The State Department has several youth-exchange programs. One of them, Youth Ambassadors, began in Brazil and was then exported to Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and throughout the region. High school students come to the United States for a few weeks, meet important people, see the sights, and take their impressions home.
In the winter of 2002, I received in my office a group of Brazilian YA students. We had a nice chat, but I could tell they were edgy. It had started to snow outside … their first-ever snowfall. Since getting outside in the snow obviously seemed far more exciting than spending time with me, I let them go early.
Maybe a year later, I made a trip to Brazil. Curious about how the program had affected those kids, I asked our ambassador, John Danilovich, a great guy, to round them up so I could chat with them.
John located them, and we assembled in the backyard of his residence. The kids filled us in on their lives and their plans for the future. Since they were a highly select group, they had expectations of future success—like owning companies or becoming their country’s president. I asked them if they had enjoyed the United States. I wanted to know if anything had surprised them or made them especially happy or especially sad.
There were some questioning looks, but that didn’t last long—they were teenagers.
A young man raised his hand. “One day we were having lunch at a school,” he said, “and I was surprised, very surprised, when the American students laughed at me because I put ketchup on my pizza.”
“Most Americans think pizza comes with a sufficient quantity of tomato paste,” I explained kindly, doing my best not to smile.
Another young man quickly followed up. “I couldn’t believe,” he said with an expression of comic disgust, “that they served milk with pizza.”
I again suppressed a smile. Time didn’t permit an exposition about the place of the dairy lobby in the American political system.
Then a young girl tentatively raised her hand. “Let me tell you what happened to us in Chicago,” she said.
Uh-oh, I thought.