Living and learning abroad: Redwood students detail their foreign experiences

Kana Kojima

Simply moving to a different state, let alone a country, requires a lifestyle change. Moving to another continent, then returning back to the original one several years later—that is a bit of a different story. Three juniors, Lucca Defabio, Tanya Khaneheria and Leah Oshita detailed their experiences as foreign students from around the globe, ranging from Singapore to London to New Delhi. 

At six years old, Defabio and her family moved to Singapore for her father’s work. After spending two years there, Defabio noticed an unexpected cultural shift upon returning to the U.S.. 

“[The change] was pretty huge. Singapore is relatively ethnically homogenous, and San Francisco is just so much more diverse. Coming back to the Bay Area was, in a way, a culture shock as well,” Defabio said.

Lucca Defabio moved to the small, city-island of Singapore from the Bay Area when she was only six years old.

Defabio claims the language barrier also greatly impacted her as a foreign student, especially when she came back to the U.S.. 

“Everyone speaks [forms of] Chinese in Singapore, which is how I picked up Mandarin in school,” Defabio said. “I had gotten really accustomed to speaking Mandarin. My mom had to put me in a Mandarin immersion school because I couldn’t speak [English] as fast as the other kids.” 

On top of speaking both Mandarin and English, Defabio’s mother spoke Spanish, meaning a young Defabio was learning three languages all at once. Returning to the U.S., she spoke Spanish at home, English at school and around the Bay Area and spoke and learned Mandarin at school as well. 

“I would just be constantly alternating between those three languages. It was super stressful at first for a seven-year-old to be doing that,” she said. 

Across the Pacific, Leah Oshita was born in Hawaii and moved to London at the age of two. There, she spent 14 years before moving back to the U.S. in Jan. 2021. Although Oshita was born in the U.S., living in London made returning to the U.S. a more exotic experience. 

“I remember hearing the school bell on my first day [of school in the U.S.] and everyone started moving around. I was confused because it didn’t sound like the loud ring I hear in the movies,” Oshita said. “I thought it was a fire alarm, so I started internally freaking out until I realized I just had to go to class.” 

Returning to the U.S. in January this year, Leah Oshita, born in Hawaii, spent 14 years in London.

Because Oshita moved back to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, Redwood was still online for her first few months. Oshita says that remote learning combined with the sudden loneliness of moving away from her family made for a harsh change. 

“Making friends was super stressful. All I saw were these [boxes] of people on my screen. I couldn’t really picture myself being friends with any of them until Redwood switched back to in-person learning and I got to actually meet people,” Oshita said. “Everyone’s American accents were strange to me at first. It was really unfamiliar.”

Her American peers felt the same way, making Oshita stand out. Although her unique background felt isolating in some ways, it ultimately gave Oshita more confidence. Her British accent has played a role in her finding friends at Redwood. 

“It’s definitely helped me start conversations with people,” Oshita said. “When they would hear me speak, they would always comment on my accent.” 

Oshita is currently the only member of her immediate family living in California. The rest of her family moved to Japan in January 2021, and Oshita was unable to due to complications in school enrollment, landing her in Marin with her aunt. 

“I experienced the [biggest] struggle when I first moved [when] I was alone without my family. I remember I would just sit in my room and stress over how I was going to make friends,” Oshita said. “At the end of the day, it made me much stronger and more independent.” 

Junior Tanya Khaneheria’s story differs slightly from Oshita and Defabio’s, as she is a foreign student in Marin.. Khaneheria was born and raised in New Delhi, India before moving to Marin at the beginning of eighth grade. Despite this, Khaneheria has spent summers in the U.S. throughout her childhood and attended a British international school in India, making her move to Marin less jarring than Oshita or Defabio. However, she still noticed differences in attitudes towards hospitality and familial traditions. 

Growing up in New Delhi, Tanya Khaneheria’s foreign experience began when she moved to Marin in the eighth grade.

“If a friend were to come over to my house [in India], my parents would actually feel disrespectful letting them leave without having a meal and at least one genuine conversation,” Khaneheria said. “Over here, I think my parents have felt less responsible for having a more [formal] relationship with [my friends].”

From an educational lens, Khaneheria noticed major differences between India and the U.S..

“You get to choose the level of your education here. I feel like there’s so much more academic freedom to be able to choose your own path. [In India], there’s a lot more structure,” Khaneheria said. “Neither is better or worse, but it’s definitely a huge change I experienced.” 

Oshita expressed a similar attitude to Khaneheria, noting the countries’ contrasting attitudes in academic and social freedom. 

“In my old school, I had to wear a uniform — it was very strict. No jewelry or makeup was allowed,” Oshita said. “There wasn’t really a way to express myself in the way I’m [able] to do here.” 

Although moving was intimidating at first, Oshita believes it made her stronger. 

“Change is good, even though it can be really scary, to be honest. In the end, it was definitely worth it,” Oshita said. 

Additionally, for Defabio, she found that living in Singapore at a young age has shaped her identity. 

“[Being a foreign student] definitely impacted my development because it was so early in my life. These are crucial years of growth [where] I was immersed in such a different culture and way of life,” Defabio said. “I learned a lot of new things during my time there. It was genuinely just a really beautiful part of my childhood.”