By Jenny Neyman
The Salzetti family sat down to a dinner experience March 25 that, for them, has become somewhat typical in the past eight months, but for most Americans would be far from the norm.
Instead of a casserole or Hamburger Helper, the menu included “fak tong gaeng” — a Thai pumpkin soup made creamy with coconut milk and lemon grass — and “yum naier” — a cold beef flank steak salad flavored with lime juice, fish sauce, mint leaves and fresh cilantro. Discussion was wide-ranging, from art and history in Europe to cultural festivities in Latin America, reconstruction efforts in Japan and differences in educational systems the world over.
Musical performances, dance and artwork enlivened the meal, but did not come via the TV or Internet. The multicultural experience was much closer to home — in fact, staying in their home — in the form of an international exchange student through the AFS program.
The Salzettis, of Kenai, are hosting Chotika “Ploy” Khowcharoen, from Thailand, this school year, and have been enjoying the multicultural flavor she brings to their family since August, as have the families hosting the other eight AFS students on the Kenai Peninsula this year — from Brazil, Italy, Germany, Norway, Japan, Thailand and Paraguay.
“For us it’s been absolutely wonderful. She’s really fit into our family very well. She’s just an amazing girl,” said Theresa Salzetti.
About 130 other members of the community got a taste of what it’s like to participate in the exchange program by attending the 32nd annual AFS dinner March 25 at the Catholic Church in Kenai. For the bargain price of $20, attendees were treated to a four-course meal with dishes representing each exchange student’s home country, listened to presentations from the students about their countries and were given the option to participate in a silent auction, all to raise money for the students and their host families to enjoy some special activities.
For the students, AFS (American Field Service — started by young Americans in Paris who became volunteer ambulance drivers in World War I) provides an opportunity to travel, improve their English skills, experience American culture and the exoticness of life in Alaska — as Ploy said during her presentation, she was not quite prepared for the shock of the cold and snow.
But Salzetti said it’s really her family that’s getting the better part of the deal. Not only has Ploy exposed the Salzetti kids to the wider world, she’s been a joy to have as part of the family — helping the kids with schoolwork, cooking authentic Thai cuisine and just generally adding some spice to their everyday life.
“What amazes us the most is the guts that these kids have. She said goodbye to Mom and Dad and made it from Thailand all the way to Anchorage by herself. There wasn’t anyone meeting her saying, ‘You need to get on this plane over here,’ she did it all — and they all did — by themselves,” Salzetti said.
The family aspect of the program is readily apparent at the annual dinner. Many who attend have had some connection with AFS in the past — as host families and parents of kids who participated in an exchange.
The Kenai Peninsula has one of the most active AFS programs in the state, most years hosting as many or more students as other areas, including Fairbanks and Anchorage. This year there are six students on the central peninsula and three in the Homer area. Next year the Kenai Peninsula program may host students from Russian and surrounding countries under a new scholarship program, said Eileen Bryson, co-chair of the Kenai, Soldotna and Nikiski chapter of AFS. The peninsula also will host at least one Muslim student, and possibly a few more, as that’s a new focus from the State Department.
“I just think it would be great,” Bryson said. “The one applicant I looked at from Jordan sounds like a great student. She wants people to know Muslims are peace loving and she wanted to make sure that came across, and she wanted the experience of learning about another culture. And that goes for all the programs. There’s a motto for the mission of AFS: Work toward a more just and peaceful world by providing international and intercultural learning experiences to individuals, families, schools and communities through a global volunteer partnership.”
The dinner itself operates with the help of the extended AFS family. The exchange students as well as their host siblings are the servers for the meal, taking orders for the several menu options, bringing out and retrieving dishes and refilling water glasses. This being the 32nd dinner, decorations are reused from year to year, though new students bring new design challenges.
As busy as the service is, the food preparation is even more so. AFS students, host families and volunteers present, past and future show up and start cooking and decorating the day before the event. Chef Gerri Litzenberger, who ran Through the Seasons restaurant, in Soldotna, where Buckets is now, was recruited to help cook years ago by Bryson.
“It’s fun because everybody’s so happy and eager. It’s just very fun to cook with a group of people because it’s a great cause to raise money for these kids and their families,” Litzenberger said
Comments are closed