The following guest post on IHEC Blog is by Sarah McNitt from the Office of International Education at Miami University Ohio. In this post, Sarah reviews the most recent episode of the ABC television [U.S.] comedy The Middle entitled “Foreign Exchange". The Following video is a snippet from the episode:
Mother Frankie Heck is frustrated by her family’s constant fighting over chores and family duties. She is told by a neighbor at church that hosting a foreign exchange student is a rewarding experience and that “being immersed with someone from another culture gives them this global experience and makes them more tolerant and mature”. This (especially the parts about being tolerant and mature) appeals to Frankie, who hopes that hosting an exchange student will “fix” her family or at least inspire them to be on their best behavior during the time their guest is there. Takayuki, their Japanese exchange student arrives and the family introduces him into their everyday routine: eating fast food and watching reality television. The different members of the family take different approaches to Takayuki during his visit:
· - Axl, the oldest son, takes Takayuki to high school with him and tries to use Takayuki to meet girls
· - Brick, the youngest son, studies up on Japan and repeats the trivia facts he’s gleaned back to Takayuki, who is not impressed. Brick also tries and fails to bond with Takayuki over anime and manga. Brick says of the exchange student: “He’s like a cat. You show him affection and he doesn’t return it.”
· - Sue, the middle child, learns from Brick that karaoke is the “national pastime” in Japan and sings karaoke to an unresponsive Takayuki for three hours.
· - Mike, the father, lectures Takayuki about the basics of US government and takes him fishing. Takayuki does not appear to be impressed.
· - Frankie wants the family to be on their best behavior and make a good impression and ends up paying two of the children not to fight in front of Takayuki. Frankie wants the family to be “ambassadors” who will make a good impression on their exchange student, who will tell people back home about how much he likes Indiana, “and pretty soon, America’s popular again.”
All in all, Takayuki is mostly expressionless and unresponsive to the Hecks. While some of the Hecks’ approaches to their exchange student could be interpreted as exploitative or ignorant, Takayuki also seems to have little interest in learning about the Hecks or America or sharing his home culture with them.
Frankie meets her neighbor’s outgoing and enthusiastic exchange student Esteban, and hears about the fun another family has been having with their Japanese student. She comes to agree with the rest of the family that their exchange student is a “dud”. “I wanted a cultural exchange,” she complains, “And instead I get another sullen teen. I mean, what’s with his parents sending him over here? I would never saddle some poor Japanese family with Axl.”
Minutes later, however, she reverses this stance and decides that it’s the Hecks, as hosts, who are the “duds”. Her neighbor reveals that Esteban was quite shy when he arrived and that his host family brought him out of his shell by sharing the “hot spots” of Orson, taking him on trips and introducing him to exciting American foods like kettle corn. “They didn’t fly halfway around the world just to sit in front of a TV,” points out the neighbor.
Frankie confronts her family. “All we’ve done is work, eat dinner and sit and watch ‘The Bachelor’. No wonder he’s sullen. We haven’t done anything fun with him.” “In our defense,” counters her husband, “We don’t do anything fun with our own kids.”
So the Hecks pile into the car to take Takayuki to see “Americana” at a place where he can visit an old-timey pioneer village. When their car breaks down, however, the family breaks down and they “stop being polite and start getting real” (as The Real World would say). It comes to light that the kids are still fighting, that Frankie has been paying them to behave, and that they are not the perfect family that Frankie has been trying to portray them as. “This is an American family,” she says, “We yell and fight, we eat bad food, we watch too much TV and we bribe our kids.”
At this point, Takayuki, who has said very little throughout the episode, reveals that he can fix the family car. He takes it upon himself to fix several other things around the house and may actually have enjoyed his time in Indiana. At the end of the episode, we see Takayuki return to his family in Japan, where it is revealed that he may have had more in common with the Heck family than he let on, as he sits on his family’s couch in only his underwear (like Axl does), whines like the average teenager (Axl and Sue) and even whispers things to himself under his breath (Brick’s signature quirk). It appears that Frankie was right when she suggested that his family was “saddling” the Hecks with another sullen teenager, and it also suggests that teenagers are the same, all around the world.
A few additional notes:
· - Brick is under the impression that, because they are popular in Japan and have crossed-over to the US, all Japanese will like manga, anime and karaoke. These are the kinds of cultural assumptions that are common in real life and in these movies/TV shows about intercultural interaction. Takayuki does not like any of these things (but on the other hand, he doesn’t seem to like much of anything).
- - “I don’t know if you’re a hugger, but you’re getting one!” Multiple times in the episode, Frankie expresses this sentiment. Hugging seems like such a quintessentially American greeting/show of affection, which some people come to love about America and some people (including Americans) are distinctly uncomfortable with.
- The exchange seems to have lasted about two weeks. I don’t know of any exchange programs that work on such a short basis, but short exchanges like these seem quite common in US movies and TV, where these exchange students will either appear in one episode or be permanent recurring characters. On the other end of the spectrum, you have That 70’s Show’s foreign exchange student Fes, who appears to never leave. What kind of visa is that kid on, anyway?
Have you seen the episode? If not, You can watch the entire episode here. What are your thoughts?
 I think (I hope) we’re supposed to assume that he was like them all along, and not that he took away the worst/strangest parts of the Hecks’
personalities and adapted them to his life in Japan.
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