The experience of a lifetime
I’m sure that everyone has that friend that studied abroad for some amount of time and can’t seem to shut up about it. Well, I am that friend. That one person who studied abroad and swears that it “changed their life” all of a sudden things they used to eat are “So uncultured and bland” and “Life here is so boring” yep, that can be me sometimes.
Well I want to tell you a little bit about the life of an exchange student. So you can understand why we are like this, and what it is that makes us never shut up about the ups and downs of our times abroad. Allow me to shed some light on what happens to you when you become an exchange student.
The excitement and the “New You”
When you leave everything you’ve ever known and everyone that knows you, you get to have a fresh start. You get to think about who you want to be, clean slate, no one knows you or your past. This is your change to reinvent yourself into the person who you want to be.
Saying goodbye to my family was sad, of course. Seeing your parents cry but still want you to go find yourself is hard. But when you get off that first flight you already feel this sense of independence and self reliance. It is empowering.
I have always been terribly shy, and when I first got of the flight to New York where I would be catching my next flight to France, I told myself this was time for a new me. These people didn’t know me, I wasn’t labeled as the quiet girl yet, I restarted.
I talked to everyone and laughed and made so many new friends. Every time I was alone I would think of who it was that I was left alone I would think about who it was I wanted to be, and I became more and more of that person. Summer 2.0. I talk to a lot of exchange students and most have experienced similar things. It’s an amazing opportunity and it is a big part of an exchange, starting fresh and becoming who you have always wanted to be.
Now I can’t speak for all exchange students, but most aren’t quite fluent in the language of their host country when they arrive. I didn’t yet know ANY French, and all of a sudden it is like you are immersed completely. People who already know some of the language from school say it’s like going from 6th grade to college in a matter of minutes. You may think “I have learned this since I was 10, I’ll be fine!” and then all of a sudden “This isn’t the language I learned! Is it?…”
It is super intense guys. I had a constant headache from the moment I arrived for till about three months later. But that doesn’t mean after especially long classes or intense talks with French grandmas about the history of France that I didn’t get another occasional ache. They say that when you don’t speak a language but you are immersed completely it takes about three months for it to click. I agree with this. I arrived in France August 1st in 2016 and a week after a trip in Germany with lots of exchange student during Halloween, I went back to my host town, and I spoke French.
You know what made it worse for me though? I also spoke Spanish, and I had a class in France for it. After French started to click, the teacher would sometimes talk to me. I would understand 100% but I wouldn’t have a clue what language she had spoken in. When I finally got good enough o translate French to Spanish to English, I was delighted and felt so empowered. This was when I decided I wanted to become a polyglot, this was also when I started getting a massive migraine coming off the high of finding out I was capable of such a thing.
Nearly every exchange student falls in love with the cultural food of their host country. It’s hard not to. And it’s true what they say about exchange students, they do have a HUGE tenancy to gain weight while abroad. Food is very important to us, and the majority of the money we will spend while abroad will be on food. On average we gain about 15 pounds on exchange. I will never know where my 15 extra pounds came from *cough cough bread cough cough*
In a lot of cultures family is extremely important. In America that is not always the case at all, a lot of exchange students coming to America struggle with the lack of family time. However in most European countries we are very involved with our host families. Meal time is very important and there are never any phones permitted. We all engage with each other and share about or days. It is such a wonderful feeling and to be paired with all the good home cooked food we shared, wow… What a life. I often long for my “Mamans ” (Moms) homemade bolonaise sauce, but most of all her INCREDIBLE Tarte aux Maroilles. A traditional dish from the region of France I was living in. Food is all very nostalgic for us it reminds us of our exchange and makes us long to go back.
I think exchange students need to be warned before signing on about the pain that comes with going home. It is like, you create this new persona, this new…you. The new person you have become and all the new values and lessons you have learned. When you go back home, you are the old you again in everyone’s eyes. It is a very hard thing to change and it is even harder to continue being that person, when you re back home you go back into old routine. A part of you will always hate it too, and remember that person you were, the person you created, the person you wish you could be again.
You think about going back one day and you realize that that life, is gone. That all of those exchange students you met and formed such bonds with, they are back in their home cultures too. Things will never be the same as that year that you shared. Your heart has been broken and carried away to different corners of the world and you never know if they will all be together at once again. It’s hard. You want to feel nostalgic and eat the food from your host country but all of a sudden you can’t, it’s not the same back home. You want to be able to go back to your favorite restaurant, bookstore, Christmas market, but you can’t. You want to show your old friends and your family the new person you are, but they can’t ever truly see it, because it is mixed with the old you. You feel bored when you speak in your native tongue, it doesn’t have the same thrill, and you worry about losing it one day.
Being an exchange student takes serious balls. And being able to come back home after takes even more. It is hard. We experienced something special, something not everyone gets to experience. Something that has forever made a mark on our hearts, it has made us stronger in ways we didn’t know we could be. It has taught us new values and outlooks on life, it has brought us new friends and a second family. It is impossible to forget. That is why we will forever be remembering and retelling stories of our adventures. Because they are stories of what make us, us.