From living a sheltered life surrounded by people where most things are done in company to adjusting to life in most parts of the West where value is placed on self-reliance can be a shock, at first. But you can test the waters by going abroad first as an exchange student.
I was all of 17 years; straight out of convent school in a small hill-station town in India’s northeast, and all set to go to the US on a year-long American Field Service program. On this exchange program, I was to stay with an American family in Watchung, New Jersey, and go to senior year of High School at Watchung Hills Regional High School.
Life as in the Movies
Clutching my suitcase, I waited at Kennedy Airport for my ‘Family’ to arrive. They came, were warm and welcoming, and we got into the car to go to Watchung. I remember peering out of the windscreens at all the cars whizzing past and the bewildering profusion of intersecting highways. I thought, “It’s exactly like what I’ve been seeing in the movies. This is going to be easy!” I had no idea!
The Schwarcz’s lived in Watchung, which is an affluent suburb in New Jersey. The house had a swimming pool, of course. They had sent me pictures of it. There was a long driveway and lots of lawn in front and the ‘woods’ at the back. In winter, when the ground was covered with snow, timid deer emerged out of the woods to nibble on the bushes outside my window. It was summer when I arrived and the two girls, Elise and Edan, were on holiday too. Mama Schwarcz was a true Jewish mother. She ran the family like a sergeant major.
Mama with Big Plans
Mama Schwarcz was a true Jewish mother. She ran the family like a sergeant major. “Improve yourselves”, was her motto in life.
“Improve yourselves”, was her motto in life. Edan, finished high school in three years, rather than the usual four, and was due to go to Bennington College in Vermont, where she was to take up dance. Elise took piano lessons and practiced till she was in a frenzy of sharps and flats! I thought I was safe from the arts. But Big Mama had plans for me too. She had a whole schedule of plays, concerts and ballets that we were to attend all summer. As soon as I had got my feet wet, and figured out how to operate the pesky taps in the kitchen and bathrooms, I was summoned by her. “Tomorrow, “she said, “I will drop you to the bus stand from where you will take the bus to New York. Here is the map. I have marked out the museums, and other important places for you to see during the daytime. We will meet you in front of the Lincoln Center at 5.00 P.M. We’ll have dinner somewhere there and catch the ballet after that.”
Trial by fire
Having been coddled and escorted all my life. This was a terrifying prospect. Was I really going to be all alone in the Big Apple? But I didn’t dare squeak back. She was busy bombarding me with instructions, anyway. In those days New York was not safe at all. From the Port Authority Building, where the busses came in, you had to walk down 42nd street till you got to relatively ‘safer’ streets. 42nd in those days was lined with movie halls showing Triple X-rated movies (not that I knew what that was). It had pawnshops and bums on the pavement. I was not to make eye contact with anyone or ask for directions. “Just look straight ahead and keep going even if you are lost,” she said or “you will get mugged, before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’”. Why would I say “Jack Robinson” under these circumstances? I didn’t dare ask.
I went to plays, symphony orchestras (and liked them!) and had amazing dinners in Bistros and restaurants that Mama Schwarcz had researched. We generally had a very good time.
I didn’t know then that this was to be the beginning of a year-long romance with New York City. Once I realized that getting around the city, which is laid out like a grid, was easy, the magic of Central Park; The Metropolitan Museum where once you got tired of the Egyptian tombs and whatever else you came to see, you could while away the hours sitting on the steps and watch the world go by; and MOMA with it’s astounding Impressionist paintings, and delightful courtyard with the Goat sculpture (Picasso), showed me a world that I had no inkling of. We saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Paul Taylor in Martha Graham’s troupe, and countless others performing. I went to plays, symphony orchestras (and liked them!) and had amazing dinners in Bistros and restaurants that Mama Schwarcz had researched. We generally had a very good time.
My family was perfect. They were quirky and unconventional, welcoming and generous.
My family was perfect. They were quirky and unconventional, welcoming and generous. To this day, I continue to have a great deal of affection for them and realize they are among the most important people I have come across in my life.
American Field Service vets your application and matches it up with that of potential host families. This usually works out well.
Neena De is an ex-AFS student from the 1967/1968 batch. She lives in Assam, India. She does some writing and works with underprivileged women in the handicrafts sector.