Imagine boarding a plane and smelling the air of your home country for the last time, knowing you won’t be back for at least a year; arriving in a forign place you have never been to before; not knowing a single person on the whole continent; and going to a school speaking a language you grew up taking in school but fearing you will sound different.
Sophomore international students Johnny Kung, Frank Pu and Lena Nowaczek took a life-changing risk to come to KO during a pandemic. Johnny and Frank are from China, and Lena is from Poland.
Johnny lives in Hong Kong, China with his parents and his older brother. He came to America for the first time two years ago and went to a school in Texas but transferred to KO this year. He explained that America was different from what he expected. “The expectations America sets by the media you see online, like YouTube, movies, cartoons, shows,” he said. “There is some difference between show and reality.”
Frank lives with his two parents, and he doesn’t have siblings, but he has a lot of cousins. He was quick to mention some of his pets. “When I was young, I used to have several turtles,” he said.
He lives in the South Western part of China close to Thailand. “It’s a really interesting place because it’s close to a tropical rainforest,” he explained, his eyes lighting up as he described the climate of his home town.
Frank had no clue at first if he wanted to come to America for school, but his parents had a funny way of bribing him. “They brought me to Disneyland in California and told me that if I’m going to live here, I will be able to go to Disney everyday,” he said laughing a little. “I thought everywhere had Disneyland, so I chose to come to America, and when I got here I realized there is no Disneyland in Connecticut.”
Lena on the other hand, lives in the Southern part of Poland, around two hours from Warsaw. She lives with her parents and 20 year old brother. “It turns out I’m going to be the first one who moves out,” she said laughing a little. She also has four cats she loves more than anything.
Lena really wanted to get out and explore the world, and the pandemic didn’t stop her. “Everyone hopes to go to school in America because it’s what you see in the movies, you know, American highschool” she said, her face glowing.
However, Lena had a minor setback in August of 2020 when she was trying to come to America; one week before her arrival, Poland shut down its borders. As a result, she didn’t know if she would be able to come until the very last moment. She was forced to have her parents drive her to Germany where she stayed for a few days before getting on a flight to Boston.
When she arrived at the airport in Boston, she had a slightly traumatizing experience. She didn’t realize that she had to go through secondary control because she was not an American citizen. Officers with guns stopped her in her path, telling her with true authority to wait in front of the wall. “I am fifteen and I’m there alone, so if a guy with a gun tells me to wait in front of the wall, I am going to wait in front of the wall” she said, a hint of fear taking over her voice. She could see the terrifying guns almost pulsing against the officers’ hands just waiting to be used like sparks in a fire.
Lena had to remain in a tiny room crammed with other people, waiting for her interview for another 40 minutes. She had no access to her phone as well, so she couldn’t contact her parents or her host family. It was terrifying because if you don’t have that interview, they can turn you right back to where you came from, she said.
Each student spoke about their own challenges being away from home during a pandemic. “It’s the concern you have with your family’s safety and your family’s concern of your safety,” Johnny said. “My mom was super nervous when I was taking a flight here and when I got here.” Johnny isn’t sure if he will be able to go back to China this summer. “I don’t know if I could get a flight back to the US if I went back home,” he explained.
Lena had a similar response as she explained that her parents couldn’t come visit this year. She has spent the last year living with sophomore Ellen Jacobson, senior Izzy Jacobson, and their family. “Unfortunately I would really like for my parents to see KO and meet the Jacobsons face to face and see how life is here,” Lena said. Sadly, however, this cannot happen due to the pandemic.
Frank has not seen his parents for two years, as he has been in the US since August of freshman year. He compared last year to this year with the pandemic. “In terms of the people and classes, there is not a lot of difference from last year,” he said. Instead, he said that there is more of a difference socially because of the distancing and mask wearing.
With this year being her first year at KO, Lena has struggled with the social aspect as well. “It was definitely hard the first two months because everyone knows each other and you are with masks, so people don’t even realize that you are a new person,” she said.
When I asked Frank what he missed most about home, he didn’t hesitate to declare his answer: “The food,” he said, raising his voice a bit. Frank is a huge fan of food, especially food from his hometown in China that he has been away from for almost two years. “My host mom is Italian, but I don’t like cheese; I like sauce more,” he said, playing with his key card. “So basically, I do not like everything that is made of Italians and because of that she started to learn how to cook Chinese food for me.”
Lena had similar thoughts, as she makes Polish food for her host family often. As for Johnny, in China he was told he was really going to miss the food coming to America, but he commented that it hasn’t been too bad.
Johnny talks with his parents around two to three times a week, either right when he wakes up or when he is about to go to sleep because of the 12 hour time difference. Frank also talks to his parents every night at 9:00 p.m through WeChat. Lena on the other hand, only has a six-hour time difference from home, so she sometimes talks to her parents during lunch breaks at school.
Lena, Frank, and Johnny all said that this has been a very enriching experience for them despite the challenges. Frank described it as a learning experience, noting that he has been transformed coming to America. Lena has also had a life-changing experience and has no regrets coming here. She wants people to know that there is a lot out there, and it’s important to have transformational experiences. “If you have the opportunity to do something like this, it can be scary because you are alone and you don’t know anyone,” she said, “but do it. Don’t even think about that. It’s really life changing.”