It’s been four years since the Shelter Island School has welcomed an international exchange student. So long, that before Chanin Inturam, from Bangkok, Thailand, and Brazil native, Rodrigo Barros arrived for the 2015/16 school year, few Shelter Island High School students could remember the fascinating experience of going to school with someone from halfway around the world, who speaks a different language, observes different holidays, and eats foods never seen in the IGA.
Last August, thanks to the Academic Year in America (AYA), Chanin and Rodrigo began a nine-month visit that ends in June.
There will be some tears when they leave.
Both young men are 17 and living with Father Charles McCarron, the pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. As their host-father, he is responsible for their well-being during their stay, along with Sharon Gibbs, the local representative of AYA. School guidance counselor, Martha Tuthill also offers support for Chanin and Rodrigo during the school year.
Life on Shelter Island has many surprises for the Thai-born high school junior, but one of the biggest is seeing creatures walking around that were considered exotic wildlife back home.
“I knew there were deer, foxes, raccoons and turkeys,” he said. “We have them in Thailand too, but they are in a zoo. They don’t walk around in your backyard.”
Chanin spoke to the Reporter on the first day of the Songkran festival, a Thai celebration of the Lunar New Year that involves splashing or pouring water on other people: whether you know them or not.
Chanin thought better of spraying water on anyone that day, but to his delight, Father McCarron sprayed Chanin’s face with water before he left for school in the morning.
He grew up in Bangkok with a younger sister. His father works for Thai Airways and his mother is a financial broker. Although this is Chanin’s first time in the United States, he’s traveled extensively in Australia, South Africa and Asia. Shelter Island, he says, is one of the nicest places he’s seen. “I really like it,” he said.
When he started researching the Island before deciding to come, he thought it looked very quiet. Coming from a high school of about 1,000, Chanin wondered how he would fit into a much smaller school, especially as he worked to master English, a notoriously difficult language. “I’m glad that people have helped me improve,” he said.
Still, he notes it could hardly be more different than his native Thailand. The roaming foxes and turkeys are the least of it.
Everything from the government to dating practices is different.
“I had a culture shock,” he said. “Thailand is a kingdom with a king and a queen. They are very good … In my country, couples cannot kiss in a public place.”
When it comes to following classes taught in a language he’s still learning, Chanin said “Google Translate” is a useful tool, but slow internet connections are a challenge. He took a full load of classes, including mathematics, science, English and U. S. History.
“U.S. history is very short compared to Thai history,” he noted.
Within a month of arriving, Chanin was already into the whirl of high school activities, joining the Shelter Island Cross Country team and competing in his first race ever on September 29 in Sag Harbor.
At his school in Bangkok, Chanin directed the school play last year, so he was glad to participate in this year’s Shelter Island School play, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” working with the backstage crew building and moving scenery.
President of the photography club at his school back home, Chanin found ways to stay involved with his passion during his year abroad, taking pictures for the yearbook and for the Reporter website.
Chanin credits Father McCarron’s cooking with keeping him well-fed despite the differences between Thai and American food.
“In Thailand, food is hot and spicy. His food is very awesome,” Chanin said. “I like to eat everything,”
A practicing Buddhist, Chanin was grateful to be able to pray at a Buddhist temple on Long Island several times during his stay when Father McCarron took him. After the deaths of Chanin’s uncle and grandmother in Thailand during his time here, his visits to the temple were especially important to him.
A student of Japanese, as well as English, Chanin plans to study linguistics, possibly to work as a translator of books or guides. Or he said, maybe as a flight attendant.
“I have always lived close to all my friends,” said Brazilian-born high school senior, Rodrigo Barros.
He grew up in a tiny São Paulo neighborhood called Itaim Bibi, a district of about four square blocks and a few thousand residents, the approximate size of Shelter Island, but surrounded by a city of 11 million people, with a sister, Julia, and his parents, Marcelo and Lilian. His father grew up in the same district and Rodrigo said he intends one day to raise his own family in Itaim Bibi.
When he got word he’d been chosen for a student exchange program that would bring him to the Island, he jumped at the chance. He had been to America twice, including Florida and New York, and he had traveled to Chile, but what he learned about the Island when he Googled it caught his imagination.
Rodrigo’s English is outstanding. He credits the fact that he began studying the language when he was 6 years old. Still, he says it’s not the same as being a native speaker.
“I’m comfortable in my English,” he said, “but it’s always going to be a barrier.”
Most Brazilians are at least bilingual, he said, speaking their native Portuguese and English. Rodrigo, who is trilingual, also knows Spanish.
The transition from Brazil to Shelter Island had rough spots in the beginning. First, there was the matter of the crickets. “It was so weird at night,” he said. “There are no crickets in São Paulo.”
Then there was being far away from family. “At the beginning it was very hard not being able to go to my mom’s lap, to get a hug,” he said. “We are a very close family.”
Never having had the experience of being the new kid, Rodrigo had to cope with a role-reversal. “It was a really awkward experience at first, but then it got better,” he said. “Serina Kaasik was the first person who talked to me.”
Although he doesn’t find as much flavor in American food as Brazilian, like Chanin he gives high marks to Father Charles’ cooking. He also credits Ms. Kaasik with introducing him to a local delicacy. “She was shocked that I never had a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich so she took me to the drugstore to have one.”
Rodrigo has been in love with theater and acting since he was 7. At home he participates in dramatic arts outside of school, but there is nothing comparable to the well-developed school drama program here on Shelter Island. His role as Aldolpho in “The Drowsy Chaperone” is the tenth play he has participated in, but up until now all have been outside of school, and none have been musicals.
“I think one of the reasons Father Charles picked me is because I’m a drama geek,” Rodrigo said. “He knew I would have a great time here.”
As anyone who saw Rodrigo play Aldopho can testify, he is a wonderfully talented person, who stopped the show.
“On the last day of the play it kind of hit me,” he said. “As we were singing the last song I was tearing up.”
He confessed that prior to this role, his self esteem had been down, due to being rejected in a couple of auditions. “Here on the Island,” he said. “ I fell in love with acting all over again.”
Rodrigo plans to go to college in São Paulo and study to be a journalist in Brazil.
“I’m really thankful for this community,” he said. “Shelter Island will always be my home.”