Thursday, July 9, 2015

Occasional reality

Hey everybody! Nico here.
So this is a post which, like so many others these days, has been living in a state suspended animation, dormant in my drafts, for many months now. I figured it might be nice to take a moment of free time I finally have to release it into the blogosphere at long last.

A longer, more detailed overview of my experience at the Summit and end of stay orientation will soon be in the works, but for now, I figured it would be particularly relevant to finally share this post with you all based on things I shared and conversation I had with other people about their own exchange experiences at the Summit about the difficulties of exchange that complement and can even contribute to the abundant peacemaking, cultural exchange, exploration, growth, and self-discovery.
I wanted to briefly gather some different items which I felt could help to address the more difficult side of exchange. And believe me, that is definitely a thing.
Exchange is an incredible, unforgettable, irreplaceable, life-changing experience, both in the best and worst ways. It is an adventure that allows you to push the limits you thought you knew, to explore far and wide and become part of a culture and a place you previously never knew, and all of that is very rewarding in every sense of the word. But it is obviously not without its challenges. I know I've sure had my share in my own exchange experiences.
Exchange also means voluntarily giving up a year of your life, leaving behind everything you know and everyone you love for an adventure in the complete unknown. It is a slap to the senses, a sensory overload of curious locals you meet in school and on the street, a barrage of incomprehensible words uttered at terrifying speeds, and being racked by culture shock so intense that it makes you physically tired and even sick. It can be a very lonely feeling at times, as it's difficult for anyone who hasn't lived the experience for themselves to understand how you're feeling (which is, of course, why exchange students become friends so easily, naturally, and quickly - they immediately and intrinsically understand each other's experiences and feelings in ways that others never will).
I've said this before and I'll say it again; I try to keep things fairly cheery and upbeat on this blog for the most part, as I attempt to embrace the most positive aspects of life both in what I share with you all, and what I personally focus on in my own thought and reflections offline. Even so, I would like to think that I've been fairly honest in most instances in which I've faced difficulties in exchange-related contexts. In the context of my year in Egypt, I've written about when I cried alone in the library on my first day of school, feeling isolated and completely alone. I've written about the crippling and all-consuming homesickness I felt at Christmastime, pining for a holiday I love so dearly and how I normally celebrate with family and friends. I've written about the intense culture shock and mood swings I felt in the first weeks, the loneliness I felt in my second semester as the only AFSer left in my chapter. And in the context of my summer in Turkey, though there was much less to report, I wrote about the day that tempers flared during class and everyone felt weirdly off. I wrote about the tearful, crazy, rushed goodbyes to some of my closest friends in the world by the inter-terminal train of Washington Dulles Airport as we reentered the US.

In so doing, by sharing the difficult moments I've faced in my own experiences, by not sugarcoating everything and making them out to be totally flawless, dreamy adventures, by not primping and preening them beyond recognition before sharing them with my readership, I hope that I've been able to show you guys that not only can there be difficulties on exchange, but that it is completely normal, okay, to be expected, and most importantly, in no way does it alter or lower the worth, success, or validity of your experience.
I've mentioned in the past that before I left for Egypt, I've realized in retrospect that I was essentially half-hoping-half-expecting that mine would be what I've since come to refer to as a "story-book exchange," essentially meaning that, as I put it in a previous post, " host country would become my second home, I would effortlessly make hordes of life-long friends (both fellow exchangers from all over the world and locals), I'd be invited to so many gatherings and events that I wouldn't know where to start, I would be absolutely devastated to leave, I would experience intense reverse culture shock and reverse homesickness for my host country after going back home, and so on…" I've come to realize that these are not the norm by any stretch of the imagination. Most people encounter difficulties of some kind or another in their experiences, it's just that what they are and the magnitude of their effects vary immensely from person to person, and I can definitely attest from my own experiences that it can vary astronomically as an exchange progresses - from month to month, day to day, even hour to hour, just in one individual experience.

I'm not saying by any means that these potential difficulties make exchange an immense, ill-advised hardship; far from it, of course. Even difficulties that you may face in an exchange experience can be beneficial in the long run - they can help you to grow, to learn more about yourself, the world you live in, and how you connect to and fit into it, to become more mature, confident, and self-assured. All I'm saying is that, as amazing an experience as it is, it's no cakewalk. And that's perfectly normal and okay. Just because you have difficulties, no matter what they are or how much they affect you, does not take away from the worth and value of your experience. It does not make you any less successful as an exchange student. It doesn't mean you're weak, and it doesn't mean you're unadaptable. It means you're a human being with emotions. And an incredibly brave human being with emotions to boot, one that's voluntarily taken it upon themselves to embark on an adventure in the unknown, with no one they know to back them up, for the sole purpose of adventure, learning, and self-discovery. That's an unbelievably courageous and badass thing to do. You accomplish so much by deciding to do that, and no one can ever take that away from you. :)

So those were my thoughts on the matter.
Now let's have a look at a very poignant and relevant blurb I found somewhere on the Internet (that I do not take credit for, as I did not write it :P) and a video from a favorite YouTuber of mine, Levi Burnhardt, who spent a year program in Italy!

"Exchange is strange because you live two lives. Not just in the sense of where you came from and where you are now, but something more than that. You have the life you show on Facebook and the wicked pictures you post on Instagram and the fun, PG outings you write about in your blog, but what nobody knows until they get there is what’s beneath that surface. No one back home hears about when you sat in the bathroom and cried on the first day of school because your classmates just blankly stared at you when you walked into the classroom. Nobody knows about the times when your host mom washes your laundry and it takes a week to dry. No one hears about the times when you cry when you wake up and count the days until you’re back home. Nobody hears about the silent dinners with your host family when they aren't up for talking. No one hears about the times you’re yelled at for things that you can’t even control. No one knows about the nights when your host dad texts you at 11:30, telling you it’s time to come home. See, people don’t hear about each and every strand of hair you have to remove from the drain every time you finish taking a shower, in an attempt to not annoy your host family. Nobody hears about the hours spent studying the language. Nobody hears about the shitty feeling you get when you realize that you were probably only invited to this party because you’re foreign and the boys want to get you drunk. Exchange is hard, and this is what nobody realizes. Exchange is dry skin, terrible breakouts, brittle nails and hair that falls out. Exchange is not always fitting in. Exchange is inevitably feeling pathetic sometimes.

But that’s where the magic lies. This is the reason why we grow. If we weren't pushed to our emotional limits, we wouldn't become completely different people. Exchange makes you sympathetic, tolerant, adaptable, more chilled out. The bad things make the good things that much sweeter. Exchange life is life to the utmost extreme, and once you've lived it, you’ll never be the same again.

Exchange is learning to deal.
Exchange is gaining grace."

And here's Levi's video: 

Thanks as usual for reading, guys. :)
Until next time,

PS: Any exchange students or potential exchange students suffering from or worried about suffering from such difficulties should feel more than free to hit me up for help! Leave me a comment if you so wish, go to my tumblr and leave me an ask, dm me on Instagram, ask me for my email and send me an email, anything you'd like, and I will help you out as best I possibly can. Love to all! <3 

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