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One of my exchange students, we'll call him E, has some interesting behavior around food, particularly in restaurants. I am desperately trying to get more insight into what make him tick, and I feel like this behavior could give me some if I had a clue what it indicates. So I am looking for ideas here to think about. Background: E is 16 and has been in the US for a couple of years. His English is very good. His previous host homes were, shall we say, not great fits, although I do not know exactly what went on in them. I have heard inklings that home #1 was very strict about food and that the host parents, whom I now know slightly (but did not at the time), have said some very unkind things about him. Home #2 just did not provide much of any food--they ate out or snacked for every meal, and if you weren't there when they took orders (as he frequently would not have been), they did not get him a meal. They also made him pay for some meals that I think were their responsibility. E does not have much money, so I suspect he may have gone hungry some. (And FTR, it breaks my heart to even speculate that this might have been the case.)

Anyway, to get to the behavior, in sit-down restaurants now, he has no idea what to order. He will either order exactly what my other exchange student orders, or he will ask me what he should order. These are not fancy restaurants--a brunch place, barbecue, that sort of thing. Once I clued in that this was a source of--anxiety, maybe--I made sure I sit next to him and discreetly make suggestions. I have ruled out issues with reading or understanding the menu.

Other food-related behaviors: He was the only one (of 3 boys) home for a week because the other 2 were on a school trip, and he needed a packed lunch every day. I do not ordinarily make my nearly-grown kids' lunches, but he was new to the family and in desperate need of mothering, so I made his. I crammed that thing full of food, but if he did not eat one of the sandwiches, for instance, he would tell me almost as soon as he got in the car and promise to put it in the fridge to eat the next day. I  would just say something like, "Oh, no, we do not mess with deli meat. I'll give it to the chickens and just make you another one." I expressed no judgment (and never have) about food waste or how much he eats and just throw away leftovers or pack more for the next day if there are not any.

Finally, he does not know what to do with food choices. If I ask what kind of snacks he likes, he can't (or won't) tell me, but I can see what he eats and doesn't eat and try to buy accordingly. He's finally started expressing some preferences, but it has taken a few weeks.

As I am typing all of this out, it sounds like anxiety. Is this what it looks like? Or could? There are other behaviors that might be consistent with anxiety, but I've never seen it up close. He is a sweet, sweet boy, and I love him like he is my own, but I need some insight to know how best to parent him.

All suggestions welcome.

 

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He has learned that some host moms stress about food and has decided he doesn't want to offend you by handling it wrong.  It sounds like you are doing exactly what he needs, if he's started expressing some preferences after only a few weeks.  He'll likely relax a lot more as time goes by.  Good job noticing and trying to help him with this!

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Maybe he's used to just eating what he's served.  It could be overwhelming to face food choice and all new foods at the same time.  The other host families making it weird probably did not help.  I'm guessing there are some foods he really does not like, but is too afraid of offending you to say anything.  I'd probably keep coddling him until he got sick enough of me to make his own choices.  

I'd make a point of telling him, "It's OK to try something and not like it" and "I won't get mad if you don't like this."

Edited by KungFuPanda
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It does sound like anxiety. After having been in two homes, maybe he is scared to discuss food preferences openly. Add to that all the strange new surroundings and ways of living and being away from the familiarity of home -- well, that would make me anxious even as an adult.

I am glad he is with a kinder family like yours.

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10 minutes ago, JanOH said:

Could it just be cultural from his native country?  In some countries it would be impolite to indicate preference as a guest? 

I don't think this is it because none of the other kids from the same country do this. It could be his family, though.

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3 minutes ago, KungFuPanda said:

 I'd probably keep coddling him until he got sick enough of me to make his own choices.  

I'd make a point of telling him, "It's OK to try something and not like it" and "I won't get mad if you don't like this."

"until he got sick enough of me" sounds like a solid strategy.

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Sounds very normal behavior to me for a person who is new to your family and has made the experience that some families have very rigid rules around food. It sounds like he is trying not to offend or anger you by making wrong decisions. The poor kid. I guess he has been scolded in the past for wasting food, for making choices the hosts did not approve off, etc. I would totally mother him when it comes to food, even if you wouldn't do that to your own kids at that age, because it will take a while for him until he feels secure that he understands how he is supposed to behave around food in your family. Food is such an emotional thing, and it sounds like he had some very unfortunate experiences.

Edited by regentrude
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How long has he been with your family?

Was he warned by whoever is his contact in the program that if he didn’t make this placement work he’d have to go home?

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I probably behaved in some of those ways when I was in foreign countries.  Partly this was because we never ate out when I was a child: I remember the two occasions when I went to a restaurant in the UK before the age of 18.  Partly I was just bewildered by the menu.  Even in the States - I am a native English speaker - I would be continually wrong-footed.  I'd order a salad, expecting to end my meal with it, and it would arrive first; I'd order pancakes and be given this stack of 'weird wodgy things' that I didn't fancy that early in the day; I put cheese sauce on my veggies at someone's house only to be told that that was 'cheez whiz' and had only been put out to persuade the children to eat the veg.

If the exchange student has had some difficult experiences in previous homes, then all these normal pitfalls could have been magnified and they could be feeling very unsure of themselves.  I'd carry on doing what you are doing - things may well get better.

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Yes, I suspect he did not have choices in his native home and may have been taught that it's rude to request something different from what others are eating.  And the idea of paying what, in some countries, is a month's salary for one meal may be really hard to accept.  He may also feel unsure exactly how to speak his order to the wait staff.

I would talk to him about the menu well in advance of actually sitting down to eat, like even one or more days before, if possible.  Have him tell you prior to going to the restaurant what he plans to order.  If he doesn't know, then discuss the options with him and then get him to say what he wants.  Warn him in advance that he needs to place his own order at the restaurant.  It doesn't matter what he orders - anything at the restaurant is OK, and if it wasn't, you would tell him.  (Of course you would say if there was an acceptable price range or whatever.)  Afterwards, talk about the food everyone had, who liked or disliked what, and what they might decide to order again next time, or try at another restaurant someday.

One of my daughters was really shy about ordering.  I eased her into it by making her place our drive-through orders.  😛  Maybe give that a try?

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37 minutes ago, Katy said:

How long has he been with your family?

Was he warned by whoever is his contact in the program that if he didn’t make this placement work he’d have to go home?

His original host family may have; I don't know. But I have definitely assured him (and his older sister, who visited us for 3 weeks) that this is not the case and that he can stay with us forever as far as I am concerned.

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42 minutes ago, regentrude said:

 Food is such an emotional thing, and it sounds like he had some very unfortunate experiences.

I had not really thought about food being so emotional, but you are definitely correct. It is so odd that he's had two placements in which food was an issue in completely different ways. There were other issues in both homes, I gather, but I think the bad fit just showed up around food, among other things, of course. 

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25 minutes ago, plansrme said:

I had not really thought about food being so emotional, but you are definitely correct. It is so odd that he's had two placements in which food was an issue in completely different ways. There were other issues in both homes, I gather, but I think the bad fit just showed up around food, among other things, of course. 

As a super taster who had texture issues growing up, people really make food a moral issue. I became less picky with less moralizing and more opportunities to try things without high stakes. Then I started having food intolerances. You wouldn't believe how much judgment people can put on this.

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59 minutes ago, Laura Corin said:

I probably behaved in some of those ways when I was in foreign countries.  Partly this was because we never ate out when I was a child: I remember the two occasions when I went to a restaurant in the UK before the age of 18.  Partly I was just bewildered by the menu.  Even in the States - I am a native English speaker - I would be continually wrong-footed.  I'd order a salad, expecting to end my meal with it, and it would arrive first; I'd order pancakes and be given this stack of 'weird wodgy things' that I didn't fancy that early in the day; I put cheese sauce on my veggies at someone's house only to be told that that was 'cheez whiz' and had only been put out to persuade the children to eat the veg.

If the exchange student has had some difficult experiences in previous homes, then all these normal pitfalls could have been magnified and they could be feeling very unsure of themselves.  I'd carry on doing what you are doing - things may well get better.

This is the kind of thing that came to my mind.

An example would be how, as a native NJean, I’m accustomed to being able to order from the breakfast menu 24/7 when there’s a mixed menu. The first time I got a weird look in a PA diner, I was super confused and then embarrassed to have assumed. Not that it was a big, huge deal to me as an adult, but I would have been mortified as a teen.

Other examples would be me trying to order things like “pruzhute” and “mutzarel” from deli clerks who probably thought I was having a stroke. I avoid ordering manicotti anywhere I go, because that’s just asking for trouble, lol.

At other people’s houses, I’m waiting for suggestions before answering “Can I get you something to drink?” I want to know if we’re talking water, wine, or shots before I open my mouth!
 

 

 

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In some culturals it would be very odd for different people at the talbe to be eating different foods. Eating is a communal activitiy.  If that is the case where this student is from, he still may not be accustomed to choosing his own food.

Do you know if he is highly familiar with the food on US menus?  Even if he can read the menu, understanding what food on menus can be tricky when you come from a different culture.  If you haven't had buffalo wings or mole before, even a description may not help.  When ingredients and cooking techniques are different ordering can be difficult and overwhelming. 

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2 minutes ago, Bootsie said:

In some culturals it would be very odd for different people at the talbe to be eating different foods. Eating is a communal activitiy.  If that is the case where this student is from, he still may not be accustomed to choosing his own food.

That's true - when I went to India as an adult, I was surprised to learn that all the food at restaurants was ordered by the host.  I assume it would have been a major faux pas had I ordered my own meal.  So it is possible the OP's guest is from such a culture?

Maybe, in addition to the above discussion(s), it would help to just have a chat with all the young folks about different food cultures and the related challenges.  In a fun, relaxed context.  Chances are, you all would learn something, and your newest student would loosen up a bit about his food hang-ups.

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1 minute ago, Bootsie said:

In some culturals it would be very odd for different people at the talbe to be eating different foods. Eating is a communal activitiy.  If that is the case where this student is from, he still may not be accustomed to choosing his own food.

Do you know if he is highly familiar with the food on US menus?  Even if he can read the menu, understanding what food on menus can be tricky when you come from a different culture.  If you haven't had buffalo wings or mole before, even a description may not help.  When ingredients and cooking techniques are different ordering can be difficult and overwhelming. 

We have wondered if he just never went to sit-down restaurants in his previous host homes. These are relatively affluent families, but I guess some families just don't go out. He is fine with fast food drive-throughs, but it may be that there he just orders what the other boys do. 

You have all given me some good things to think about. We will keep doing what we're doing plus be aware of some of the issues everyone has mentioned. This has been super helpful--thanks!

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16 minutes ago, plansrme said:

We have wondered if he just never went to sit-down restaurants in his previous host homes. These are relatively affluent families, but I guess some families just don't go out. He is fine with fast food drive-throughs, but it may be that there he just orders what the other boys do. 

You have all given me some good things to think about. We will keep doing what we're doing plus be aware of some of the issues everyone has mentioned. This has been super helpful--thanks!

Could it be that he is more familiar with US fastfood culture than a US sit-down restaurant?  Depending upon where he is from, it is more likely that there is a McDonalds than an Olive Garden.  There is also more variation on a sit-down restaurant menu appetizers, salad, main course, desserts, drinks, pick two from a list, any three of the following 12 tacos, pasta with one of these six sauces, a salad with one of 8 dressing choices....  it can be overwhelming when you are unfamiliar with the restaurant and the food preperation.  

I also wonder if the pictures at the fast food drive-through help him visualize what he is ordering.  I know that in some places I have traveled a menu with a picture helped me understand what I was ordering a lot more.  

 

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34 minutes ago, Bootsie said:

Could it be that he is more familiar with US fastfood culture than a US sit-down restaurant?  Depending upon where he is from, it is more likely that there is a McDonalds than an Olive Garden.  There is also more variation on a sit-down restaurant menu appetizers, salad, main course, desserts, drinks, pick two from a list, any three of the following 12 tacos, pasta with one of these six sauces, a salad with one of 8 dressing choices....  it can be overwhelming when you are unfamiliar with the restaurant and the food preperation.  

I also wonder if the pictures at the fast food drive-through help him visualize what he is ordering.  I know that in some places I have traveled a menu with a picture helped me understand what I was ordering a lot more.  

 

Good point. I tend to think he should be comfortable with American customs--he's been here two years, after all--but who knows what experiences he's actually had those two years. I will definitely provide more direct instruction next time we're out. I adore this kid, and the thought that he might be embarrassed or nervous in any situation makes me so sad. When I hit on something that meets one of his unexpressed needs, I just get the sweetest smile and can practically see the relief wash over him. 

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I've often (okay, truthfully, still am) uncomfortable ordering from a menu when someone else is paying. Hard to know how pricey an item to get, you know? Same with snacks, etc. 

I'd think an easy way to move from him just ordering the same as someone would be to suggest a few items you think he might like, and have him pick one. That's sort of a baby step forward, and he will know that all are okay price wise since you suggested them. 

Same with snacks, rather than ask, "would you like me to pick up some snacks" or "what snacks do you like" maybe offer a few options and see what he says?

Edited by ktgrok
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My husband had gone to business lunches on occasion with men from Europe.  They were completely baffled by touch-screen ordering -- not the ordering system itself, but with all of the CHOICES.  They were used to order a cheeseburger and it came the way the kitchen decided.  There were no alternatives or substitutions.  When they ordered a cheeseburger here, they were asked what kind of cheese, what type of roll, ketchup, mustard, mayo, pickles, lettuce, tomato...  It was a bit overwhelming for them.

 

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41 minutes ago, plansrme said:

Good point. I tend to think he should be comfortable with American customs--he's been here two years, after all--but who knows what experiences he's actually had those two years. I will definitely provide more direct instruction next time we're out. I adore this kid, and the thought that he might be embarrassed or nervous in any situation makes me so sad. When I hit on something that meets one of his unexpressed needs, I just get the sweetest smile and can practically see the relief wash over him. 

DD has lived full-time in Austria for 2 1/2 years (as an au pair living with two families and as a grad student).  She has spent almost every summer since she was two months old in Austria.  She is fluent in German and is comfortable with the local dialect where she is.  She still gets tripped up by some things on restuarant menus.  Food language is much more nuanced than I realized.  

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12 minutes ago, Junie said:

My husband had gone to business lunches on occasion with men from Europe.  They were completely baffled by touch-screen ordering -- not the ordering system itself, but with all of the CHOICES.  They were used to order a cheeseburger and it came the way the kitchen decided.  There were no alternatives or substitutions.  When they ordered a cheeseburger here, they were asked what kind of cheese, what type of roll, ketchup, mustard, mayo, pickles, lettuce, tomato...  It was a bit overwhelming for them.

Oh yes. I still remember being absolutely baffled when a server asked me "How do you want your eggs cooked?" I did not understand the question and did not realize that there were options.

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46 minutes ago, plansrme said:

Good point. I tend to think he should be comfortable with American customs--he's been here two years, after all--but who knows what experiences he's actually had those two years.

2 years is a very short time when it comes to understanding another culture.

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23 minutes ago, Alicia64 said:

Poor kid. I'm so glad he's with you now.

Me, too, but not for his sake, but because I truly adore him. Even in his 16 yo boy idiocy (of which there is PLENTY) and his moodiness (which is legendary), I am grateful to have him to love on. 

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It might also be helpful at some point to say that it's ok if you order something & don't like it (taste, texture, whatever), you don't have to eat it (& that it's not considered rude or weird) AND that he can either get something at a drive-through on the way home or have _______ item at home (so he will realize he won't go hungry).

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6 minutes ago, Stacia said:

It might also be helpful at some point to say that it's ok if you order something & don't like it (taste, texture, whatever), you don't have to eat it (& that it's not considered rude or weird) AND that he can either get something at a drive-through on the way home or have _______ item at home (so he will realize he won't go hungry).

OH!! Good point!!!

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Two things jumped out at me in your post, your kindness in trying to understand him and his completely trying so hard to fit in.

I am assuming a lot of things here and this comes directly from my culture. I always had packed food with me in some form when I left home. It included lunch, snacks, water. We hardly went outside to eat, it was a treat growing up and my dad always ordered for us. We ordered several dishes and always shared. We did not have the concept of kids meals. So I found ordering food hard to do here, plus the food quantity is so huge here that I could not finish. I was brought up not wasting food, so we would always carry leftovers home, both packed food or restaurant. Someone would eat it. 

It is absolutely hard to assimilate and food is one of the biggest things. I want to say thank you to you for your extreme kindness in accepting him with his quirks and going above and beyond to make him feel comfortable  and trying to understand him.  I was the recipient of such kindness and it is enormously helpful. Even if he may not be able to express it, please know it will mean the world to him. 

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It must be an emotional kind of day, because I’m just streaming tears over here. I’m glad he’s found you.

The only thing I can think of that I haven’t seen is sharing when you’re eating out. Maybe it’s a family thing, but quite often if somebody gets something especially tasty or different, they’ll put some on a bread plate so everyone can have a bite. When the kids were younger, when we were discussing the menu, they might be trying to decide between two items, and usually go with the safe one. If I thought they (and I!) would like it, I would get their second choice. Also, sharing appetizers is a good way to try things.

I think we all have a safe plan going into a restaurant. For one of my kids, it’s steak, for the other it’s fish. Pretty much any sit-down place we go is going to have those. They’re willing to try almost anything, but it’s nice to know there’s going to he *something*.

Also, have you tried going to a restaurant that serves food family style? Around here that would be Chinese, Indian, and sushi that I can think of right now.

Best of luck to you! Keep being gentle and taking your time!

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I think he is so scared of offending the host families with regards to food after his experience with his previous host families.

In my culture, as guests we would like to know roughly what is the host's budget before ordering. Also it would be kind of rude to order an entrée more expensive than whatever the host is having. When we go to a sit down place like Chipotle, I let my kids know that I am not willing to spend over $10 per child before tax.  At the more expensive place like Applebee's, we would estimate at less than $20 per child.

Edited by Arcadia
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1 hour ago, Stacia said:

It might also be helpful at some point to say that it's ok if you order something & don't like it (taste, texture, whatever), you don't have to eat it (& that it's not considered rude or weird) AND that he can either get something at a drive-through on the way home or have _______ item at home (so he will realize he won't go hungry).

Great points.

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It sounds like it could be cultural to me (I’m guessing Asian of some sort?).  Lots of cultures defer to their hosts;  lots of cultures have specific practices regarding behavior around meals, and don’t want to offend. Without knowing the specific culture he’s from, it’s hard to know exactly. BUT, I grew up in Africa, have been around many different cultures while there;  and there are always unwritten expectations around food, and eating.  One Zambian pastor (so educated, and familiar with American culture) we’d known for YEARS came to the US for a visit and we took him out to eat. He sat beside me at the restaurant but, like your student, was utterly overwhelmed with the task of ordering from the menu, and asked me to pick something for him.  My point is, it might be food related anxiety but I would bet it’s a cultural thing for him. 

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As a picky eater, I had a ton of anxiety about food as a kid and behaved in some crazy ways about it as a teen. I totally agree with the poster above that people turn food into a huge moral issue. Like, there's no right answer when you don't want to eat something. Especially if you're a child. If you defer and claim to not be hungry or say whatever, some people get upset. If you pick at it and eat some and show false enthusiasm, some people get upset. If you turn it down, some people get upset. I had adults call me names and bully me as a kid to make me eat things. Or just mock me and laugh at me. People are NUTS about food. Basically, I don't know what his issue is exactly, but I can't imagine that the ways Americans talk about and deal with food have helped in any way shape or form.

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Before I go to a restaurant, I look at them menu ahead of time. I really don't like deciding on the spot, because so many American menus are vast!! (Looking at you Cheesecake Factory!) Maybe doing this and  talking about the choices ahead of time would help. Then you can talk about if he would like something with meat, or veg.....breaded or grilled....soup or salad. Then you can look at pictures if he has questions. I would guess that even though he can read the words on a menu, the names and descriptions are confusing. It takes so long to read all the descriptions. What is the difference between twice baked potatoes, scalloped potatoes and potatoes au gratin.  Things like Eggs Benedict, or Denver omelet, chef's special, xzy restaurant special sauce...etc. 

Or, he really may not care. My daughter has a friend who is a quintessential American girl (cheerleader, honor student etc). She really, truly likes almost anything homemade. Her mom cooked out of cans and boxes, so she was happy to have any food that wasn't overly processed. To have choices at our house, meant she chose a little of everything. LOL

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19 hours ago, plansrme said:

Me, too, but not for his sake, but because I truly adore him. Even in his 16 yo boy idiocy (of which there is PLENTY) and his moodiness (which is legendary), I am grateful to have him to love on. 

Awww. Your words melted my heart. (I have two teens and your boy is right on schedule.) ♥♥♥

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We live in a foreign country (SE Europe) and food culture here is VASTLY different than the US.  Along with all the other good advice you've received, I'll add the possibility that the "restaurant" setting itself may possibly be a significant contributor to food-ordering confusion/hesitancy, particularly in light of mentioning  that he appears to do relatively OK at fast-food.  

In many places of the world, fast-food is one thing (a way to eat) but going to a sit-down restaurant is "an event" and by their very nature that can be fraught with extra tension.  Where we are, people *rarely* go to restaurants (pubs/cafes  for a drink and maybe a piece of cake are a different matter) because a sit-down restaurant meal marks a special occasion.  The food, the service, all of it assumes that you are there for the night--no one hurries the experience whatsoever.  (Hence, TripAdvisor reviews always crack us up because the number one complaint by Americans is "the service was SO SLOW" not realizing that is the norm.)

So, casual sit-down restaurant dining might be confusing in and of itself.....

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