People always talk about how hard it is to go somewhere and adapt to the new environment. Your exchange year wasn’t easy. But what happens after?
When arriving in your host country you had a certain certainty that in the end, you would go back home and even though sometimes it seemed like an eternity, the time flew by and you always had in mind. Now you have to go back and leave this life you built.
Your new life of which your friends and family at home barely know anything. Sure, you told them about it, they saw the pictures on Facebook. But they don’t know what it was like. They don’t know what bus you had to take to go to school every day. They don’t know how you got so used to your name being mispronounced.
They don’t know how deep your connection is with your fellow exchange students. They don’t know how lonely and sad you felt sometimes, but how great the experience was in the end. Most of all, they don’t know what you have to leave behind.
I remember my last weeks very well. I don’t think I have ever been such an emotional mess as I was then. On one hand, I was super excited to go back. To see my friends, my family, and my country. I had made a list of all the foods I would eat when I was back home. I was going to rob a supermarket. I was going to enjoy the weather. I was going to talk without being afraid of making some grammatical mistakes. But I was also extremely sad because I knew what I would have to leave behind.
‘Cause what you’re leaving behind is not a country. It is not the people. It is the experience. Leaving after your exchange means it will never be that way again. You can come back, but you won’t have to take that bus to go to school. You can’t text your exchange friends anymore to see if they want to hang out with you. Even with your host family, it will be different because you will probably never live with them anymore.
I know this thought is extremely terrifying. It is also really sad. I would give anything I could to go back to my exchange year, however shitty it was at times. I now realize that it was good. It had its charm and I cherish all memories I have from that time. I think I still start 70% of my stories with “During my exchange..”, which is probably annoying the crap out of the people around me, but I don’t care. Because it was amazing.
I am not someone who really likes inspirational quotes, but there are two that I would like to say that I think apply to this situation. The first one being:
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”
As cheesy as it may be, everything has an end. And we all knew it would come. It is better to appreciate the memories than to be forever sad that it ended.
Another quote I would like to add is for those preparing to go home and not knowing what to expect. I myself really struggled with this. When I was 15 I had made a trip to Ethiopia. A trip that was not necessarily very long, but a trip that was extremely intense and life-changing for me.
After I came home I felt like my life was divided into two parts: before Ethiopia and after Ethiopia. At first, people were interested but after a while, that stopped and people couldn’t understand why I kept talking about it. I got extremely depressed because nobody really understood what I had been through, what I had seen, what I had learned. Everything people sad made me angry or sad. I think this lasted for about 2 months, then I set my mind on my next mission: going on exchange.
In my last weeks of my exchange, I remembered very well the depression I was in after Ethiopia and I was so afraid of getting into a more severe depression because of course, this experience had been much longer and therefore in many ways even more life-changing. For all of you who are also afraid of the reverse culture shock, I will say:
“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”
I was extremely afraid of going home. I had a lot of scenarios in my head of what could go wrong. How people wouldn’t understand me. How it would be the Ethiopia 2.0.
But it wasn’t bad at all. I am not going to say I never missed Panama, but in the first months, I was actually extremely happy. It was great to be back home. There were so many little things that I had forgotten about that I could enjoy now. I hung out a lot with other exchange students and I feel like that was something that kept me going even more.
I realized that there was a life after my exchange. I often say it was the best year of my life, but I don’t think that is true. Life has much more to offer, but in many ways, your exchange is extremely unique and memorable.
I went back to my host country last summer. The moment I stepped out of the airport and felt the terrible humidity I always dreaded so much, I heard some sketchy guy shout at me asking if he could give me a ride (he may have used different words).
I remembered all the things I had missed so much, and how annoying they actually were. It was strange because it seemed like nothing had changed, but of course it wasn’t the same. I sent my best friend photos of the places we used to hang out. She would call me a bitch for being there without her.
I got to see Panama with another friend of mine and we sort of did a touristy tour. It was different. It will never be the way it was. But being there again and seeing how the country and it’s people hadn’t changed at all. I saw all the things I missed and appreciated, but also all the things I used to hate during my exchange.
They made me smile, mostly because over time I had come to appreciate them but from a long distance and I knew if I would spend more than a month back there, it would drive me crazy again, just like it did before.
Maybe coming back wasn’t so hard for me because I expected it to be so bad. Maybe it wasn’t so bad because a year from home was actually quite a lot and my exchange had in many ways been much harder than my trip to Ethiopia, which in some way made it nicer to be home again. All I know is: life goes on after your exchange!
Some might stay active in the exchange community, others won’t, but your exchange year is something that you will forever remember and all you can do is cherish all the great memories you have.