Exchange Diary: 5 Months Before Departure

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My exchange student, Helen (right), and me at the Women’s March on Washington in Los Angeles.

The summer before the start of high school, I told my mom I wanted to leave the country. I wanted to fly far away from home and never come back. I remember the idea first coming to me as foreign friends and relatives went in and out of our home. When I was in the seventh grade, my dad’s French colleague came to live with us for a couple days. I remember sitting with her every night and exchanging the names of our favorite American and French music artists. She explained to me how French people listened to American pop songs even if they couldn’t understand the lyrics. I explained to her how Americans only used French in their music if they wanted to sound fancy or sophisticated. The exchange of culture that happened in those nights inspired me over the next couple years to finally go on an exchange … and surprisingly not to France.

As I prepare to fly halfway across the world this summer and spend five weeks with a host family in Xi’an, China, I have thought about the reasons I am going and the inspiration that first started on those nights. I have started to think about what I want from the experience. I would like to share my thoughts and experiences before, during, and after the adventure in a series of articles. So five months before I embark on this journey, I am writing this list of reasons for why I am going and why anyone should go on an exchange. This is not only for myself but to inspire others to take the same journey.

1. The Language

This is the official reason most people go on an exchange program. Everyone would like to learn a new language, but many are overwhelmed by the size of the endeavor. If you are like me and are too lazy to spend hours studying vocabulary, total immersion is the fastest way to become fluent. You are forced to use the language and learn very quickly. So far, learning Mandarin Chinese has been difficult, but hopefully once I arrive in China, it will improve quickly.

2. Discovery

I know that many of us are fond of our little sheltered suburban town on the outskirts of Los Angeles, but my wanderlust has outgrown its boundaries. Yes it might be daunting to have to live far from home where you don’t know anyone, but think of all the new things you will discover. The foods you will try. The culture you will learn. The new perspectives that will open your eyes. Right now I am hosting a student from China, Helen, and I have learned so much from her living with me. We talk about differences in government, society, religion, customs, and history. She has taught me when I go to China that if I get lost, I can go to Starbucks because the employees will speak English. She has taught me how standards in society have shaped the Chinese writing system. Did you know that the word for “good” is made up of the Chinese characters for a girl and a boy because that represented a perfect family in ancient China? I would not know these things without hosting her, and I am sure I will learn many more things once I go to her country.

3. Connect with and teach others

I believe the discovery and learning aspect works both ways. Ben Storjohann, a German exchange student here at West Ranch, said in an interview, “Be proud of who you are. You represent your country so you should be yourself.” I think it is really important to understand that when you go to another country, you are molding what the people there think of your country. You should be open to teaching them about your own culture, world views, and to dispel stereotypes. A common misconception about Los Angeles and California is the universal surfing and beach culture. Ben said, “Don’t have too many expectations because I just expected that I could walk to the beach.” California is large and diverse, just like the people in it and going abroad can teach others about that. Even when I traveled to Georgia, many people assumed I live at the beach.

Their views may starkly contradict yours, but it starts a discussion that reaches across the world. It is a discussion that would never be possible unless you went on your exchange. My family has taught Helen a lot about the American way of life. We brought her to a peaceful protest to show here how democracy and freedom of speech play a role in our society. She reminded me of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and how her mother saw student protesters hanged in the streets. The most stunning thing for her was the lack of backlash from the government, something like the protest we went to would hardly be allowed in China. Even if Helen never participates in a protest ever again, I am glad I was able to introduce the idea of democracy and public activism to her. Sometimes these broad philosophies and different ideas learned abroad can be more important than any other experience.

4. Culture

I think a common misconception is that if you can speak a foreign language you can accurately communicate with native speakers. Yes this is true in literal interpretation, but there are so many things that can be lost in cultural differences. When I would share jokes with my Chinese sister, she would sometimes not understand the punch line. This was not because she couldn’t understand the English words, but she hadn’t yet learned the context in American culture. Our actions and what we say are often tied to our pop culture, history, and icons. Living in a foreign country will allow you to learn these cultural cues and become more understanding of what is being said. Ben said, “It’s interesting because it’s a different view about, for example, the World Wars. I can share my view but learn a lot too.” Understanding these differences and perspectives will make you question the ideals of American culture. For example, I learned that in China, gay marriage is opposed not because of religious reasons like it is here in America but because of the disruption of the traditional family structure. The importance of family structure can be seen in China’s one child policy. This different approach to the same opinion made me question a normality instilled by America in myself.

 

5. Open Mindedness

One of Ben’s recurring pieces of advice was, “Be yourself. Learn about the culture. Be open minded. Don’t judge anyone for different opinions or behaviors.” A common stage in adjusting to life in a new country is suddenly feeling out of place and naive. This can be coupled with an annoyance for difference in way of life. I know when Helen first arrived, I had a sudden disdain for the way she dressed. She wore jeans with weird graffiti labels of incoherent English phrases on them. Her Chinese friend wore blouses with ribbons that looked like they were from the 1800s. Of course the style was inspired by Chinese pop stars and was not unordinary for them, but here it made them look so obviously foreign and unfashionable. When I go to China, I am sure I will find more things to dislike. The important thing is learning to accept our differences and keeping an open mind. In the end, our differences are some of our best qualities.

 

This list remains my motivations for going on an exchange as of now. I am sure that these will change as I go on my journey. I will realize some new things about life which I will not be fully prepared for, but that is just another reason for me to travel. I will learn to adapt and trust myself in a new situation. Keep checking back to follow my journey and gain inspiration to do the same.