1) The “smile and nod”:
When you don’t fully speak the native language (or maybe not all), it’s too exhausting to try to understand everything that is being said. Consequently, one must master the art of the “smile and nod”. In other words, when your host mom asks what you want for dinner, but you don’t understand the options, sometimes its just easier to smile and nod.
2) You’re always hungry:
This leads me to my next point: You’re always super hungry. Food selection is going to range from drastically different to mildly strange no matter where you go. Guaranteed there will be things you really like and things you really don’t. On a side note, I would also advise to save up a little something from home for later down the road when you’re feeling homesick. I even found myself craving things that I considered inherently American, but didn’t really eat often before I came (like s’mores or mac n’ cheese). A taste of home really can go a long way.
3) Except when you go to host Grandma’s and feel like you could never eat again:
In my experience, Grandmas are the same in every country. What I mean is that it’s their job to feed you, and you WILL eat the food they give you whether you actually like it or not.
4) Gaining weight:
I don’t care how skinny you are when you arrive. All the newness, different foods (no matter how healthy or in what amounts), changing sleeping habits, and just the general stress of being in a completely new place will make your body freak out a little. Trust me. Of course Grandmas don’t really help with the weight situation either.
5) You’re always tired:
Along with food comes sleep. There’s something about constantly trying to understand a foreign language and just trying to keep your head up in the midst of so many new things that makes you tired. All. The. Time. I enjoyed a good nap before I went on exchange, and now I’m practically a professional. Not only that, but there’s no shame in going to bed early either.
6) Netflix selection:
Let me begin by saying that it’s never a good idea to just hang out in your room when you could be interacting with your host family. However, every now and then you just wanna chill with your favorite tv show – except half the time it’s not there! As it turns out, Netflix selection varies from country to country. Sometimes that’s a bonus, sometimes not so much. It was a pretty exciting day when Friends showed up on Netflix in Slovakia.
7) You can poop anywhere:
Unfortunately I can’t take credit for this one, but it’s still very relatable. You can choose to take this one literally, but what I really mean is that you become comfortable doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places that you wouldn’t have been comfortable doing them in before. In the end I’d say this is a good thing.
8) Language mistakes:
They happen. It’s okay. For the most part, the locals can tell right away that you’re foreign whether they know you or not. They’re simply happy that you’re trying. No guarantees they won’t make fun of you, but they won’t hold your mistakes against you.
9) Out of everything, one of the hardest things to communicate is your sense of humor:
Personally I have experienced this problem less than other students because most of the people around me speak better English than I do. However, when this is not the case, I’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible to be funny in a foreign language. It just takes a certain command of the language that is very hard to attain after only a year. The only time people will laugh (usually at you and not with you) is if you pronounce something funny or say a wrong word, not because you’ve said something witty. The important thing is to not let this discourage you.
10) The other exchange students are different from any friends you’ve ever had:
Maybe you don’t have very much in common with these people, or maybe you have more in common than you thought with someone who grew up halfway around the world. Either way, exchange bonds you in more ways than similarities in interests or personalities every could. No one understands how you can live a year in another life better than your exchange family.
11) You have a home in as many countries as you have friends:
Again, after living in a strangers house (or multiple houses) for a year, you get pretty comfortable. After that, you also have no problem welcoming someone else into your own home. You would be ecstatic to have any other exchange student visit you, and you would fly at a moments notice to another country to visit someone else. As we say: “Mi sofá es tu sofá.”
12) Everyone doesn’t understand why you would want to leave your home:
This is especially true for my fellow Americans; no one can understand why you would want to leave the “land of the free”. But even for exchange students from other countries, many people you meet on exchange simply can’t fathom why you would want to spend a year with strangers that you don’t even know in a culture that you may not even like. People might even go so far to say that you’re “wasting your time” or who knows what else to convince you not to go. The bottom line is that we all have our own reasons. Exchange is not for everyone, but should you make the choice to go, it will be worth leaving home.
13) When you don’t know what’s going on, but you just have to trust that it’s something good:
We have this joke among the exchange students in my district; half of our exchange consists of driving around in cars with random Rotarians or people that we know are genuinely good so we’re not afraid for our safety, but we have no idea where we’re going or what we’re doing. We just show up and get in the car anyway cause you have to trust that you’e going somewhere good. It’s happened to us many times in a literal sense, but it’s also a good metaphor for how to live the rest of your exchange too.
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