Saturday, August 24, 2013

Advice for Exchange Students

Note: This post was inspired by the lovely Sara Britton's blog, which can be found here. You should check it out for some more great advice.

My facebook is full of pictures of students in their blue AFS-USA t-shirts, getting on planes and traveling to their new homes. It's hard to believe it's been over a year since I was in their place, attaching the yellow AFS tags to my suitcases and constantly checking my e-mail for the latest news about the year ahead. With all my experiences in mind, here are some things I wish someone had told me before I got on the plane, and reminded me of as the year progressed. Keep in mind though, everyone's experience is different, so take this advice with a grain of sugar. (Because salt is too bitter.)

Try not to have too many expectations. The country that you see all the pretty google images of is not the country you're going to be living in. The statuesque Petronas Towers and vibrant hibiscus blooms are not what Malaysia's all about. The best parts of a country, and what tourists often miss out on, are the things that can't be photographed. Culture, respect for elders, family gatherings, the taste of the local cuisine... A picture may be worth a thousand words but sometimes the words might aren't spoken in the right language.

That being said, bring pictures of your home with you. Especially in the beginning, when the language barrier is rearing its ugly head, photos are a good way to show people what your home country is like. My classmates especially liked seeing my yearbook, it gave a better picture of American high school than anything else.

Don't be ashamed, or overly proud of where you came from. You'll be dealing with a lot of stereotypes, and people will be surprised there's more to America than New York and Hollywood. Just avoid the "America is the best country ever why is this country not like it" state of mind. You came to experience something different.

Bring extra gifts, and don't bring too many "Western" clothes. I felt really bad that I didn't have gifts for my second host family or the families that hosted me during festivals. Even little things like postcards make people happy. Cheesy, but it's the thought that counts. As for clothing, pack a week's worth and something dressy.You'll buy a bunch of stuff while you're away, and I ended up with a suitcase solely for my Asian clothing. If you can, check only one bag and buy another (look at markets or thrift stores for cheap ones) to bring back with you.

Take lots of photos and videos to show people when you get back. Or, if you forget your camera ask if you can borrow someone else's photos. People in America love to see photos even more than they love to hear you talk about your experience. But be careful what you post on facebook, because 350 photos of a 3 day long orientation camp leans on the excessive side. And remember to make memories beyond the camera lens. Things like taste, smell, emotions all contribute to fond memories you can look back on.

Journal. I always journaled when I was at my very low points, and it felt good just to get thoughts down on paper. Plus you can look back a few hours later, a few days later, a year later and feel proud of how you handled the problem and be proud of yourself. Blog as well. It's a great way for people back home to know what you're up to. Be wary of blogging while you're especially sad or homesick though, because people in the US will be concerned that you're sad all the time. They don't know about all the day-to-day happy experiences that don't make it to the interwebz.

Laugh long and often. People are going to laugh at you. People laughed at me when I was literally doing nothing. Learn to laugh with them. Some people have never seen a foreign person before, it would be like you or me suddenly seeing an alien in class pretending to belong. You're going to make mistakes, and be in awkward situations, or accidentally order head juice instead of coconut juice. It might be mortifying at the moment, but if you laugh at it now you can skip the crippling embarrassment part and move on with life. Some of my favorite stories to tell are the ones where I made really stupid mistakes like eating raw soup mix or bamboo leaves.

Take advantage of your exchange student status (within reason). This isn't to say you should justify doing stupid things with "Oh, I'm an exchange student rules don't apply to me." I was able to be in the newspaper, go to numerous weddings, and attend special functions because I was a foreigner. There will probably be few times in your life when you'll be the shiny new foreigner, so enjoy it while you can.

Beware of fake people or people that try to bring you down. This one's kind of hard to talk about for me, because it was a big problem during my exchange. Sadly,there are people that will want to be friends with you while you're all new and different and American and will dump you as soon as you've been in the country for a while. They think of you as a status symbol, "Oh look at me I have an American friend yay" and then get bored of you. Look for people that like you for you. Clubs, societies, sports teams are good ways to meet authentic people because you have a shared interest. Beware of people that use you as a wikipedia page or an English dictionary. Sure it's okay to ask for a definition once in a while, but you're not in a foreign country to be a human google translate. Or use it as an excuse to learn the local language. For every word they ask you, ask them one in return. It's okay to speak up, even to a teacher, when you feel like you're being treated as a book rather than a human.

Make goals for yourself. Maybe you want to learn the language. Maybe you want to learn how to cook. It doesn't matter what your goals are, having them is valuable enough. They keep you focused.

Don't sacrifice your morals for the sake of cultural adaptation. It's one thing to communicate in a less direct way, or use a different toilet, but some things can't be chalked up to cultural differences. Abuse, sexual advancements, and neglect are never okay.


Trust your instincts. If something seems seedy, it probably is. Use your common sense. Even though you're in a different environment, a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach still probably means something is wrong. Speak up if you need help.

Know your rights. This is a very American concept, but what's best for you is the top priority. It might not be the easiest route for whoever is in charge, but it's the necessary one. As an exchange student you are entitled to a host family where you feel safe and comfortable, a person you can always contact that will support you no matter what the situation, and the knowledge that there's people in your home and host country looking out for you. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. With all that in mind, try to respect the chain of communication, even though sometimes it might feel it's missing a link. If you need help, you are entitled to receive it in a timely matter. Listen to yourself.

Don't let others make you feel bad about exchange-related decisions. You make your own success. Switching host families when there's a good reason does not make you a bad person. Having problems with school doesn't mean you're a failure.

Try and stay in touch with friends and family back home. Not too much, but a "hey, how's school been?" message can keep a friendship going. And you'll not be so out of the loop when you go home...

Alumni and other exchange students are valuable resources. Exchange students become so close so quickly because they know what it's like to be in the unique bewildering role of an exchange student. Alumni know it too, and they survived it, so their advice may be the most helpful. Don't be shy to send a facebook message, they're probably more than happy to help.

It's okay to be homesick! It's normal. It's okay to lock yourself in your room crying once in a while. A good cry is necessary once in a while. Of course, don't isolate yourself completely. Your host family will feel sad that you're sad, and will do their best to cheer you up! With that in mind, if you feel sad all the time, ask for help. Depression due to so much upheaval in your life can happen. Sometimes you might not even realize you're depressed until you talk to someone. Adjustment is not easy, give yourself credit for moving around the world to a country full of strangers when  you're a teenager.

Don't compare your experiences. This is probably the most important advice I can offer. One of the things I wish I had done differently was not compare my experiences as much. There's always going to be a student that posts on facebook about how amazing their host family is, how much they travel, how much they love school. Do not let that get under your skin. A happy blog post or facebook album does not mean someone's having a good experience. People go through adjustment at different rates, so you might be at a low point when someone's in the honeymoon phase. A month later when you're having the time of your life, they might be missing their family a lot. If you spend your whole experience comparing, you won't realize how lucky you are. Maybe people are even jealous of you. Don't let someone else's experience change how you define yours.

Finally, stay true to you. Don't change to be what everyone wants you to be. There's no perfect exchange student, so don't get hung up on being one. Appreciate the little advancements in language you make. Pat yourself on the back once in a while. it At the end of the day, this is your experience not anyone else's, so make it what you want it to be.



I just like this picture a lot. Taken in Perlis.







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