“Um, I don’t really know.”
Such a response can be triggered by numerous situations, such as: a difficult math problem, a parent asking where they put their glasses, or the countless times the phone company asks why your phone screen is black with various neon flashing lights dispersing across its screen.
Very rarely would one assume that it’s the automatic explanation for why you perform your daily tasks a certain way.
Obviously, the minute tasks that seem second-nature to us rarely evoke much analyzing or critical thinking. We don’t think twice about how we take our coffee, where we hang our coats, or any other daily activities, simply because they are imbedded into our cultural make-up.
Therefore, it is certainly no easy feat to construct a clear response to someone challenging your reasons for adding hot water and honey to your oatmeal, or eating from large, round plates at mealtimes.
But it is these small details that help to differentiate one culture from the next.
For an exchange student living in a foreign country, these small details will end up playing a huge role in their overall impression of life in that country.
Student exchange programs have been known to be rewarding, life-altering, and intellectually satisfying journeys for most every participant involved. The thrill of travelling to a new country and immersing oneself in a different culture inarguably provides a person with a vast new knowledge on foreign life.
However, it’s the flip side of an exchange that often turns people off or dissuades them from taking part in such a program.
Consequently, hosting an exchange student proves quite difficult at times, often exhausting the host to a point of total irritation. Introducing what you may consider a normal way of life to someone whose eyes widen simply at your pointing out where to put the dirty dishes is nothing less than a challenge.
What we often don’t think twice about, may be what we should step back and analyze further, posing to ourselves the question: “Why do I really do this?”
Sometimes, the experience of revealing your daily life to a foreigner offers an omniscient perspective to one’s own lifestyle situation; inspiring new ideas of reworking and rediscovering habitual practices.
Buffalo Seminary students Maria Laudico and Sophie Mielnicki certainly experienced not only cultural differences with their exchange students, but also a second look at their own daily tasks.
Maria, who hosted an exchange student from Spain last spring, recounts “the exchange really made me rethink my long showers, because in Spain they turn water on and off during their shower to save water. I noticed that I was being pretty wasteful.”
Sophie, who hosted a French exchange student this past winter, reflected upon her self-awareness as she shared her American lifestyle with her exchange student, Hélysa. “When my exchange student came I had to re-evaluate what I did and try my best to include her with everything I did,” she says.
Whether it is simply including someone else in a life often kept to oneself or realizing an environmental oversight in one’s everyday world, the cultural differences that embody a foreign exchange are experienced in many various aspects.
French exchange student Clémence Belloncle experienced life in the United States on an exchange in February, as well. She was able to travel to Toronto and the American side of Niagara Falls with her school group, as well as experience life in Washington, D.C., with her host family. As a native Francophone, Clémence found many challenges with the language barriers associated with foreign travel. “It was very difficult to speak English on my first days in Buffalo,” she says. “At the end of the day I was very tired from speaking English for a whole day with my (host) family.”
Sophie also recounted another difficulty she experienced with her exchange student in the beginning of the exchange.
“I’d have to say the most difficult part was the first week of hosting because of how little you know each other,’” she says. “This girl comes to a brand new country and is staying with a girl and her family who are strangers to her. It can be a little terrifying for her, especially with a language barrier on top of that, as well.”
Clémence and Sophie addressed common and almost obvious challenges that many exchange students and host families’ experience.
When agreeing to participate in an exchange program with students speaking a different language from your own, it is easy to assume that it won’t be much of a problem and that any student coming to America will speak English relatively well. However, language barriers are one of the most difficult challenges of hosting or being hosted in an exchange program. Typically, we don’t realize how often we speak in slang or use clichés. More often than not, these clichés and slang phrases will receive no more than a confused look and total bewilderment from a foreign exchange student.
When piling on heaps of language differences to the overwhelming mound of new people, places and common objects surrounding you, it may seem like you are traveling down a never-ending road of utter perplexity.
However difficult it is to argue these points, sometimes it comes down to the luck of the draw when hosting an exchange student. An overall hope for any exchange is that a host family’s exchange student will become a lifelong friend just an ocean or two away.
Fortunately for Sophie, her exchange experiences resulted in not only a fast friendship but also a new outlook on French culture.
“The connection and friendship that we made through our short time together was so rewarding. We both learned so much from each other, not only about our personal life, but about each other’s culture and customs, as well,” she says.
“It was really an eye-opening experience for the both of us and we were very sad when she had to go back to France.”
Sophie recounted when asked how about her personal experience. More often than not, foreign exchange programs are based on a “match” system, when pairing a student with their foreign correspondent. In broader terms, each student participating will fill out a character sheet, listing their basic likes, dislikes, favorite activities, and sometimes even daily habits. Similar ideas have been installed to online forums that match prospective college freshman with their first semester roommates. While it may seem the easiest and most effective way to pair two people to share a life together for several weeks or months, luck is usually the major player in the game of “match.”
While truly horrible experiences seem few and far between, it is the fortuitous tales of lasting friendships that draw more students to the opportunity of foreign exchange like bees to honey.
Between the exhausting challenges and the stimulating cultural rewards of hosting a foreign exchange student or being hosted by a family in a foreign country, no one can ensure any specific outcome.
Nevertheless, while there may not be a money-back-guarantee, taking the risk and exposing yourself to a new language, life and culture is inarguably a worthwhile endeavor. C’est la vie!
Sara Caywood is a junior at Buffalo Seminary.