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A long way from home:Exchange student hails from Kyrgyzstan

Datka Mimbaeva, an exchange student from Kyrgyzstan, paused for a moment to visit with the New Richmond News on Tuesday, Nov. 25, while practicing for Somerset High School’s upcoming drama production, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Mimbaeva plays one of the Peanuts gang. (Photo by Sarah Young)

The enthusiasm of Datka Mimbaeva as she talked about experiencing life as a typical American teenager was contagious. It was refreshing to see America through the eyes of a girl who embraces everything, from the exciting to the ordinary.

Mimbaeva, an exchange student from Kyrgyzstan, is spending her junior year at Somerset High School while she stays with Eric and Becky Olson. She is one of 53 students from her country who was awarded a scholarship to come to America as part of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program through 4-H International.

According to an article Mimbaeva wrote, “the main goal of this program is to develop positive relationships between America and with countries which were in the former Soviet Union.”

Kyrgyzstan is a small country in central Asia with a population of about 5.776 million people. The population is 80 percent Muslim. Mimbaeva lives in the city of Osh, which has 2 million residents, and is the second capital city of the country. Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country bordered by China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

“More than 75 percent of our land is made up of mountains and we have many rivers and lakes,” Mimbaeva said. “We use our river resources to create electricity, which we export to neighboring countries. Our people are kind, resourceful and hardworking.”

Mimbaeva arrived in Somerset on Aug. 5 and will remain here for the school year. The most challenging part for her has been understanding people as they speak, though she said it’s getting much easier.

“Because Americans, they speak so fast and they have slang,” Mimbaeva said. “Sometimes at first I just said ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

Adapting to a new school in a foreign land was tough, but Mimbaeva said it’s easier now that she has made friends.

“It was like I was starting my life over from the beginning,” Mimbaeva said of her first day. “It has been hard at times, but I am now adjusting very well. Students and teachers in my school are very helpful and encouraging. My host family, Eric and Becky Olson, are so nice and I feel like they are my real family.”

According to Becky, hosting Datka was kind of a spur of the moment decision.  

“The host family that was supposed to take her in couldn't at the last minute and she was already on her way to our country,” Becky said. “Our school had already said yes to accepting her so that part was set and it would be much faster to find a host family in the same school district. Eric and I hosted a girl from Mexico last summer for a month so we were on an email list that got sent out asking for a new family for her. Our experience with our first exchange went well so we decided to try a year long position.”

While Mimbaeva misses her parents and 7-year-old brother, she said emails and Skype make it easier. She also misses her mom’s cooking, especially a soup called Shoepo, made up of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions and meatballs. She is quick to add that the Olsons’ cooking is good too.

Highlights of her time in America so far have been camping, trying to drive a golf cart, visiting the Olsons’ extended family, attending an FBLA conference and seeing the skyscrapers of the Twin Cities.

“I am living like a usual American kid,” Mimbaeva said. “When I was a kid, I watched cartoons and movies from America and it was always Christmas. I am looking forward to my first holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Mimbaeva’s eyes shined with excitement as she talked about another American tradition she was looking forward to -- Black Friday. She loves shopping and it is a completely new concept to her to go to a store like Walmart, where everything from groceries to clothes to electronics is available for purchase under one roof.

“It is interesting for me, that everyone on Friday will go to one shop,” Mimbaeva said of Black Friday. “At home we have no mixed stores. There are two or three trade centers. You go to this store for one thing, and this store for another.”

Another difference between America and Kyrgyzstan Mimbaeva has noticed is Americans’ openness with their emotions. She described her countrymen and women as more formal and reserved, especially in their manner of dressing. She said that is due to the primarily Muslim population.

Mimbaeva, who was a journalist at home for a school newspaper, gave a talk at the school about her Muslim upbringing.

“I am excited to share the culture, traditions and information about my wonderful country so our differences can be celebrated,” Mimbaeva said. “Knowing about other countries makes our world seem much smaller and helps us to understand each other better.”

Becky said their favorite part of hosting Datka, besides her willingness to try new things like playing piano and riding horses, is learning about a country they knew nothing about.

“We have enjoyed learning about her customs, her country, food, her family and celebrations,” Becky said. “They decorate trees and have a Santa, but it’s for the New Year’s celebration instead of Dec. 25. Datka is a fabulous cook and enjoys sharing her recipes with us and she loves learning our recipes too.”

Mimbaeva hopes to become a cardiologist after attending University in Bishkek City in Kyrgyzstan. She is also hoping to visit America again, and have the Olsons visit her too.

“Becky is like a mom to me,” Mimbaeva said. “I want to come back to visit and bring my parents so they can all meet.”

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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