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A Year in the U.S.

When Maria was in high school, her mother decided that Maria should have an experience that she herself had always wanted: to live in a foreign country. So she arranged for Maria to spend a year as an exchange student in the United States.

In the fall of 1977, when Maria was 18 years old, she traveled to New York with a group of Swedish teenagers. From there, each student went to live with their own host family. Maria was sent to a family named Barton in Oklahoma, where she spent a year attending the local high school.

At first, being young and naive, Maria felt out of place. She recalled her mother sending a traditional Swedish costume for her to wear at Christmas; Maria soon found out that such clothes were embarrassing for a teenager in Oklahoma.

Nevertheless, it did not take long for Maria to fit in and begin to adapt to America. For one thing, her natural talent for languages was extraordinary. Eventually, Maria learned to speak and read idiomatic English better than most Americans (although always with a pronounced Swedish accent). Later in life, she also became fluent and literate in both German and French.

In Oklahoma, Maria's host family, the Bartons, were well‑off and they were especially kind to her. For the first time in her life, Maria found herself living in a household where she felt comfortable and emotionally safe. She kept in touch with the Bartons for years and later visited them after they had relocated to Northern California.

Overall, the year in Oklahoma proved to be a healthy one for Maria. It didn't take her long to learn how to fit in, and she soon began the long process of distancing herself from her childhood. For the first time in her life, Maria was able stretch her wings without outside interference: a young woman developing the inner skills of awareness and self-knowledge necessary to become a well-adjusted adult with a firm sense of self (and doing it all in a foreign language).

land-far and sea-wide she
goes, fresh and open to
shifting (unknown)

to spreading her
eagle-bright wings and carving
a space tailor-made
to true flight. 

Poem by Zoe Branch. 

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