At the age of seventeen I found myself on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, all by myself. I was heading towards the United States to start a temporary new life. Ten years have passed since went on the exchange student adventure, enough time to reflect about the impact and assess it in a more thorough way. In this article I will share with you why I went, what I discovered and what this experience has taught me. What does it feel like being an exchange student?
Why did I decide to become an exchange student?
The sound of becoming an exchange student got me really excited, I was in 8th grade, maybe 16 years old, when I first heard about the possibility. I admired those who went on this sort of adventure, how courageous, so adventurous and brave! At that point one would usually make the decision to go, my teenage mindset, however, was in no way capable of leaving the secure parental home. During a 3 weeks family trip through California, Utah and the national parks, I realised that I wanted to find out what living in the United States truly meant.
Where did I go?
To Muncie, Indiana, or in other words the so-called Bible Belt. "What the heck are you doing there?" Well, I had opted against paying an extra amount of money to an organisation only to experience a certain state in the US which would as well carry with it a sort of preset opinion. Instead, I wanted to tap into fate and see what mission I was supposed to go on so I would be able to understand the States from my very own perspective - and becoming a Hoosier turned out to be a great experience!
What were the highlights?
Living the American Dream! Haha, no but seriously. Here a short list of my personal American Dream:
- Having 3 little host brothers age 1-5 and hearing them speak English! How can children so small speak a language so perfectly? Excellent pronunciation, etc.
- Chatting with my host mum over evening tea when the kids were in bed while she was grading some papers.
- Being around my stay-at-home host dad, experiencing his Libra balance, and wondering what's so special about playing computer games.
- Building friendships in a foreign language, driving around in cars, singing to the songs of John Mayer.
- Attending Mr. K's class, wondering if he like drinking but being fascinated by the way we would put sentences into strange tree-structures.
- Seeing a friend speaking in tongues as my personal (ultimate) understanding of what the Bible belt is all about.
- Playing Pokemon with my host brother and pretending it is something extremely important.
- Going to basket ball or football games, wearing my purple high school hoodie, usually not understanding the English of everyone around me, pretending to "get it all" which was not really the case.
- Standing at a bench cheering up a team and looking at cheerleader or seeing cheerleader walking through the high school corridors. Hello? Isn't this out of a movie?
- Being super cool and having a locker in school, also right out of a movie scene. (Main achievement: Getting the locker to open)
- Going to the pumpkin patch and eating too much chocolate during Halloween season.
- Spending time with a friend babysitting at a house in the wood, for children who got homeschooled.
- Taking the bike to school and driving at the non-existent side way, being the only one in school who would arrive by bike.
- Attending a journalism class and learning about creating a yearbook (Mrs Nelson, you are a star!).
- Attending a computer class, learning the basics of Office (and finding out about the latest code to bypass the high school firewall to get on Myspace).
- Having lunch in a canteen with a shiny floor and the big American flag on the ceiling, also right out of a movie scene (or observing the pledge of allegiance every morning at 8am).
- Getting a drivers license for half of the costs I would face in Germany (and driving cars without the stick shift) but gaining 7kg due to eating too much M&M's in class.
- Spending Thanksgiving in the Indiana countryside and the best food ever!!!
- Going to the lakes during Memorial Day!
- Experiencing Christmas in America, just walking down streets, admiring the stunning decoration.
- ...... and so so much more.
What were the challenges?
After a couple of weeks into being an exchange student, the honeymoon phase was over. Culture shock was knocking on the door and I was standing between worlds: I realised that I had come from a cultural background which was different. You may think that the German and American culture have much in common (they are both "Western") but there are differences!
During my honeymoon phase the people's initial friendliness felt like some sort of paradise, but then I realised a different side of it. I found it difficult to deal with the apparent friendliness. "Hi, how are you?" and while I was answering the waiter, he had already turned away. I experienced the friendliness as superficiality yet was challenged to "get over it" and adapt (later in Germany I heard people saying that I would be too positive and always showing my white teeth for pictures).
Furthermore, I faced a sort of identity loss. Who was the Finja in Indiana? Is she the same who grew up in Germany, who took the school bus to the nearest town and loved to go horse back riding? There were numerous things I could name to define myself but most of them did only live in the German context. Who was I? What do I care about? Was I able to create a complete new life? Should I? I experienced a feeling that all what was left was my body and my being within. I learned this was enough, many of the habits or material things which I had, they didn't matter anymore.
In terms of family life, I was and still am thrilled to have found three little host brothers, a super smart university professor mum and a host dad who was an author but I was challenged to adjust to different dynamics and find my unique fit. I'm incredible grateful for this process as ultimately it showed me what I was taking for granted from my original family in Germany or what I was missing out on.
What was the impact of this experience on my future life?
There are two key lessons I've learned and which stayed with me ever since.
- Home is where the heart is. You knew that already, right? 🙂
- Von nix kommt nix. That's German and it literal translation would be "from nothing, nothing comes" so if you do not invest, than you won't get anything in return. Or in other words, if I wouldn't take the risk to step into the unknown, get out of my safe room in my host family's home, I wouldn't experience the culture, so I learned to value small investments such as walking down a certain street, going to a high shool event or seeking out garage sales. Ultimately, the point I try to make here is that it was my own responsibility to seek the creativity within which would create something in the outside world.
- Put yourself out there. This draws closely to point (2) of this list, yet the emphasis of this point is that I learned the importance to physically "drag" yourself to certain places, just go and put yourself out there, don't just imagine what you could do but do it. I learned to just go to high school games (even though I often felt uncomfortable because I didn't really feel that I would belong). I just P U T myself out there, to see what would happen, to experience something nonetheless.
I want to become an exchange student. What were the formalities?
I sorted the formalities with my German high school, would finish my 11th grade and then spend my 12th grade abroad. Upon return, however, I would then need to repeat the 12th grade in Germany. Ok with me, I only live once and I was infected with a very strange sort of wanderlust. I researched several organisations who would match host families and students. There is a wide spectrum out there from EF, AFS and more, I found the best fit in an organisation called Aspect. What followed was some paperwork, questions to answer and an interview with a former exchange student so the organisation could assess that I would be able to go. Let's face it, at that time I was quite young and maybe I would get homesick or so, I think they wanted to assess the risk. A couple of months before the summer, I received the information about my host family, the state and town I would be living in. The last name of my host family was known to me as a type of alcohol and I though you would pronounce the town as monkey. The unknown was getting to me even from the distance.
Back in Germany, I was someone completely different. It was not like you return to the exact place where you came from. Somehow you are transformed but you cannot put your finger onto it. It is strange to look back at the experience, the images are still vivid in my head.