Students from Thailand and Norway make themselves at home in Bowlus
For the fourth year, Tom and Joan Fussy have welcomed exchange students into their home and into their hearts. The newest members of their worldwide family are Nantanut “Song” Kittiekkachai from Bangkok, Thailand and Synne Titlestad from Bergen, Norway.
From the nine million people in Bangkok and the nearly 290,000 people of Bergen, these two students travelled to the small town of Bowlus in Central Minnesota.
Kittiekkachai’s first impression of Minnesota was the Minneapolis airport. “I thought I was in the country already,” she said.
“My friends at school knew I was going to a country place and asked me how I was going to get around,” Titlestad said. “But the Fussys have been so good about driving us around. Everyone knows everyone and it’s really nice. That’s a positive thing about a small school.”
Kittiekkachai is a sophomore, and attends a school in Thailand which includes 600 students in grades 7-12. It is an all-girls school. Her favorite class at Royalton High School is art.
“We don’t have art class in Thailand,” she said. “I like drawing and painting.”
Titlestad is a junior and active in sports. She has played volleyball, basketball and now softball in Royalton. Her favorite class is also art.
“I haven’t had art since about eighth grade,” she said.
Norwegian schools are grouped with grades 1-7 together, grades 8-10 and grades 11-13 in their own schools. Titlestad had completed 11th grade at home, and is looking forward to her senior year there. There are 200 students in her class in Norway.
Titlestad loves animals and would like to be a veterinarian. She has been riding horses for 11 years and did show jumping on her horse.
“I’m really excited to ride Tom’s horse,” she said. “We have to wait until the snow melts to get the gate open.”
“School in Thailand is really hard,” Kittiekkachai said. “Here it’s really easy, like a vacation. Gym is hard; there are no sports in school in Thailand and most people I know don’t do sport at all.”
It is common to study outside of school with a tutor in Thailand. Even during the summer, most students go to a tutor every day.
“It’s very competitive to go to university,” said Kittiekkachai. “It’s hard.”
Kittiekkachai’s brother was an exchange student in Michigan nine years ago. “It’s important in Thailand to speak English. It means better job opportunities and a great future,” she said.
Kittiekkachai would like to be a lawyer, and hopes to be a judge eventually.
“That’s the high point of law careers,” she said, “to be in front of the king.”
Many of Titlestad’s friends ware also exchange students. She wanted to go either to Florida, where it was warm, or to Minnesota since it is similar to Norway.
“First, I was going to apply for Australia, but I would only have seven months of school there, which would leave too much to make up at home,” she said. “I really wanted to be an exchange student, to make new friends and have a new family.”
Titlestad had heard negative stories from friends who had been exchange students.
“I was expecting the worst, but Joanie and Tom do everything to make us happy; they treat us like we’re their own kids,” she said.
Both of Kittiekkachai’s parents are principals at different boys’ schools in Thailand. Her older brother is 23 and is a computer engineer. He has his own apartment but comes home some weekends.
Titlestad’s dad is an oil engineer and her mother a kindergarten principal. She has an older sister who is 25 and continuing her education, and an older brother who is 19 and lives at home while taking classes. He plays hockey.
Most food is very different for the girls. Kittiekkachai is used to eating rice at every meal, and not drinking much soda pop. A common evening meal for Titlestad in Norway is an open-faced sandwich with cheese and sliced meats on bread.
“I usually have lamb on holidays,” she said.
She also misses the brown sauce, which is different than gravy, which her family typically eats with meatballs and some fish. She made risen grøt for her new family, which is similar to rice pudding.
Kittiekkachai’s favorite foods have been goulash and macaroni and cheese. Titlestad loves spaghetti.
The weather is most different for Kittiekkachai. “The temperature is always about 90 degrees at home,” she said. “We have three seasons — winter, summer and rainy (humid).”
Titlestad was able to visit New York when she first landed in the United States. Then after spending some time in Bowlus, her exchange group took a trip to Washington, D.C. and New York.
“There were a lot of shopping opportunities in Times Square,” she said.
Although she had seen the Statue of Liberty the first time she was in New York, the group couldn’t go during her second trip due to the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy.
Titlestad will be ending her exchange experience when her parents, brother, grandparents, aunt, uncle and their baby arrive by car to pick her up for an extended family vacation.
Kittiekkachai, who is in the United States through a different exchange program than Titlestad, had to wait until her 15th birthday before flying to the United States, which made her a few days later than the rest of the students in her group. She is heading straight home in June, with an 11-hour flight to Japan followed by a six-hour flight to Bangkok.
The Fussys hosted Sarah from Mongolia first, in 2009-2010. She is now going to college in Maryland. The following year they had Aileen from Germany and Maria from Mexico. Both of them are completing high school in their countries.
Last year, Yeon from South Korea and Juan from Columbia joined the Fussy clan. Juan is attending St. John’s University and gets to visit the Fussys often.
“There is more of a difference between these two girls, personality-wise,” Joanie said. “Kittiekkachai is more of a homebody and Titlestad is in more activities.”
Although they do not have children of their own, Tom and Joanie have found that after hosting exchange students over a period of years, they have gotten to know more families in Royalton.
“We know different kids in town and can say ‘hi’ to them and wave when we see them,” Joanie said. “Not only do we lose our exchange students when they leave, now we also ‘lose’ the other kids in town who are graduating.”
The kids consider themselves family too. While Maria was in Bowlus for Christmas and Juan came from Collegeville, Joanie encouraged Juan to ask Maria out for a date.
“But she said she couldn’t — he’s her brother,” Joanie said with a grin. “It’s fun that all the kids are getting to know each other. Juan likes to come on weekends when he’s free and he teases the girls just like brothers and sisters. They all talk on Skype and Facebook.”
Aileen is coming to stay in May and Juan will be back for a visit then.
“We’ve noticed from all the kids that education is a lot more important in their countries,” Tom said. “Here sports are more important.”
“School is more practical in the United States — teaches more about life experiences than knowledge,” Kittiekkachai observed. “In Thailand, how smart you are is important; you have to be right all the time.”
Kittiekkachai and Titlestad would like to invite people to visit their home countries.
“Norway’s a nice country; people should visit,” Titlestad said. “It is surrounded by seven mountains and the landscape is beautiful.”
“Thailand is a land of smiles,” said Kittiekkachai. “People smile at anyone.”