-9 teenager weighed a mere 97 pounds and was so weak that he struggled to carry his baggage or climb a flight of stairs. Doctors said he was at risk for a heart attack.

McCullum says he was denied sufficient food while staying with a family of Coptic Christians, who fast for more than 200 days a year, a regimen unmatched by other Christians.

But he does not view the experience as a culture clash. Rather, he said, it reflected mean and stingy treatment by his host family, whose broken English made it difficult to communicate.

"The weight loss concerned me, but I wanted to stick out the whole year," he said in an interview at his family's home outside Augusta.

Let's see, he loses fifty-eight pounds in four months, is weak as a baby ... but he "wanted to stick out the whole year." Two words: "Friggin'" and "moron." Dude, nothing like that is worth "sticking out" if you're in danger of dying. Sheesh.

This story intrigued me because I once spent almost four months studying abroad back in 1986. The country was Costa Rica, and my host family -- out of the thirteen assigned to the thirteen students on the semester -- was the "poorest" of the bunch. By "poorest" I mean monetarily speaking. In terms of soul and heart though, my family was anything but poor.

Nevertheless, at the onset, it was difficult adjusting to living there. My room was a good size and I had my own bathroom. But from the very first night, I knew something was up. I awoke my first morning in Costa Rica covered with mosquito bites, mostly on my neck, face and arms. Little did I know that my host family didn't have screens on their windows. (This remains a common fact in CR today, by the way.) Bathing was fine -- for the first week. But after that week, suddenly I had no hot water whatsoever. When I inquired as to what was up, the reply that I got was that "the fuse" had broken. "Fuse?" Aren't they easily replaced? Not this kind. The "fuse" was actually a condensed heating coil located in the shower head. This coil superheats the water as it passes through, giving you hot water. Unfortunately, it lasts two weeks -- if you're lucky. So, I had to take cold showers for the better part of three months ... until my family got another one. It wasn't so bad when I took a shower after wandering the city of [capital] San Josť in the middle of the day; however, taking one right after waking up in the morning was ... trying. The usual routine was to turn the water on, jump in and quickly get your body wet, turn the water off and lather up, then turn the water back on and rinse. Repeat same with your hair.

I never complained about the lack of hot water. To do so would have been in quite bad taste. It was obvious from the start that my family was on the "lower" end of "middle class." And by that I mean Costa Rican "middle class" which would equate to "poor" here in the States. All of us in our exchange group knew that Costa Rica was (is) a third-world country, and as such is quite a bit poorer than the US; why would we -- should we -- bitch about amenities that were lacking from our usual lives?

That being said, the nightly mosquito hassles did suck. But as one Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway (at left) is known to say, I "overcame! I adapted!" First I bought what Costa Ricans call "espirales" -- the spiral-shaped thingamajigs that you light and whose smoke keeps mosquitos at bay. I lit one in my room every night. I also kept the sheets pulled up over my entire body excepting my nose and mouth. Yeah, this sucked, especially when it was exceptionally warm at night, but it was better than being eaten alive.

The other insect hassle was that my family's house had a ... problem with palmetto bugs. If I didn't leave a light on at night when I went out, I hated coming home at all. Why? 'Cause when I turned the lights on in my room, the friggin' things would be on the floor and would scatter into the walls. Not a whole lot of them, mind you -- usually less than ten -- but considering their huge size, that's enough! To keep them away at night when I was sleeping, I kept a night light on (which usually, but not always, did the job). But what was friggin' eerie was that I could hear them in the walls chomping away at whatever it was they were chomping on! Ick. But hey -- I had to deal with it.

How my family took care of leftover food was another issue. Let's just say it wasn't what most here would have done. And, I think it caused (or at least contributed) to the major [intestinal] illness I suffered while on the exchange program. But overall, unlike poor John McCullum noted in the AP story, my family fed me as they were required to. But that being said, the overall diet was quite a bit different from what I used to. I was hungry a lot (but not because of lack of food) and I ended up using a lot of my spending money supplementing my meals.

As I mentioned before, in terms of soul and heart, my family was golden. They ran the cafeteria at a private [bilingual] school and actually made/cooked most of the food each day themselves for the place. They worked their tails off each and every day. And they did it for their kids -- their oldest boy was studying in New Mexico, and their next oldest was planning on studying in Canada (which he indeed ended up doing, by the way). Despite their economic standing, a few times when our UD exchange group went away for a weekend travel junket, the father of my family would give me a couple hundred colones (Costa Rican currency, at the time 50 of which equaled one dollar), telling me to "have a few beers on him." I tried to graciously refuse his kind offer the first time, but his two daughters (both older than I) would quickly wave me off and tell me to take it, out of respect.

And that was the key, really. My family was absolutely terrific. I ultimately could have cared less how poor they were. They were the among the nicest and hardest working people I've ever met. They took care of me as they were required to by the rules of the exchange program, but they went beyond that. They treated me as one of their own. I've visited them a couple of times since then, the latest in 2002. They've since moved from the house where I stayed, but not very far from it. Unbelievably, the two daughters (the ones who "waved me off") have both passed away, the oldest (three years older than I) from cancer, and the next oldest (a year older than I) from a tragic car accident. The parents -- the mom and dad -- continue working hard, now additionally taking care of the latter daughter's two children. God bless 'em all.

I hold that 1986 semester abroad trip as one of -- if not THE -- greatest experience of my life. Such a trip definitely gives one a fresh perspective on life -- in general, but also as viewed from outside the confines of our own borders. It gives one an appreciation for the points of view of others elsewhere in the world, and also makes one appreciate how good our [material] standard of living here in the US truly is.

I highly recommend to any younger readers out there to take advantage of a study abroad program that is available. And do it for at least a full semester to get the full experience. (UD only offers a month-long winter session to Costa Rica anymore, which is a damn shame. That's not long enough.)

Posted by Hube at February 28, 2008 02:43 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

and I thought FW was the greatest!

Posted by: cardinals fan at February 28, 2008 05:52 PM

cf: Taken in totality, they're definitely a close second!!

Posted by: Hube at February 28, 2008 07:12 PM

I've been thinking about this and I really want to cry BS on this story. A good friend of mine was Coptic, although he's converted to Catholicism in the past few years. There are hundreds of thousands of Copts in the world and this doesn't happen to them. Something else has to be going on.

The fast wasn't the issue; maybe they were particularly mean to him, but I don't believe Copt rules on fasting are so extreme as to cause this sort of issue.

I should ask my friend what he thought of this story.

Posted by: Paul Smith at March 1, 2008 05:06 PM

I'm embarrassed as a citizen of this country to have tried this Egyptian family in the press, with so little information coming from their side. I'm disgusted that mention of a lawsuit by the parents accompanied the first news items. Here we have a student, who is just months short of attaining adult status in the eyes of the law. What are his responsibilities for his own health, even at age 17? They are immense. We would expect him to know not to have unsafe sex, not to drive while under the influence, and to loudly ask for help if he was not getting proper nourishment. He ad a facebook and myspace presence, and was constantly in touch with his friends back home--though not his parents obviously. Egypt is a place where one can get food from a street vendor for pennies, shop at mini-marts, or eat American-style fast foods. If you think I believe he never dined out with his friends, I do not. I'm angry we are being taken for a ride by this kid and his parents. They deleted his previously public internet journal of his Egypt experience, and now they have made his other internet presence private. I visited his myspace page before it was made private, and my impressions of him and his friends lead me to believe it is ludicrous to believe he could not find "anything under the sun" in Egypt. We are being hoodwinked, misled, and preyed upon by this family. I hope responsible journalism will show eventually that there is much more to this picture that has been told so far.

Posted by: anji at March 2, 2008 02:37 PM