The old proverb cited above describes nicely where we are now in the cycle of the educational exchange year. This is for my students, and the thousands of other high school exchange students trying to muddle through a semester or year that is harder than they expected:
The “gets tough” side: You have had the shock of learning that you can fail a class if you do not turn in homework assignments – you’ve got to prove you did the work. You’ve had the shock of learning that just because you are the exotic species “international student” doesn’t mean everyone at school is running up to you begging to be your new best friend – you’ve got to be more outgoing than you ever have before. You have learned that just because you are an exchange student doesn’t mean you will get special treatment in a class or on a school sport team – you have to meet the team standards. You may have had the shock of being grounded for failing to follow host family rules, or losing cell phone or Internet privileges – you’ve got to remember the rules. Some of you have received behavior warnings from your exchange program – you’ve got to toe the line. You’ve changed your perspective from “this is going to be the coolest year ever in my entire life” to, perhaps, “this is hard work, is it worth it?”
Will the “tough get going”? The goal of those of us who work with high school international exchange students is to convince you that 1) yes, it is worth it; and 2) yes, you can do it. You are familiar with your host family’s habits and general lifestyle. You know your town or city a bit. You understand how the U.S. school system works and are beginning to understand your teachers’ expectations. You can do it!
Let’s talk about some of the ways you can get there.
The “tough” throw themselves into their host culture. So … immerse.
Limit communication with your parents and friends back home. It’s not productive and it’s probably harming your ability to adapt to your host culture if you are talking to your mom or dad every day, or even several times a week, or if you’re chatting or texting with your friends back home every day. If you’re talking to your mom about how to deal with a problem at school, or to a friend from home about what to wear to homecoming – you’re probably not having the same conversation with your host parents or host siblings. Set yourself a time limit for how long to talk to parents and friends, perhaps of no more than an hour or so per week on the weekends.
Go places with your host family, even to the grocery store, the dry cleaners, or the hardware store. Boring? Of course. Going to the hardware store hardly qualifies as The Greatest Day of Your Life. But perhaps you’ll have a fun conversation with your host dad on the way about different customs between your home country and the U.S., or learn that your host mom is an amazing and creative fixer-upper kind of person, or learn something interesting about the house you live in. Set yourself a goal of going somewhere with at least one of your host parents at least once every week, no matter how small the trip.
Hang out with your host siblings if they are your age, volunteer to play with your younger host siblings, or walk the dog if you have no host siblings (or even if you do). Do it, even if it is something you have never done – or what’s even harder, something you don’t like to do. That’s part of being in a family – sometimes you do things with your parents or siblings because it’s the “right” thing to do, and sometimes they will do things with you. Maybe you can teach your younger siblings soccer, or build a cool LEGO® structure with them. Maybe your host siblings can teach you lacrosse. Maybe they like puzzles, and maybe you will find that you do, too. Maybe you will find you like little (or big) dogs after all, or maybe you will find that training a puppy is interesting.
Watch the movies and TV shows your host family watches whether or not you like the movie or the show. It’s what they do, and they’re your family here, so … that’s what you should do now. Keep an open mind, maybe you’ll discover that the TV show Portlandia is not as strange as you thought it was. (Even better, when you find that you get the jokes, you will know you are reaching “immersion success!”)
Don’t speak your native language in front of others in your host country. It may be tempting to speak your native language if you are with other exchange students from your home country, at an exchange program event or at your host family’s home just hanging out. After all, your brain is exhausted thinking in English, to be sure — we know that. But think about your goals of improving your English and being a part of your host culture. The more you speak and think in your native language, the harder it is to improve fluency in your English. Moreover, it comes across as being disrespectful to your host family and those around you. Other students will think you don’t want to be their friends if you can’t be bothered to try to speak their language in their country.
The “tough” figure how to accept the differences between their host family’s rules and what they might be used to back home.
It’s important that you follow the rules and guidelines established by your host family and your exchange program. Let’s be clear: your exchange program and your local contact person really do understand how difficult this is. But by now, after 3 or more months in your host family, you should know their basic expectations. By now, you know what time to wake up so you won’t miss the school bus – so don’t keep saying you overslept. You know what time your host parents expect you home on a Friday night – so don’t say you didn’t notice the time. You know if your afternoon chore is to let the dog out when you come home from school – so don’t let your host parents come home from work and see a pile of dog poop in the kitchen. You will make mistakes. We all do. But you know the difference between making an occasional mistake and not taking responsibility for your actions. Set yourself a goal of owning up to your actions and being honest about your mistakes.
If you do not understand a rule or expectation ask for an explanation to make sure you know what to do. But it’s not a good idea to question why your host family has this rule, and it’s really not a good idea to simply choose not to follow it because you don’t like it or agree with it. Be respectful to your host family, say “please” and “thank you” as often as you can, and show appreciation for what they have done for you. Remember, if you are here on a J-1 visa, that your host family is not paid to take care of you, feed you, or take you places. If you are here on an F-1 visa, your host family may receive a small amount of money to feed you – but they’re spending a lot more effort than that on making you a part of their family. Set yourself a goal of saying something nice every day to your host parents (and host siblings if you have them).
If you have questions about a particular host family rule (or an exchange program rule for that matter), or any questions or difficulties in your host family or school, don’t keep quiet. You should communicate your feelings to your local program coordinator or to your program headquarters. Maybe you feel comfortable talking to a school counselor about serious issues. I can’t tell you how many times something has blown up into a major problem, and it turns out the student knew about the problem or had been miserable about an issue for weeks or even months — but hadn’t said anything. (This, of course, also applies to host families reading this — don’t keep quiet, talk about the issues you see so conflicts can be addressed!)
The reasons students don’t say anything vary: they don’t want to bother us with small things, or they are afraid they will be criticized. They are afraid that if they complain about anything their program will send them home, or they feel they’re old enough to solve their own problems, or they think the exchange program just won’t agree with them. Is it possible your coordinator may tell you that the rule you are complaining about is reasonable, so you have to obey it? Of course. Is it possible your coordinator will tell you she disagrees with you about something? Of course. But it’s also possible that he or she will agree. You’ll never know if you don’t talk about it.
The “tough” take responsibility, learn from mistakes, and earn respect.
Certain things are definitely true. One is that you will gain respect from the adults around you if you take responsibility for your actions and own up to your mistakes. Moreover, people will notice if you are working hard to change your behavior. Saying “thank you” all the time, or telling your host parents “I had a really good time today,” may not be something you’ve ever done before – so admit that, then move on and figure out how to make it happen. Failing a class because you didn’t understand the assignments may make you feel embarrassed or even worried – but you will gain respect if you go to your host parents and your program coordinator and ask what you can do to correct the problem.
If something is wrong – whether it be a small miscommunication, a problem at school, or a major problem in your relationship with your host family — no one can fix it if you don’t talk about it. As you enter the next phase of your exchange experience, recognize that while the “going” is getting tough – you can be tough, too, and have a good experience at the same time.
 Students and families, if you are interested in the questions I pose here of “is it worth it? Can I do it?”, take a look at this book: Kerry Patterson, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (2008).