I won’t lie to you, undertaking the challenge of becoming an exchange student doesn’t come without its ups and downs. Although it will probably be the best year of your life, one of change, reflection, and growth, there will be days where you question why you decided to be an exchange student in the first place. Some days, the sun is shining, you’re in a cafe with your friends, and there is no better place on earth than your host country. Other days, you find that you hate everything to do with your host country: the language, your host school, the traditions, and the mindset of the people. This is a normal part of any student exchange and its name is culture shock. Culture shock occurs when differences between your home country and your host country seem so great as to cause mental isolation. This can seem polarizing at times, as you may feel as though you are a standout in your host country, not being able to communicate as well as you want and not completely assimilating into the culture. At the same time, you may feel as though you no longer belong in your home country, as you’ve adopted traits of your host country and become a different person than who you were before your exchange. Talking to friends and family may feel strange, especially around holidays, as you will see your family celebrating without you. In this Blog Post, I will be talking about those inevitable days during your exchange where you might want to just go home.
One of the biggest contributors to culture shock is the language barrier between you and the people of your host country. If you are going to Germany, I can personally attest that learning the language can be a difficult process. English is required in school from a young age, so most Germans speak very good English. This can be helpful in a pinch, but it’s not handy for learning a language. If you want to reach fluency in German, you must speak the language. As tempting as it is to speak your native tongue, especially when you are tired and sick of the language, it is important to keep with it. The more you speak the language, the easier it will be. But how do you make friends with people who speak a different language as you? Patience. The Germans are generally colder people than Americans, so it can be difficult to find friends to speak with in the first place. If you keep bothering them, however, they might just invite you to do something with them. Use what little of the language you know to communicate with them. They might laugh or harshly correct you, but in the end, they usually just want to help. Once you have a better grip on the language, this feeling of isolation will partly go away.
Another challenge that can lead to those bad days is school. School has been a source of frustration for me as it really hasn’t been enjoyable. Not being able to understand all the material is frustrating and as preciously discussed, making friends in Germany can be challenging. This is true in school as well. Since classes stay in one room a large portion of the day, always with the same students, they have extremely intertwined, loyal friend groups that make it hard to get to know people. I’ve made a few German friends who I can talk to occasionally, but I don’t have many close friends. I am fortunate there are a lot of other exchange students in my school, as they are a great support system and are great company between classes. I was especially close with one of the exchange students, but she was in Germany with a three-month AFS program and unfortunately went back to her home last month. These leaves me with a challenge to make more friends. Not having friends can make school unbearable some days, and I find sitting in the same room with the same people for eight hours completely mind numbing. School was definitely the biggest culture shock for me, as things are done so much differently, such as:
- Sitting in the same room all day
- Being with one group of kids, every day, for a year
- I have 12 classes in Germany
- Each class is 1 1/2 hours, so a double period in American school
- You don’t have every class every day. For example, I have gym only once a week.
- They generally spend less time in school. Some days of the week, including every Friday, school ends for me at 1:00 pm
- They don’t have ID cards and no one checks you when you come in
- No Home room
- They don’t have a School nurse, so when you are sick you tell your teacher and leave
- Homework is not checked or mandatory
- They don’t get essays to write, only very rarely
- They only occasionally have tests, but they are 3 or 4 hours and cover a lot of material
- Teachers and students are not friends and have a more professional relationship
- I find it very boring, as they cover less material in a longer time than in the US, although they know the material better
- Foreign language in required
- Most people ride bikes to school
- Only certain profiles have IPads
- You can choose a profile in school, or a specialization of what you want to learn the most. This class you have the most often during the week
So far, school has not been something about my exchange that I’ve enjoyed. I’m attempting to make it tolerable, and I hope that by the end of the year I enjoy it.
Living with a host family can also be an occasional challenge, as both your family and yourself adjust to living together and deal with cultural differences. Quarrels will arise, and that is normal. Here are a few tips for living with a host family:
- Communicate your needs, otherwise they won’t know how to help you
- If you don’t understand something, ask
- If you are in Germany, be punctual and come home when you said you would. Punctuality isn’t something as highly held in the US, and most people are always later than they state. This is not taken well in Germany
- Remember this is just as hard for them as it is for you
After a few months on program, you might begin to feel bored. Bored with your town, your routine, and even bored with things that at the beginning of your exchange excited you. This is ok. Try to find new things in your town to do:
- start a new sport (I started boxing and want to join a yoga class)
- take a bike ride through your town. There are sure to be places close by you’ve never been before. For example, my boyfriend and I recently biked to a small forest near Husum and had so much fun biking through the trails.
- Take a bike ride to a nearby town. This is sure to reinvigorate your interest in your host country
- Go to a nearby country. I’ve been to Denmark with my host family and the Netherlands with my boyfriend. This can satisfy the travel urge that got you to study abroad in the first place!
- Make new friends. Again, this can be difficult but can really enrich your exchange
- Think positively.
- Sitting in your room pouting all day or not talking to anyone in school can make you more depressed. Get yourself out there and think positively. I created a mantra for myself when I have a bad day: what is bad about my exchange will only make me stronger. At the end of the day, this year is purely a learning experience and a catalyst for my personal growth, which I can’t have without challenges and frustration. Every day of your exchange is an opportunity for you to do something great. I know it’s easy to pity yourself and hate your circumstances, but falling into that trap only makes everything worse. You CAN change your circumstances and you can find happiness in bad circumstances. A tip from an exchange student in Germany: on your bad days, remember that good days are just around the corner. Student exchange, as well as life, is just regression to the mean. No matter how good or bad things are, they will always go back to the middle. Nothing stays the same for long.
An American exchange student in Germany
P.S. AFS provides all exchange students with this graph to prepare them for the emotional waves of their exchange. Can you guess where I am?