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Making Marengo a home for nine months


From left, Iowa Valley foreign exchange students Jeffrey Chik and Hakan Durdu listen as Phuong Hoang gives a speech during commencement Sunday, May 23.

Three foreign exchange students at Iowa Valley High School are excited to be heading back to their home countries, but also expressed sorrow about leaving their new friends in Marengo.

Hakan Durdu, 17, Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Jeffrey Chik, 17, Hong Kong, and Phuong Hoang, 18, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, walked with the 2010 graduating seniors this past Sunday. While they did not receive diplomas, all three said their experiences at Iowa Valley changed their lives forever.

“I miss my country, but I have both feelings. I am not really that excited about going back,” said Hakan. “I am used to living in Marengo. I am more sad than excited. Sure I miss my family and friends, but I am really not that excited.”

Hakan and Jeffrey spent the last nine months sharing a bedroom at the home of Eddie and Amy Thomas.

Phuong is staying with the Jerry Messamer family in Marengo.

Jeffrey said that his impression of Marengo has vastly changed over the course of the past nine months. Prior to coming to America, his only exposure to an American high school was on television, where high schools are large with many students, large football fields, etc.

“My first impression of Marengo was ‘small,’” Jeffrey said. “Everything is small, tiny. When I came here I was surprised it was not that big.”

Chik said it did not take long to adjust to his new surroundings, and the students and teachers at Iowa Valley played a big part in his adaptation.

“All the friends know you, and you know them,” he said. “In town, everybody says ‘hi.’ If you need help, you don’t need to tell anybody, they just know. If you need something, they will help you.”

Hakan agreed, saying that because of the small stature of the school and the town, it was much easier to meet people. The first day, he said he met five people, the next day he knew 10 people and by his third day he had 15 friends.

“Here, everybody knows us. It’s just a nice feeling to say, ‘hi,’” he said. “In Germany, you might know two out of 10 people. You say, ‘hi,’ and they look at you like ‘what is with this guy?’”

In Hong Kong, Jeffrey said you might know one out of 100 people on the street, and you don’t say, “hi.”

Chik said he has really enjoyed the slow pace of life in Marengo. He said in the past nine months he has had time to plan his life and relax.

“We have time to do what we want,” he said. “I can’t say I miss America. I say I miss Marengo.”

Phuong said she really likes the peaceful atmosphere of Marengo. In Vietnam, she said if someone leaves their car unlocked, it will be stolen.

“In Marengo, you don’t need to lock your car door,” she said.

Phuong said she really appreciates the close friendships she developed in Marengo.

“America friends show how friendly they are,” she said. “I don’t like to talk too much, well here, everyone wants to talk to me and I like that feeling. I feel like I am kind of special.”

Phuong said she wants to thank her teachers and classmates for helping her improve her grasp of the English language.

Hakan said because Iowa Valley High School is smaller, the three exchange students had more opportunity to interact with their fellow students and teachers. He said the foreign exchange students he talked to at other schools did not improve their English as much as he, Jeffrey and Phuong.

Hakan said he really appreciated the way the students and teachers accepted them into the school. He said they were not treated differently because they were foreigners or of a different race.

“If I say something wrong, they make fun of me, but it’s friendly. It’s fun,” Durdu said.

“You can laugh with them,” added Jeffrey.

Hakan said he appreciated that he and Jeffrey were accepted on the football team, even neither of them had ever played the sport.

In fact, they had no idea how the sport was played.

All three exchange students attended the first IV football game as fans. They said the Iowa Valley fans were cheering so loud, they assumed the Tigers were winning. It wasn’t until after the game that they found out IV had lost. In fact, they didn’t even know which team on the field was their own.

“I was not looking at the score. I thought we were probably winning because everyone was so excited,” Hakan said. “We don’t know the rules, we just clap with everyone else.”

Phuong noted that she fell asleep during the football game.

Jeffrey and Haka also joined the IV basketball team. Jeffrey is now on the IV track team, where he placed second in one of his 100 meter races. He said the coach had him run the 800 meter race and he “almost died.” Jeffrey said he doesn’t have a favorite race.

“My most favorite part is to sit and talk,” he said.

Hakan is playing on the Clear Creek Amana soccer team. In the team huddle, the players yell “Clippers,” but Hakan yells “Tigers” instead.

Phuong is a manager for the IV girls track team, a job she has taken on with gusto. She said she cheers loudly for the runners, sometimes drawing looks from others in the stands, but she doesn’t care.

“I am serious for track because I want my team to win,” she said. “I have a feeling my team will win, so I will cheer. I cheer really, really loud.”

Hakan also learned to drive and earned his driver’s license while in America, which he said is difficult for foreign exchange students.

Looking back, Hakan said people say that there is nothing to do in a small town, but he said he wishes he had more time to spend in Marengo.

Jeffrey agreed, saying that with only two more weeks to go, everything he does is the last time he will do it in Marengo, and he makes sure to tell Hakan every time.

Said Hakan, “He filled his last water bottle, and he says to me, ‘this is the last time I filled the water bottle.’”

Jeffrey said his time spent in Marengo has been like a dream, like he has been in a bubble for the last nine months.

Jeffrey said he and Hakan have grown to best friends over the course of the year. They share a bedroom, leave the house at the same time, go to the same movies, essentially do everything together.

“This time last year, I didn’t know I would have a Germany buddy,” Jeffrey said. “Our time together is more time than I spent with a girl. We do everything together. We do crazy stuff together.”

When Jeffrey found out who he would be living with, he said he googled “Hakan Durdu” on the Internet, and there was a picture of a girl.

“I said, ‘If I am sharing a bedroom with a girl, then I know I would like it,’” Jeffrey said.

Hakan said Jeffrey will be his friend for the rest of his life, and if Jeffrey attends school in Switzerland, he won’t be that far from Germany.

“We did so many things in Marengo and everything we did, we did together,” Hakan said.

The two rode their bikes one day to Subway at the Kinze exit, and another day they rode their bikes to McDonald’s in Williamsburg.

“That was the best McDonald’s in my life,” said Jeffrey.

When Jeffrey returns to Hong Kong, he said he will spend the first day catching up with friends and spend his first night home with his family.

Jeffrey said he will spend his summer playing tennis and hanging out at the beach, two things he wasn’t able to do in Marengo.

“Sun and the beach. I even had a dream about it,” Chik said. “We are in an area where we can’t get to the seaside. All the other countries I have been to were beside the sea. This was my first year away from the sea. That’s what I miss.”

Jeffrey said he is deciding what his next step will be. He has decided he will go into hotel management for his career. He said he can either return to Hong Kong and study hotel management for two or three years, or he also has the opportunity to attend a hotel management program in Switzerland.

Phuong said when she returns home she will spend time at her father’s family home in the country. She said she would also like to take some culinary classes this summer, because she has found that she really enjoys cooking.

Vietnamese food is one thing Phuong said she has really missed the past year. When she gets home, she said she could eat Vietnamese food 10 times a day. She said the rice is different in Vietnam, since it is grown there, as are the noodles. She said she went to a Vietnamese restaurant in Iowa once, and it was expensive, and not the same as home.

Phuong enjoyed her time in America so much she wants to stay. She said she wants to attend Kirkwood Community College to stay close to her new friends. However, her parents will not allow her to move that far away, so as a compromise, Phuong has enrolled in Seattle Community College.

“In my heart, my country is the best. I am really excited to go back to Vietnam, but I like America,” she said.

Hakan said the first thing he will do is spend time with his 10-year-old younger brother, then spend time with friends and family.

Hakan is mulling over two options for his future. When he arrived at Iowa Valley, he had intentions of becoming a pilot. He is now also considering a career in international business. If he decides to become a pilot, Hakan will return home and complete two more years of high school.

If he decides to go the business route, Hakan said he will stay at Iowa Valley for one more semester to earn his diploma here and then enroll in Kirkwood.

“My dream was to be a pilot, but I also like to work with other people, so I am interested in international business,” he said. “I can either stay here or go home and learn how to be a pilot. I have two more weeks to decide.”

Hakan and Jeffrey said they want to thank the Thomas family for everything they did for them, and Phuong expressed her thanks to the Messamer family.

Hakan said there are so many teachers to thank, he doesn’t want to name them individually. He said IV High School Principal Shawn Kreman, guidance counselor Karla Robison and Shannon Rabe were always willing to help.

Hakan said he wanted to thank everyone in the community for sharing Marengo with them.

“It really was an amazing year.”

All three foreign exchange students are wary about telling people when they are flying home, because they don’t want to think about the prospect of saying goodbye to their friends.

“When will I ever see this person again?” said Jeffrey.

Added Phuong, “ I don’t want my friends to come to the airport. I don’t want them to see me cry.”

Said Jeffrey, “I will just tell them I have sand in my eye.

UPDATED May 25, 2010 11:46 AM

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