HARDWOOD, Mich. (AP) — Mick and Heidi Reynolds of Hardwood have been traveling to Mongolia for the past 14 years in order to teach English in rural areas. This year, instead of going there themselves, a little bit of Mongolia came to them.
Mongolian exchange student Oyundari Uurdsaikhan, who goes by the name Daria, has been living with the Reynolds family and attending North Dickinson High School for the 2013-2014 academic year, according to The Daily News of Iron Mountain ( http://bit.ly/1iWva3i ).
Daria hails from the capital city Ulaanbaatar, which has a population of about 1.3 million people. There, she lives in an apartment with her family. In Hardwood, she has gotten used to living in a house with a backyard and a lot of trees.
"It's really different," she said of living in a rural area. "In the city, I can walk or take a taxi, but here I have to plan for a day if I want to go somewhere."
Mick pointed out that although Ulaanbaatar is like any other modern city, most other areas of Mongolia are very rural.
The Upper Peninsula winter with its heavy snowfall has also been a new experience for Daria. Mongolia's high altitude and landlocked status make it prone to bitterly cold temperatures, but very little precipitation.
As a result, Daria said that she had never seen as much snow as she did this winter.
"It's one of the sunniest countries in the world," Heidi said of Mongolia's weather. "Sunny, but cold."
School is another area in which Daria has noticed differences.
In Mongolia, she attended a private high school with an emphasis on math. Her school required uniforms, had more class periods per day, did not allow students to choose their own classes, and did not have any school sports teams.
At North Dickinson, Daria has enjoyed the freedom to pick any class she wants. She said that she was able to take a shop class, which is reserved for only boys in Mongolia. As for school activities, she participated in both cheerleading and basketball.
Daria actually graduated from her high school in Mongolia last year. She decided to become an exchange student this year in order to improve her English before applying to American universities.
As Mick explained, Mongolian universities are still transitioning out of the Soviet era.
"A lot of young people want to get out of the country and go to school elsewhere," he said. "An American degree is worth a lot more there."
Daria hopes to attend Northern Michigan University next year to study pre-engineering and one day become an architect.
Being an exchange student and noticing differences between Mongolian and American cultures has given Daria a new perspective.
For one, she has learned that she enjoys American foods.
"There's awesome food here," said Daria. "I don't miss Mongolian food at all."
Some of her favorites include lasagna, pizza, and Heidi's homemade bread.
Daria has also noted differences related to driving.
While Americans can drive at age 16, Mongolians have to wait until they are 18 years old.
"Kids dream about driving in high school," said Daria.
She also credits American roads as being much better than those in Mongolia.
Mick recalled that when he was driving Daria home from the Green Bay airport, her first comment was, "Look at the wonderful roads."
He added that traffic is a big problem in Ulaanbaatar, due to poor city planning that did not allow for many vehicles. After communism fell, people started bringing more and more vehicles into Mongolia. There is now a system in place in which citizens, as determined by their license plate number, can only drive on certain days of the week.
Daria's American experience is not over yet. In a few weeks, she will get to see an entirely different part of the country when she visits Florida. She is particularly excited to see the ocean for the first time.
Hosting Daria has been a positive experience for the Reynolds family as well.
Since 2000, Mick and Heidi have made numerous summer visits to rural Mongolia in order to teach English through a Christian organization.
As a result of their trips, Mick, Heidi, and their children Molly and Jared have developed a strong interest in Mongolian people and culture. Mick even described the rural people as being similar to Yoopers.
"They're used to the cold, extreme weather," he said. "They can get by on very little, and they're very tough."
With both Mick and Heidi able to speak Mongolian, they sometimes struggle to speak in English to Daria.
"We always want to speak in Mongolian, but we shouldn't because she needs to practice her English," laughed Mick.