"Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped. It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world."
Rick Steeves, Travel as a Political Act
When I was a kid, my sister's best friend often hosted Rotary exchange students. I most remember Anita from India and Jorge from Mexico. I was fascinated by Anita's musical accent and the anklets that adorned her ankles. I remember Jorge as more reticent, though he was interested in talking to us and sharing Spanish words.
So several years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I was excited by an announcement on the school's PA system that said the Rotary was seeking host families for future exchange students. I remember this day so clearly- this day that changed my life. For dinner, I sat at my usual seat at our red formica table with chrome edging and asked my parents if we could host a student from another country. I'm not sure why, but I remember being nervous about asking.
My mom looked right at me and asked, "Why don't you go?"
"Go where?" I asked.
"Go to another country. Be an exchange student."
I looked at her dumbfounded. I had never even considered this an option.
In hindsight, I feel like my fate was sealed in that conversation. I got an application the next day, applied, and went through a thorough application process culminating with an interview. I don't remember any questions I was asked except the one that, in my memory, was last.
The interviewers explained that Rotary exchange students could not choose the country they'd visit. They could list preferences, but ultimately they could not choose. "What will you do if you're told you will go to a country you didn't choose."
"I'll go," was my reply.
I think of my response now and wonder, Where did that come from? I had never even been on a plane. I also wonder how my mother had the courage to suggest I be an exchange student in the first place. I was 15. If chosen, I would leave just 2 months after turning 16 and be gone for a whole year. Aside from a road trip to Canada and (I think) one trip to the Bahamas, my parents had never left the country. How does a parent have the courage to suggest such a thing?
Whatever the reason, I'm so thankful my mom made that outrageous suggestion to teenage me. I'm also thankful that my parents had raised me to be secure enough to embark on such an endeavor. And, let me tell you, they had a tough year while I was gone. I'm dating myself, I know, but I ended up going to the Philippines from June of 1985 to June of 1986. Do you remember what happened in the Philippines in February of 1986? Yep. A revolution. Filipinos had been living under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos for too many years when they rose up with cries of "People Power." (Marcos fled to Guam on February 25th and conceded to Corazon Aquino).
I jumped straight to the most challenging part of my year abroad to make an important point. Despite being scary for my parents at times ("I saw them on TV. They're burning the American flag"), I wouldn't change a thing about my year. As hard as it was for my family, I don't think they'd change it either. Yes, they were scared at times, but guess what? We all survived and are the better for it. I was never afraid and I was never in any real danger. And, my life is so so much richer for having been there.
Come back next Tuesday to read an essay I wrote about my year titled, "Growing Up."
In the meantime, if you're a parent, consider the opportunities that might arise if your child were to be an exchange student. Could YOU say to your child, "Why don't you go?" I know I will.