Dear fellow current and prospective exchange students,
So, something about living in a foreign country seemed enticing to you? I understand 100%, that’s what led me to go to high school in France. But there are some things that you have absolutely no idea about until you arrive and begin to experience for yourself. Therefore, my young guppies, I’m going to get into some real talk about what life is like as an exchange student, from my experiences.
Before I arrived, I had really only experienced foreign exchange students coming to America, never the other way around. All of those students spoke another language that I didn’t know so it sounded super cool when they would say a simple sentence and baffle us all with their brilliance. For English speakers, that is not the case. When I first arrived the students at school spoke more English than I did French. In some ways, it’s totally awesome that so many people speak your native language, even if just a bit because that can really help you out when you’re struggling for words, which happens on the regular, I assure you. The downside is you never have that secret language moment where you can say things and no one has any idea what you’re saying. In all honesty, that was something I was expecting that was far from the reality of the situation.
There will be times where you straight up have no idea what is going on. Like, at all. In some instances, it is appropriate to ask the person to repeat what they said or explain it another way (for example, it’s usually an okay thing to do with your host family), but there are other times when you just can’t. For instance, if you’re in a large group of people and someone is telling a story and you miss it, you can’t ask them to repeat it. Just laugh or follow whatever the rest of the group is doing and try not to attract too much attention to your confusion. Alas, there are times when this will not work, like when you are asked questions. It is painfully embarrassing to smile and nod through a question and have the person tell you “that was a question” but you’ll survive. Smile and nod is BIG.
At the beginning, it will feel really awkward completely intruding on this family’s life but as you adjust to each other, it will become more comfortable and you can start to do things like take a blanket on your own initiative or stretch out on the sofa or select your snack from the kitchen without asking. But there are some things that will just be different from how things are done from your actual home and you just can’t do it your usual way. After conferring with some other exchange students here in Bordeaux, France, we all noticed how all of our families always wear socks or slippers or something when they are inside the house, and how we get strange looks from our host families when we have gone around barefoot once or twice. It’s those little things that separate your life from your native country and your life during the exchange.
Lots of advice is given to you before you go on an exchange and it can be overwhelming to try to follow all of it. Obviously, you need to follow the rules set by your exchange company, but you also have to do what will keep you happy and motivated. It’s very easy to sink into a pit of depression when you live in a place where no one understands you, so you have to find things that keep you happy.
For me, it doesn’t make me sad to talk to my family or friends from the US. It feels nice to know that they are still thinking of me and supporting me. But that is not the case for every exchange student. A lot of times, it makes people really sad right after they finish talking to their family so they can’t do it too often. I’ve decided that you have to embrace the sadness in the same you way you embrace happiness and just let it happen instead of trying to bury it. When I relish in my sadness or happiness, I go for a walk and listen to music or color. Something that keeps me occupied but still allows me to think. An exchange is a great opportunity to grow your emotional maturity if you handle it correctly.
That doesn’t mean you have to have huge plans for every day of the week or means you’re going out every Friday night. I received this advice Greenheart Travel and other former exchange students. Their advice was “Say yes more than you say no.” Of course, there will be times where it is acceptable to veg out and just relax for a weekend, but if you’re turning down a weekend of activities with classmates or your host family to do so, you’re not making the most of your exchange. Part of the reason you are having this experience is to experience things. Take a walk through your town or explore the city with a friend…Say yes to experiences and you will not be disappointed.