Anne Hovde says she knew there were racial tensions in America, but she hadn't expected that they ruled the lives of so many people.
"Americans seem so preoccupied with race," the 17-year-old Norwegian exchange student said during a discussion of her American stay. "It is such an issue here."
She's been in a position to learn. For almost a year, she has lived in Southeast Washington with Jackie Williams, a baking company secretary, and Williams' four nieces.
Three miles away, in a Northeast home, Kenneth Andreasen, an exchange student from Denmark, relaxes in his host family's living room. He, too, is talking about his experiences during the 10 months he has been in their home.
"I guess I expected to see color at first," he says, "but I was never frightened of living with a black family. We are not afraid of blacks in my country."
Ken's host father, John Sanford, a clerk in the Foreign Affairs Office of the State Department, nods and pats Ken on the leg. "It shows we can live side by side," Sanford says. "Race does not always need to be an issue."
Having spent nearly a year at McKinley High School, which is nearly all black, their stories sound remarkably similar -- of learning the lingo of their friends at school, of getting used to gummy, commercial white bread and of making close friends with youngsters who, it turned out, share similar feelings about growing up -- feelings common to teen-agers everywhere.
Anne Laughs as she remembers the language indoctrination. "At first it seemed black people speak a different language, like when they say 'Hey, man, or 'down and out.' But it grows on you," she said.
The Scandinavians, as well as a Mexican, Iranian and Spaniard, are part of Youth for Understanding's (YFU) new District program which brings foreigners here and sends D.C. youth abroad in an effort to promote cultural exchange. The non-profit program, which sends students to 26 countries, has just completed its first full year in the District.
In June a year ago, it sent 11 black D.C. students to live in Germany, Sweden and several South American nations.
Five students, including Ken and Anne came here. Three attended McKinley; one went to Ballou, another went to Wilson. All will be returning to their homelands in two weeks.
Kicking off its second year last month, Youth for Understanding sent 26 District youths to 12 countries in Europe and Latin America. All but three of the students are black. By Sept. 1, between 7 and 10 new foreign students will have move into host homes here.
Since blacks are not isolated in Danish or Norwegian society, Ken and Anne did not come to this country with negative feelings toward blacks nor did they expect any toward them, they said.
In fact, Anne said, she feels more comfortable in Southeast D.C. than in the white Virginia suburbs where she spent here first few months in metropolitan Washington.
After staying in Alexandria from September until December, she asked (YFU to transfer her to a D.C. home and school because she felt isolated.
"The kids out there care only about grades and marijuana," Anne said. "They weren't too interested in an exchange student."
Jackie Williams, her host parent, said she decided to host Anne because she wanted her nieces to learn more about other cultures.
But, Williams said, she hesitated at first because she was unsure whether Anne would fit in at McKinley.
Anne not only fit in beautifully, she acted in several school plays and made friends easily.
Ken, 6 feet 1 and a natural athlete, joined the football team.
But despite their positive experiences at McKinley, both Anne and Ken were appalled by the poor housing in which many U.S. blacks live.
"It was particularly obvious when we went to Philadelphia," Ken said. "We saw terrible ghettos there. Only blacks seemed to live there. I have never seen anything like that in my own country."
Anne and Ken were impressed by Washington's Metro rail system, but the city's political life, its monuments and museums left them cold.
"Maybe I'm just too young to appreciate it," Anne said, noting Norwegian friends would envy her in one regard. "My friends back home would be jealous that I've lived so close to the Capitol because when they think of America, that's what they think of."
Both host families tried to provide a broad range of experiences for the students, including taking them on sightseeing trips. All agree it is, at the very least, an even exchange.
Families interested in hosting exchange students complete a lengthy application and interviewing process with YFU coodinators. Ken's host parent, John Sanford, encourages families to participate. "If the family's open to the experience and if the exchange student does his part, this is one of the best ways for people to learn about another culture and make friends, too."
Anne Hovde agrees. "It is definitely one of the best things I've ever done. I've gotten very close to some people I'd never known before. And that's the real meaning of exchange."