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Grass isn’t always greener in U.S.

By Staff | Nov 10, 2008

BEA German exchange student Tommy Handke and his parents.

‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ once described a viewpoint held by Tommy Handke.

The exchange student from Germany came to the U.S. and Blue Earth Area High School, to put his belief to the test.

Born in Altenburg in eastern Germany on Sept. 9, 1991, Handke is no stranger to small town life. His home village, Drosskau, has a population of 50 people. It is near Leipzig, which is a city of 500,000.

“I became interested in the American Swedish Student Exchange Program (ASSE) because I wanted to improve my English language skill, see a different culture and to do something new and special that not everyone else was doing,” Handke says.

Earlier this summer, he was involved with a Culture Camp in Peoria, Ill., for four weeks. Handke did this so he would not experience such a culture shock during the school year.

While in Peoria, he stayed with a host family who helped him get adjusted to the American way of life – by telling him what to say and what not to say when faced with different situations. While there, he was part of a support group comprised of about 20 other students from around the world (South Korea, Portugal, Brasilia and France.)

“This group was so much fun,” says a smiling Handke. “We went to different cities, such as Springfield, and went on many trips.”

Upon completing the Culture Camp, he arrived in Minnesota and joined his host family, Richard and Margaret Sunderlin of Elmore. Handke is the 10th exchange student they have hosted in the past nine years.

“We have hosted five girls and five boys,” says Richard Sunderlin. “Every one of them has been unique and couldn’t be pigeon-holed,” he says.

“These young people touch your life for 10 months, so it is really hard to say good-bye,” says Sunderlin.

Meanwhile, the Sunderlin’s are enjoying Handke and have forewarned him that before he leaves, he must write or draw something on their wall which is unique to him. It will remain as a keepsake for them.

Handke has had to adjust to school life at BEA, since he is used to taking six or seven subjects per day, in Germany, to only having four daily classes here.

The German educational schedule resembles a college system he explained.

“Because both my parents (Heike and Andreas) worked, I began kindergarten when I was three years old,” says Tommy. “When one is six or seven, we begin elementary school. This includes first through fourth grades. Before we begin fifth grade, we must choose what educational tract we want to pursue. If a person goes just to the tenth grade, they can start learning a job. If they complete 12th grade, the students are given an ‘A Level’ and can continue their education at the university,” he explains.

“The teachers here are really friendly compared to those I have at home,” adds Handke.

A big difference, he notes about the two school systems, is the fact that at Blue Earth Area, the school personnel watch you closely.

“You need a pass everywhere,” he says. “You can’t run in the hallway and are not allowed to wear t-shirts with slogans either.

“In German schools you can wear whatever you want. No one cares what you do in school. Germans believe you are responsible for your own actions and that you should make the best of your education,” he says.

When not in the classroom, Tommy likes to hang out with his friends, Amanda Picholt and Sandor Hahn.

“Amanda has helped me with my language phrases,” he says.

Handke is in choir and also participated in cross country this fall at BEA.”The cross country team was cool,” he says. “They were like a family.

As for differences between his homeland and the U.S., he says going to the movies is more expensive here and so is beer.

“In Germany you can drink legally at 16 or even at 14 if you want. It is a social tool used when hanging out with your friends,” he says.

Another advantage to drinking at an earlier age, he adds, is that by the time you are able to drive legally at age 18, you know your alcohol limit and are less likely to get into an accident.

In contrast to the U.S., gas in Germany is more expensive and so is clothing.

“Politics in the U.S. is very different too,” says Handke. “In Germany we have five political parties. Here there are only two main parties, but it is so much about money – who can raise the most money, etc. In Germany, it is more issue oriented. Also, in the U.S. it seems that once your people get elected, they do what they want to do and not what the people want,” he says.

He explains today his homeland is a united Germany. Prior to 1990, Eastern Germany had been under Russian control and there still are lingering economic and social effects from this.

“Eastern Germany is substandard,” he says. “It is comprised of the middle or working class people, whereas in Western Germany the people earn more money even though they do the same work as those living in the eastern part.

“I got a real shock the first time I went to the Super Wal-Mart in Fairmont,” says Handke. “I need a map to find something it is so large. In Germany we have small, separate shops.

He also says the Americans are more friendly than Germans.

“It is really nice to be greeted in the stores here,” Handke says.

Tommy’s favorite topic is meals.

“I especially like the food here,” he says, “particularly the sweets. But I like mashed potatoes anywhere,” he says with a large grin. “My favorite food in Germany is a home-cooked meal shared with my family. I like making and eating it together,” says Handke.

“We have fast food places only in the larger cities,” he adds.

As for hobbies, Handke enjoys hanging out with his friends in Germany, playing volleyball and being involved in youth politics.

One of the perks of being an only child is that he has been able to travel to Italy, Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, the Dominican Islands and to the Czech Republic.

“I miss the public transportation system that we have in Germany,” he says. “We have a choice of taking the subway, a bus, train or bike. Here you really need a car.

Handke explained he does not have long distances to travel in his homeland. It takes him only about 15 minutes by bike to reach his school.

Upon returning to Drosskau, he hopes to go to a university to study political science.

In the meantime, he is meeting new friends and learning new things – even how to make apple pie. His host family, the Sunderlin’s, recently involved him in the project of making 42 apple pies from scratch.

Having spent about four months in the U.S., Handke admits that ‘the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.’

“I have made many friends here,” says Handke, “but they are not life friends. I miss my family and friends back home. We do more together and support each other better in my homeland. There we share all those awesome moments in life,” he says.