Endings and Beginnings: Saying “See You Later”

home is where the heart is on colorful background

It’s June again. This past week, and over the next two weeks, our 2016-2017 group of students will return to their home countries. It’s such a bittersweet time of year. And we’re “just” the program coordinators — we’re not the ones who lived the experience day-to-day! It just goes to show you how these cultural exchanges have ripple effects . . . the relationships are what it’s all about.

Some students have fit into their host communities and families seamlessly, as if they were born to it. Some have faced challenges they did not expect. One thing they all have in common is that they have had an experience that has changed them forever. How that will translate into their future lives, how it will shape them as adults — that remains to be seen.

We can see, though, the current effects, having watched over the past 10 months the development of relationships and heard about the daily lives of our students and their host families. We see the teens who are leaving more confident, more mature, more independent, and more tolerant of others. The teens who can navigate public transit confidently who may not have done so before, who can do their own laundry, and who can cook dinner. The teens who can speak more fluently in a language in which they were hesitant last summer. The teens who have gone on stage never having done that before, who have won praise (well-deserved) in public piano recitals and competitions, and who have participated in state-level athletic competitions.

We have seen the effects on our host families, too, and on our students’ families back home. Host siblings who are already planning trips to their new brother or sister’s home. Parents and siblings from back home who are visiting at the end of the year and finding a new “family” here. One of our host parents describes her feelings about her student:

I am trying to tell myself that nothing changes — that no matter where we all are, she remains family. And yet…no more having her come out to give a sleepy good morning hug. No more dinnertime conversations, or card games, or quick rides to the store. All that stopped as she walked down the security line at the airport tonight…

I believe it. Nothing changes. We are still family, a larger family than before.

We believe that, too … our students all now have a second home and second family. This video sums it up for how we all feel as the students return to their “first” home:

How Do U.S. Prom and Graduation Ceremonies Differ From Those in Our Students’ Home Countries?

graduation and senior written all over

At this time of year, many of our students are thinking about prom and other American end-of-year school customs. Prom itself is a custom that many students find strange. Those who are classified as seniors at their U.S. high schools look forward to the graduation ceremony and post-graduation parties.

I found this infographic the other day, which I thought might be fun to share and compare with our own traditions here in the U.S. Fun — and interesting. Elaborate traditions are not common in many countries (note the graphic’s comment about Germany); imagine how our complex prom rituals must come across to students! In the United Kingdom, it appears that high school graduation ceremonies are unusual; imagine what fun it must be for students from such countries to experience one.

The original infographic can be found at Graduation Traditions Around the World at Daily Infographic.

infographic worldwide graduation traditions
Source: Graduation Traditions Around The World, Daily Infographic, Aug. 2015

Is Culture Shock A Good Thing?

We’ve written before (see here and here, for example) about the impacts of culture shock as our students arrive on our shores thinking exchange student life will be easy and then realizing — rather suddenly — that life is harder than they thought. We’ve also shared thoughts (see here and here) on what it’s like when our students return home.

We recently came across the infographic below, which argues that we should not only anticipate culture shock, we should embrace it. We agree! Culture shock isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It’s a neutral term, used to describe how people feel when they arrive in a place far different from the place they are used to. “Shock” probably isn’t the best word to use, since it implies something negative has happened. The experience is more “culture engagement” than “culture shock,” whether we’re talking about landing in a foreign place for the first time or returning home feeling like a stranger.

world connected
Becoming connected is a process that takes time and effort

As the infographic notes, this transition experience is “entirely normal, usually unavoidable, and is nothing to feel embarrassed about.” Embrace the differences you see and keep yourself busy as you get used to new things. Think about the idea that the confusion and anxiety starts even before you leave home; we reported a few weeks ago about students who were already nervous about their new host family and whether they would be able to adjust to their new life.

What can students and host families do?

Communicate (with each other!).

  • words share your storyStudents: Of course, you will want to communicate with your family back home. But think about the connections you are trying to make here in your host country. Start conversations with your host parents and host siblings. If you won’t have any host siblings, ask if there are ways to meet people of your own age before school starts.
  • Families: Help your student to get to know you and to open up by starting conversations. Conversations can be on issues as small as “what’s your normal dinner time? Let’s compare!” to political issues of the day. Want some conversation starter ideas? Find some suggestions here and here.

Do something with each other to help get past the initial awkwardness.

  • Students: Offer to cook some meals from your home country. Ask your mom or dad for a recipe. Ask your host sister/brother, host mom/dad if they can help. They will probably be excited about the idea of cooking something new. Go anywhere and everywhere you can with your host family. If your host parents ask if you want to run errands with them, say yes even if it doesn’t sound exciting — it might be more interesting than you think, since it will be new to you. Watch TV with them, even if you’ve never watched that show before or have some trouble understanding new voices.
  • Families: Do all of the above in reverse! Have a meal or two based on recipes from your student’s home country. Take your student grocery shopping and on other errands. Explain the plot of your favorite TV show when everyone sits down to watch. Involve your student in as much as possible.

Stay busy.

As a new exchange student, think about getting involved in something in your host country — a sport, drama, music, art. Take walks. Go for a run. Offer to take the dog for a walk. Take the bus into the downtown area. Ask your coordinator if you can meet other students in your area. Families can help with all of this; show your student local walking trails or where it’s OK to go for a run. Show your student local public transit. Call other host families and arrange movie nights or excursions.

Embrace culture shock; it’s why you’re here!

why culture shock is a good thingThe original infographic can be found at ExpatChild.com. Photo credits Pixabay.com and Thinkstock.com.

The Transition Back Home: Easier Said Than Done

The students from our 2015-2016 exchange student group have returned home to Austria, Germany, Italy, Thailand, Japan … countries the world over. Many think it will be easy to slide back into their old life.

For some, perhaps that will be true. Many students, however, are finding that their old life doesn’t exist. We’ve already heard from a few of them, students who have reached out to their host families or us, their coordinators, as the people who might understand. I don’t know that we can truly understand unless we’ve been in that position. But we all try to help when our students reach out to us.

Here’s our recent letter to one of our students.

writing with fountain penYour host mom told us that things are tough for you right now. We wanted to follow up with some thoughts.

The first thing to know is that you are NOT alone. What you are feeling is very, very normal. A lot of people have gone through this kind of transition. We know that may not make you feel better right away…but we hope it helps.

Here a few suggestions about what might work for you to get used to life back home.

  1. Spend time with your friends back home. It will take time to get used to your friends again. We know that may not make sense to you at first. You’re thinking you’ve known them for years, what’s there to get used to? Think about this: you’ve had a different life from them for almost a year! You have had experiences they have not had; share them with your friends. They have had experiences you haven’t; ask them to share some of those experiences with you.

Maybe the first time you hang out with your long-time friends it feels awkward or different. That’s not a reason to stop — one time, two times, three times aren’t enough to get back into the “swing” of things. Just hang out and be patient. Think about how you felt at the beginning of the year here in the U.S.; you didn’t feel comfortable with people at school and you felt it was hard to make friends. We’re asking to you to remember that it took time. It’s going to take time again back home. In a way, you are getting to know your friends all over again.

  1. Spend time with your family (and maybe especially your parents!). This is kind of the same as with your friends. Try to remember that you’ve changed. When we told you the last time we talked before you went home that you had grown up during this past year, that you seemed a lot more confident — we weren’t just saying that to make you feel better. It’s 100% true. The thing is — your parents don’t quite know that yet. Of course you talked to them during the year and of course they can see some of it. Try to remember they’re your parents — and you are their child. For parents, our children are always our “kids.” They are never our “adults.”

So spend time with your mom and with your dad. Go for a hike with them, go to the grocery store with them, go on a bike ride. Even more importantly, talk to them about how you feel, including how you are feeling now. They need to hear from you about how your life here went. They also do need to hear how you feel you have changed. Start having those hard conversations — the ones we made you have with your host parents and with us all the time!

  1. Stay busy! Go for a run, take a walk, read a book. (Sounds like the same thing we suggested to you at the beginning of your exchange year, when you were just getting used to life here, doesn’t it?) Try to do things you normally used to do, but maybe not all at once. Maybe easing back into your “old” life would be less of a shock if you do it gradually.
  1. Stay in touch with friends and family from your exchange year. This isn’t a period of your life that suddenly ends just because you got on a plane. You have developed new friendships and relationships. Keep them. It might not make sense to contact everyone every day, but think about reaching out several times a month, once a month, or whenever the thought pops into your head. Post occasional comments on friends and host family Facebook pages. Send messages on WhatsApp. Did you and your host brother watch soccer games together? Text him when your favorite team is playing and ask if he is going to watch the game. Text your host mom periodically to just say hi. Text us sometimes, too!

Sending good thoughts and hugs,

Laura and Mark


Additional posts on this issue from our blog:

*Re-entry for the Parents Back Home
*Reverse Culture Shock: What Language Do You Dream In?
*Culture Shock Revisited

Photo credit: Aaron Burden

Reentry for the Parents Back Home

It’s the beginning of June as I write this. Three of the students in our group have returned home … a trickle that will expand in the next 2-3 weeks as the rest of the students leave. We are in the “final stretch” before all the students in Oregon and Washington return to their home countries by mid to late June.

We talk a lot at this time of year about “re-entry” issues, how to “transition” back into one’s home life, and the more familiar term — “reverse culture shock.” But it’s not just the students who need to think about re-entry. Their parents back home need to be part of this picture.

We’ve talked before about how the parents back home are part of the cultural exchange success puzzle. Parents play a key role in preparing their children before teens and young adults leave home for their exchange; students whose parents have talked to them about budgets, communication, and adjustments issues tend to adjust more easily to a different way of life. Parents can have a significant impact during the exchange year as well. Students may naturally tend to ask parents how to do something, or confide in parents regarding events happening in the host family, or share the student’s feelings about how the exchange is going. How a parent reacts to those conversations can dramatically affect how successfully a student deals with the issue.

But let’s not forget that the exchange experience doesn’t end when a student gets off an airplane back home. Just as you must prepare your student for studying abroad at the beginning of the process and support him or her while he or she is away, parents must also be sensitive to the likelihood that their child will experience “reverse culture shock” when he or she returns home.

Some basic suggestions and guidelines for parents include:

  • Allow your child a period of adjustment when first getting home.
  • Don’t just assume life will restart where it left off before your son or daughter left home 5 or 10 months ago.
  • Students are used to being more independent now. Even though they have had to follow rules, do chores, and come home before curfew in their host families’ homes, it’s different from being in your parents’ home. Take that into consideration during the first few weeks after your child returns home.
  • Encourage your student to keep in touch with the people he or she traveled with and met while studying abroad. These connections are important and can last the rest of their lives. A difficult concept for parents to accept is that the past 5 or 10 months have been a process of your son or daughter having a life other than their life purely as your child.
  • Listen to your teen’s stories. He or she has a great deal of experiences to share; it will be a terrific opportunity for you to reconnect.

Parents are a key variable in the entire concept of “cultural exchange,” yet their impact seems so often to be ignored. That perception should change if we want to increase success in our teens’ exchange experiences. Everyone is a part of the puzzle.

Photo credit: Padurariu Alexandru