Shared Stories: A View of My Country

Because she was so much younger than her classmates, Cynthia Vanasse describes her public school years as being a challenge. But the strengths that she gained also culminated in the unique opportunity of living in Norway as an exchange student. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Cynthia Vanasse
I came into the world on November 28, 1941, in Corning, Calif. but moved to Columbia, Mo., at the tender age of six months. This move led to some disadvantages during my time in public school. It also led to the amazing opportunity of being an exchange student in Norway, and my gaining a new perspective on my country.

Why was my birthday not in my favor? The cut-off day for entrance into first grade was December 1; my birthday is three days before. As there was no kindergarten at the University Elementary School connected to the University of Missouri, I was four years old when starting first grade.

I entered the door to my new school as a socially and emotionally immature girl when compared to my schoolmates born in January and beyond. The only thing I had going for me was my brain; thank heavens I could read, do math, and generally keep up with my older contemporaries. But when recess came, I was the shy little girl hoping to get my turn on the swing.

This situation led me to think that excelling in school was my only saving grace. My father’s being a student in the University studying for his Ph.D. did nothing to discourage my determination to at least be good at something. That something did nothing to up my popularity rating (if I were even on that scale).

This self-concept followed me through my high school years. We had moved back to California, but I remained that immature student, this time with pimples, frizzy Toni-permanent hair, braces, and no money to be fashionably dressed. What could I do but build my esteem by assuming the role of “Super Studying Student?” Of course, this status was also not considered “in.”

I never had a date and didn’t go to the prom.  My one standout achievement was all my activities in the school yearbook. And the teachers seemed to enjoy having me in class. I was one of the eager “nerds” who paid attention and did all the homework.

Because of my grades and activities I was given an opportunity to be a high school exchange student. 

Traveling to Norway I was a naïve 17-year-old on my way to a foreign land, beginning a journey fated to give me a new understanding of my country. I wonder how my parents thought I could adjust, given my lack of skills in the social arena.  

Guess what? Norwegian high school students had a different “status ladder,” and I ended up nearer the top. My acceptance gave me a new sense of self. Maybe not being invited to the prom was not that important.

My first response to seeing my new home in Voss, Norway, was delight. This little town was set in a forest of trees intersected with narrow dirt streets; there were no cars to be seen. The downtown segment was a selection of “mom and pop” stores, a post-office, and police and fire stations.  

There were no “big box” stores loudly proclaiming what was inside. My new home for the year was on the side of a hill, reached by following one of the narrow streets. It was nestled in the midst of a forest with views of nature from all windows.

Needless to mention, this scenic locale was totally different from my Long Beach home. There were no freeways, no smog, no noise, no advertisements, no sidewalks. There was one mode of transportation for the general population—the train that went from Oslo to Bergen. The only people who owned cars were the chief of the hospital (who was my Norwegian father) and the police and fire personnel.

I immediately loved this little town; it offered quiet peace, time for nature and friends, and there was none of the frantic activity of people rushing about. All this seemed to be a paradise compared to my U.S. city. However, after several months, I began to realize that the diversity of cultural experiences and the excitement of new adventures were totally missing.

I started to appreciate my city at home with its university, plays, concerts, interesting people, and proximity to beaches, mountains, and the desert. And I noticed that as life in Voss became a bit constricted, alcohol offered an escape for many.

My “job” was to be a student in the town’s “gymnast” (school) with my same-age peers. Immediately I realized that my education was grossly inferior to that of my classmates. Each student spoke three or four different languages, was way ahead in math, and generally was educated to a much higher level than I was at the time.

It became apparent to me that my inability to compete was a function of our U.S. school system and not my lack of ability. When the “playing field” did not depend on prior knowledge, I did very well.

I was distressed over what I thought was my inferior education, and only when I returned to the States and entered the University of California, did I begin to get a “different take” on our American opportunities. Students are quickly challenged at our schools of higher learning, everyone has a chance to attend, and students from foreign lands choose to study here.
In Norway a student takes a test at 13, and if he doesn’t do well, he does not go further with academic studies. Only the elite are educated there. In the United States we give everyone an opportunity.

My home life in Norway was also different. My Norwegian mother spent the day doing work in the house. She spent a great deal of time in the kitchen producing delicious meals, pastries, and everything else destined to make me a “full-figured” American. Our “middag” meal at 2 p.m. was a formal occasion with a white table cloth, formal settings, and mouth-watering food. 

This family-oriented meal time was totally different from my home in the United States. My mother was a junior college counselor who was well-educated and sophisticated. Meals were not her first concern, and, consequently, I kept a thinner figure.  

We tended to have the same menu every week (liver and onions, tuna fish on toast, and hamburger patties). Even though I loved the Norwegian cuisine, I preferred the thoughts and lifestyle my mother introduced. Knowledge lasts a lot longer than food.

I have only touched on some of the major differences found in Norway. My plane ride not only presented panoramas of the earth, it also landed where I had a chance to recognize what I value in my own country.

In the last analysis there is no other place I would rather be than at home in the United States. And I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to learn this!

My college experience was delayed a year while I was in Europe. This gave me that extra year to “catch up” after the deficits partially caused by my November birthday. I successfully navigated on my former strengths and added some new ones.