No doubt, Montesano is a great place to live. But, compared to a lot of places in this country, it’s a pretty homogeneous little town.
Yet for the past year, it’s been a bit more diverse as Montesano High School and local families have been hosting a record seven foreign-exchange students, all of whom have embraced and thoroughly enjoyed their experiences in small-town America.
They have learned to love this country and its citizens, even if we do have our quirks that may raise their eyebrows now and again.
“I like how people appreciate life and their freedom. The people are so friendly, and they’re always smiling around here,” said Elina Garaeva from Russia, who is living with Steve and Hilary Poler and their four children.
But Elina has noticed some idiosyncrasies to us West Coasters.
“In the winter, you come out in shorts,” she says in her classic Russian accent while rolling her eyes, “And where I live, it gets minus-40 degrees. Here, if you get three inches of snow, there’s no school.” Then, holding her thumb and finger about two inches apart, she exclaims, “That’s not snow!”
“She’s a lot of fun,” says Steve Poler, a Montesano School Board member and financial adviser at Edward Jones in Montesano. “This is the first time as a host family for us.”
The Polers’ four kids have yet to reach high school age, so Elina has been something of a big sister from another land, Poler said.
“Yeah, Elina is our oldest,” he said with a chuckle.
Lori Blanchard is the area coordinator for the foreign-exchange program and she and her husband, Greg, and their family are hosting, Maksud “Max” Rahimov from Tajikistan, a mountainous, landlocked country in Central Asia, a member of the Soviet Republic until its collapse in 1991.
“Max is our third student we’ve hosted, so we’re getting to be professionals at this,” said Blanchard, acknowledging that seven students is a new high for Montesano. “It’s a handful,” she noted in a literal and figurative understatement.
And if you’re a “professional” parent, at some point you do — as several of this year’s host families did — the ultimate for any kid: Take ‘em to Disneyland — “The happiest place on Earth.”
“I just loved it,” said Paulina Wendlandt, who’s from a town near Hamburg, Germany, where her father is a police officer. It is Montesano Police Chief Brett Vance and his wife, Kelly, who are hosting Paulina and took her to the Magic Kingdom a few weeks ago.
“I just really enjoy the atmosphere with all the characters, and I saw Mary Poppins,” said the German teenager. Unfortunately, Paulina did not get to experience typical Southern California weather, noting that “it did not rain, but it was cold and windy.”
Maksud and Elina also went to Disneyland with their families for spring break, when things warmed up — quite a bit.
“It was 91 degrees. I got a tan there. I liked being there,” Elina said.
Max did, too, noting that he rode the “Tower of Terror” several times, while all the foreign-born fledgling Mousketeers agreed that their favorite ride at the resort was “Soaring over California.”
While the students were enthusiastic about the tourist-friendly sprawl that is the L.A. Basin, they seem more impressed with small-town America, specifically Montesano.
“It’s amazing how people always have a positive attitude here,” said Dinara Zheldibayeva, who is from Kazakhstan, another Central Asian nation that broke way from the Soviet Republic. Dinara is hosted by George and Pam Banks and their family.
“In our countries, it is not so common when they smile; they are more serious,” said Daria Iashehenko from Turkish Kurdistan. She is being hosted by Tino and Barb Diaz.
But, like most their American counterparts, these teens are all smiles when it come to some of their favorite subjects — food, recreation and sports.
Most of the students participated in their own parade float during the annual Festival of Lights Parade, waving their country’s flags with pride.
They have participated in all sorts of high school sports and have become die-hard Bulldogs for life, having competed in the likes of golf, soccer, cross country, softball, basketball and track & field.
Bulldog basketball fans probably got to see Gheorghe Cojocaru, a tall, lanky teen from Moldova in Eastern Europe. He is being hosted by Tyler and Jennifer Tingey.
“It was good,” he said of his first-ever basketball experience. “It was fun, but I’m pretty bad at it because it’s my first year,” he said shrugging his broad shoulders.”
Most of the students noted there are no interscholastic sports at schools in their country, where they attend from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon and “never change classrooms. The teachers come to you” and attend every class with the same kids for 11 straight years.
“If you want to play sports, you have to go to sports school and that’s very expensive,” noted Elina from Russia. She’s currently competing in track & field and giving pole vault a try, acknowledging that she’s well aware that Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia is the current world record holder and has been the dominant figure in the event for a decade.
“I love this experience,” said Paulina of Germany. “Right now I’m playing softball and I love being in the dugout with my teammates. At first, it was really difficult, but now I’m getting the hang of it and catching the ball and hitting the ball. My teammates take good care of me.”
And when it comes to sports, these kids got to experience the ultimate American dream — a Super Bowl winner — as the 12th man will send new disciples forth throughout Asia and Europe in a couple of months.
When the subject of the Seahawks was raised, they all raised their arms in triumph, exclaiming “Super Bowl!”
When the local reporter broke the news that he was a longtime 49ers fan, there were moans of derision, but it became obvious that Emir Turarov, also from Kurdistan, had become a true student of the game in his short time in America. Turarov is hosted by local attorney Vini Samuel and her husband, Guy Bergstrom, and their son, Thomas.
“The NFC Championship game: That was the true Super Bowl,” said Turarov diplomatically, trying to offer a bit of condolence to the oft-mocked Niners fan.
Turarov, who said he’d like to be a politician or — what else — a foreign diplomat, got a taste of American politics when he served as a legislative page for a week for state Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview.
Bergstron said that many teens would find it boring, but not Emir.
“It was a great experience for Emir to get an upfront look at what it takes to run our government,” Bergstrom said, adding that there have been a lot of fun experiences for him, too, including a spring break trip to Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the Space Needle.
Speaking of tastes, all the students say they love “American food,” which could mean about anything when it comes to the culinary melting pot this country has become.
“The traditional food is good in my country, but fast food is much better in America,” said Maksud, who added, “I love steak. It’s American. I could have steak seven days a week.”
When asked their favorite local restaurant, the hands-down winner was El Rancho in Montesano, as they all proclaimed their love of Mexican food, something very new to most of them.
“In my country, we don’t have Mexican food at all,” Maksud said.
Some of the other foods they said they like but do not see in their native lands include chocolate chip cookies, banana bread and doughnuts.
The students, whose career goals run the gamut from international flight attendant to software engineer and teacher to politician, said not everything is perfect about America.
“American people don’t see or hear a lot of information from the rest of the world,” said one student, while they all agreed that their American classroom counterparts “don’t care at all” about world affairs.
“And there is NO public transportation here,” said Elina, who lives in Kazan, the eighth biggest city in Russia with a population of 1.15 million people.
When one stated, “We don’t have yellow school buses,” they nodded in agreement, most saying that public transportation in their countries is the norm for commuters with cars being relatively rare compared to here and prohibitively “expensive” to run and maintain for most people.
Every one of the students admitted to missing their families, but all said they have loved their stay, don’t want to leave and would like to return some day, noting that Montesano has given them a great experience.
“I would like to come back some day,” Elina said. “It’s quiet here. I get tired of the busy life in the big city.”
They’d be welcome back with open arms because they’ve meant a lot to their school, new families and friends in Montesano.
“It’s not just a neat experience for all those students, but for our students and this community. They’ve given us exposure — a glimpse in to their cultures, which is great,” said Steve Poler.
“Our foreign exchange students — we’ve never had seven before — have added such a diversity to our school,” said Montesano High Principal Alec Pugh. “They want to be Bulldogs and they just jump right in. … and the host families have been awesome and have given them a great experience, a great taste of small-town America. The students have enriched our kids and in turn we try to provide the same enrichment for them.”
And the students plan to use their experience here in their future endeavors back home.
“Now, I can tell my students how the Americans really are,” said Paulina, who wants to be an English teacher in Germany some day and now understands many more idioms or American-isms.
“It’s like when they say, ‘How are you?’ as a greeting, but really don’t want to know how you are,” she said with a big smile before running off to softball practice.