NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Kaia Solberg is 15, and loves dancing, shopping, scrapbooking and Robert Pattinson, the actor from the Twilight movies. Shizu Ka Konno, also 15, enjoys taking classes, singing and participating in track and field.
So what’s so different about these seemingly average American teenagers? They’re not from America. Kaia lives in Norway, and Shizu is from Japan.
As the Mitcheltree family of New Castle, Pa., is discovering this summer through a student exchange program, teenagers across the world have a lot in common.
Amanda Mitchltree, 17, and her sister Rhonda, 13, have been able to find the cultural similarities and differences in their lives and those of Kaia and Shizu.
The Mitcheltrees found out about the WorldWise Exchange program through their 4-H club. Amanda said about 23 exchange students from all over the world are staying with American families this summer. At least three other western Pennsylvania families are also hosting students.
Kaia stayed with the Mitcheltrees in July. Her highlights included attending the National Jersey Convention in Syracuse, N.Y., where she was also able to visit the Syracuse Zoo and Cornell University.
One of Kaia’s purchases on a shopping trip was a life-size cardboard cut-out of Edward Cullen, a character played by actor Robert Pattinson in Twilight. In order to take the prized possession back to Norway, Kaia and Amanda folded the cardboard man and stuffed him into Kaia’s suitcase.
She also enjoyed going to the New Wilmington Livestock Auction, where she learned about an entirely new culture — the Amish.
“Amish is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Kaia said.
She was able to go for an Amish buggy ride and she purchased an Amish bonnet, as a way to remember her experience.
Kaia experienced other aspects of American agriculture by learning about toplines and even clipping cows at a district dairy show.
She also visited Kenny’s Jersey Farms, the 200-cow herd of Amanda and Rhonda’s grandparents.
“I milked a cow for the first time with my hands,” Kaia said.
She had been on dairy farms in Norway, but she was surprised at the size of the U.S. farm.
Shizu was also impressed by the size of the farm. She had never visited a farm before coming to the United States.
She arrived at the Mitcheltrees July 23 and will return to Japan Aug. 19. Amanda and Rhonda are excited to show Shizu around the Lawrence County Fair the last days of her stay.
Part of the fair experience for Shizu will be the fair food, said the Mitcheltrees.
The hosts and the exchange students have had a variety of meals over the past month.
During the last week of July, Kaia and the Mitcheltrees ate Japanese food with Shizu. They all learned how to use chopsticks, and Amanda tried sushi for the first time.
Norwegian people grill a lot of their food, so the Mitcheltrees made some meals on the grill. A new dessert for Amanda and Rhonda was a sliced banana, filled with chocolate, and grilled.
Kaia was surprised to learn that Americans tend to put cheese on many foods.
“We eat a lot of broccoli in Norway,” Kaia said. “Amanda asked me if we put cheese on it, and I said, ‘Why would we do that?’”
Although food in Norway is similar to food in the United States, Kaia enjoyed trying taco salad and soft, homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Shizu’s favorite food thus far has been homemade apple squares, experienced at the Mitcheltrees’ family reunion.
Amanda and Rhonda said they became involved with the program to learn about new cultures and experience new things, including the possible opportunity to travel themselves.
Amanda hopes to travel to Norway to stay with Kaia next year.
“She’s even teaching me Norwegian!” Amanda said.
Kaia plans to have a career someday that would allow her to travel frequently. Although only 15, she has already visited 11 countries and hopes to visit Australia, South American and Africa.
Shizu is not sure whether or not she wants to do any more traveling, but she said she is enjoying her time in the United States.
All four teens said they heard stories of host families not getting along with their exchange students and vice versa. They feel fortunate they are not in a similar situation.
Even after the visits end, all four plan to keep in contact through Facebook, e-mail and possibly even old-fashioned letters.
The girls are glad they have all found a way to bond — even if it is over typical teenage female favorites like good desserts and good-looking actors.