Going off to college, generally, is an exciting time, though not without some level of trepidation. Moving hours away from home without mom, dad or whoever in the room down the hall, knowing a family is an afternoon’s drive away instead of a few moments, can be, at times, a struggle.
A round trip visit home to Iceland nets Axel nearly 8,000 miles.
It would take more days than Easter weekend has for Joe to complete the 20,000-mile there-and-back to see his family in Thailand.
More than language barriers, new cuisines, college classes or SEC athletics, being so removed from family and childhood friends is the hardest part for international student-athletes like Joe and Axel. Relying on Skype and the internet to maintain contact with parents and siblings is the best they can do during the months and sometimes years between breaks.
“I miss my family,” Joe said. “I’ve been back once in three years.”
And given the resources of time and money needed for a family to take such a trip, they haven’t made it to the United States yet to see him.
“The Americans here,” Axel said, “they always have their moms and dads. I haven’t seen my mom for so long, it feels like. It’s different to not be able to go after school and meet your grandparents. That’s been the most difficult. You don’t get that privilege of doing what you would probably do back home.”
But, Axel said, “It’s worth it. Every day.”
In their words, they’re living the dream.
Wake up at 7, work out, go to class, eat lunch and then play golf until the sun goes down and studying begins.
“You’re here for one reason and one reason only, that’s my thinking,” Axel said. “You’re here for golf and school. Even though you wanna go home, we love it here. Great people. Good weather all year, pretty much.”
While they certainly miss family, most of the transition for these guys is fun.
Despite hailing from a big city near Bangkok, Joe is a self-proclaimed “Country Boy,” having learned the ways of southerners at junior college in Georgia.
His favorite food now: barbecue, he says.
“Back in Georgia, all my friends liked the country stuff,” Joe said. “I like it, it’s kind of chill. I don’t like the big city anyway, traffic everywhere. You go anywhere in like five minutes here.”
Without his preferred spicy Thai food around, Joe’s second choice now is steak. He’s in the right part of the country for both.
Axel, on the other hand, isn’t big on beef.
Luckily, he has access to what he considers the best food on the planet by way of his Mississippian teammate Chad Ramey.
“The best food I get is in Fulton, Mississippi, from Chad’s dad,” he said. “Duck, deer. That’s some of the best food I’ve ever had in my entire life and it comes from Mississippi.”
“I don’t like too much of that burger thing,” Axel continued. “I like a lot of sandwiches and good meat. Lamb, sheep, all that stuff.”
One of the primary adjustments, Axel said, is the one he makes with himself whenever he goes home for the summer, then again when he comes back.
Spending so much time in Starkville, he picks up on the colloquialisms and local etiquette, then realizes how much he’s changed when he gets back to his hometown in Iceland, a city not much bigger than Starkville.
“Every time,” Axel said. “I have to switch. It takes two or three weeks to stop saying what I say here and stop saying what I say there. “
“People here, in Mississippi especially, have better manners, I would say. They’re both nice, I’m not saying that. When you walk in a store here, you’re acknowledged. ‘Good day, how are you,’ all that. When you start doing that back home, people don’t take that as well.
“After my first semester, I came home after Christmas and I tried it in a bakery. I said, ‘How are you doing?’ and I did not get one reply and she just kind of stared at me like, ‘What do you want?’”
Beyond the distance from family and change in culture, the biggest immediate hurdle for guys like Joe and Axel is the language barrier. Both spoke at least a little bit of English upon arrival in the states, though the occasional southern drawl is far from what they learned in school.
Was it tough?
“It’s tough still,” Joe said.
Considering himself a shy person as it is, Joe often struggled when he first began school in Georgia. Too unassuming to ask a teacher to repeat something he didn’t understand, he would just go back later and look it up in his book, hoping he could figure out what happened.
“First semester, I tried not to talk,” Axel said. “If they asked, I answered. One time I had to stand up and talk and that was kind of weird. But hanging out with the guys on the team, they joke on me a little for what I say. That helps if you take it in a good way. I learned the hard way, but I get better every day.”
Axel was a bit ahead of many when he started, having trained with a Swedish golf coach when he was 15 with just one common language: English.
Both he and Joe at least knew their golf vocabulary well coming in while they’ve learned by immersion in many other avenues.
They knew enough, at least, to have developed well in their sport, as Joe was the top-ranked junior college golfer when he signed with MSU before this year and Axel has put together the fourth-best season stroke average in Bulldog golf’s history.
They’ve been a part of easily the best season MSU golf has had, winning a program-record four tournaments and heading to the SEC Championship at St. Simon’s Island this weekend with a first-ever Top 25 ranking in tow.
While they miss everything from family to sheep sandwiches, the pair, as Axel said, wouldn’t change it for anything. The food, the people and golfing all day,
“I like the style here,” Joe said.