Monday, December 22, 2014

Indian student finds family in Ottawa

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 5/9/2014

Dwij Hirpara smiled and pointed at a red locker as he walked down a hallway Thursday morning at Ottawa High School.

“I had a little trouble with the [lock] combination in the beginning,” Dwij (pronounced Dweej) said, laughing. “I’ve never had a locker before.”

Dwij Hirpara smiled and pointed at a red locker as he walked down a hallway Thursday morning at Ottawa High School.

“I had a little trouble with the [lock] combination in the beginning,” Dwij (pronounced Dweej) said, laughing. “I’ve never had a locker before.”

The Rotary Youth Exchange student from India pointed out lockers are just one of the different nuances between attending school in India and in the United States. Dwij arrived in Ottawa last August to attend his junior year of high school at OHS, 1120 S. Ash St., Ottawa.

“Ottawa’s a good place,” Dwij said. “It feels like home because my city in India is the same size as Ottawa [geographically], but the population is five times more — about 60,000 people.”

Dwij is set to return May 31 to his hometown of Anand, located in the state of Gujarat in the western part of India, he said.

“It’s almost below Pakistan and near the Arabian Sea,” Dwij said.

Coming from a milder climate on the other side of the globe, it took Dwij some time to adjust to Kansas’ harsh winter, he said.

“It’s cold here,” he said. “In winter [at night], I had a sleeping bag and then three thick blankets and a bed blanket.”

Adjusting to the Kansas climate was just one of the difficulties Dwij said he faced.

“You go through this education and culture difference and go through things which are — I should say — challenging,” Dwij said. “Because of the culture, I guess, they are hard to overcome. Some people think the [Rotary] Youth Exchange is a one-year vacation. It is not a vacation.

“Usually, people ask me if it’s been a positive experience,” he said. “I would say the whole year has been a positive experience. Even if you go through something that’s stressful, you learn a lot of things. I’m confident because this experience is going to help me in other ways, how I am going to work and my decisions after I go back home.”

John Coen, president and chief executive officer of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, said it’s not easy for a young person to leave home and spend a year in a new environment that is an 18-hour flight from his or her birth land. John and his wife, Cherry Coen, OHS family and consumer science teacher, have served as Dwij’s host family for the second half of his stay in Ottawa. Ottawa couple Russ and Dana McCullough served as Dwij’s host family during the first half of the school year.

“It’s pretty daunting to be so far from home at just the age of 17,” John Coen said. “Because of the way culture has developed in the world, our young people don’t hardly leave home anymore, with cell phones, email, Facebook and other social media [at their fingertips]. To put distance between yourself and everything you’re used to is really an accomplishment and something young people should aspire to and take advantage of if given the opportunity.”

While in Ottawa, Dwij has undertaken several tasks he’s never done before, including mowing a lawn, planting a garden and burning off a pasture in the spring, he said.

“Not all homes have lawns in India, so this was my first time lawn-mowing,” Dwij, who lives in an apartment building in Anand, said. “And I enjoyed burning the pasture in the country. I’ve had fun doing all these new activities.”

The teenager also has enjoyed American cuisine, he said.

“We don’t have any meat in India,” Dwij said. “You can find chicken, and fish too, but my mom just doesn’t like meat. We aren’t vegans, we drink milk and stuff, but my mom doesn’t like eggs, either.”


Dwij smiled as he talked about his first breakfast in America while he sat in Cherry Coen’s classroom Thursday morning.

“My first morning here, it was pancakes and bacon — I was ready for it,” he said.

Coen laughed. “We’re trying to figure out how we can ship him some bacon,” she said.

Of the seven exchange students from his Indian district who are in the United States, Dwij said he is the only one eating meat.

“That was one of the things I am most proud of,” he said. “I’m having a good experience.”

The Coens, who are empty-nesters, said they have enjoyed Dwij and it was nice to have a teenager around the house again.

“When we first learned we were getting a boy from India, I wondered if I would have to cook special meals for him,” Cherry Coen said. “But he’s just been so open to learn things and try things and wants to experience everything — he’s not just shut up in his room hanging out with his friends from India [on the Internet]. He’s really immersed himself in the culture, and that’s been really fun for us too.”

With the Coens living in rural Franklin County, John Coen said, that’s been somewhat of an adjustment for Dwij — including not having access to high-speed Internet on the farm.

“We have dial-up [speed] Internet, which is about like putting a Model T on the highway,” he said.

Dwij has put on a little weight since he arrived last August, he said.

“In March, I went to the hospital and stepped on the weighing machine, and it was 124 pounds. The lady was staring at me, and I was like, ‘What happened?’” Dwij said. “She said, ‘Did you realize when you came here in August you weighed 105 [pounds]?’ I’ve gained [19 pounds], but I still don’t feel fat. It’s just maybe I’ve gained a lot of protein because of the different food culture.”

A typical evening meal in Dwij’s household would be rodi, a paper-thin bread, served with vegetables and gravy, he said.

“We cook vegetables a lot of different ways, just like you do meat,” Dwij said. “You tear the bread and use it to grab the vegetables.”



Dwij’s love of soccer has transcended the cultural differences between the countries, he said.

After arriving in August, Dwij began to play soccer with some OHS soccer team members and went with them to a Sporting KC professional soccer game in Kansas City, Kansas, his first week in Ottawa, he said.

“I started playing with [OHS soccer players] in the summer before school started, and so I knew them a lot and the coaches,” Dwij said. “And then, after school started, it was a good thing I knew them because people were already talking about me before they had even met me — so that was a good thing. I got settled in school in like two days.”

In addition to playing on the OHS soccer team in the fall, Dwij joined the high school wrestling team in the winter where he competed in the 113-pound weight class, and he is out for track this spring.

“I haven’t wrestled before, and the first week I didn’t know anything,” Dwij said, smiling. “I thought they would allow me to punch. I am a black belt in karate in India. I thought it would be easy because I’m used to karate — but in wrestling there’s no kicks and punches. It’s just a different contact sport, but it was really awesome.”

Dwij also enjoys playing cricket, he said.

“I play a lot of cricket in India — the tan you see is from cricket,” Dwij said, pointing at his brown arm. “I live in seven-floor apartment. There are a lot of families around and so there are a lot of children. We have a ground behind my apartment. At 8 o’clock in the morning, we would start playing and be done by 1 o’clock in the afternoon. After 11 o’clock it is very sunny and by 1 o’clock it is very hot too.”

Dwij has little time for cricket during the school year in India, he said, starting his day with math tutoring at 6 a.m. after getting up and ironing his school uniform. Dwij attends classes until about 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon, six days a week during the Indian school year — which generally is from the first of June through mid-April, he said.

“I don’t have to wear a uniform [to attend Ottawa High School],” Dwij said. “I can wear (almost) anything I want. I like that.”

Students at Dwij’s school in India get about two weeks off for Diwali or “Festival of Lights,” an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn at the end of the traditional calendar year.

“We follow the modern calendar that you use [in the U.S.], but we also have a traditional calendar, and Diwali is at the end of our calendar year, much like your Christmas holiday is at the end of your year,” Dwij said. “We have May and half of April for summer vacation.”

The school day also is structured differently in India, which Dwij said took some adjustment.

“The biggest difference would be lockers — we don’t have lockers [in India],” he said. “Here, you move around places [from class to class]. In India, we sit in one class and the teachers move around. So, I am always ready for the next class because I have all my books and stuff at my desk.”

Teachers keep their supplies and teaching materials at desks in the staff room, he said.

“We don’t have a lot of different schools,” he said. “Kindergarten and all grades from first grade through 12th grade are in the same school.”

High school-age students in India also do not experience some of the social activities that take place at U.S. schools, he said.

“We don’t have all these many occasions — homecomings, proms and dances — we don’t have those,” he said.

Team sports also take on a different feel in India, Dwij said.

“With soccer, you wouldn’t feel like a family in India — it would be just like a soccer game,” he said. “Here, they take it more personally. We have team dinners and go to houses to eat and have fun together. It’s like a family.”


Dwij plans to study architecture in college in India, but said he would like to return to the United States some day.

“I am from an architecture family,” Dwij said. “My dad is an architect. My mom is an architect. My brother is almost an architect — he’s in his final year [of school]. So, I have been around it and I’m interested in it because I know about it.”

India has some good colleges for architecture, he said. Dwij realizes becoming an architect will require a lot of hard work but said he is used to the rigors of the classroom.

“We are very serious about education [in India],” he said. “We are just focused on our studies.”

While in America, Dwij has had a chance to do some traveling, attending a football game at Iowa State University with the McCulloughs and a basketball game at Kansas State University with the Coens. He plans to attend a Kansas City Royals baseball game next week, he said. He’s also seen the arch in St. Louis and monuments and museums in Washington, D.C. while accompanying John Coen on a conference trip. Dwij also has visited the Statue of Liberty in New York City, he said.

“My funniest things that I have a lot of memories of are the pasture burning and going to the Statue of Liberty,” he said. “It was like a dream come true. I’ve seen it in a lot of movies. I was a child when I knew about the Statue of Liberty. It’s been awesome to see different places in America and meet different people.”

Now, Dwij is preparing for the next leg in his journey — the trip back home.

“I am leaving a lot of friends here,” Dwij said. “I have three different families now ­— my original one and two different ones [McCulloughs and Coens]. All my friends, they have been living in cities. Ottawa is a peaceful place and I love it. One [host] family lived in town two minutes from the high school and the other one lived in the country about 20 minutes from school, so I’ve had the best experienced because I’ve seen both [city and country living]. Everyone has been very good to me.”

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