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An Exchange Student at 17

It almost feels like as if it was just yesterday when I was on my own on a plane not really knowing what to expect but excited for what the future had for me. Now I'm back home with a ton of memories, e-mails to answer, and a lot of stories to share. I don't even know where to start now that I'm writing about my experience of being an exchange student in Appleton, Wisconsin for a whole school year.

Well, I've wanted to be an exchange student my whole high school life. I read about summer programs in a brochure from IFS, and I thought then that living somewhere else for a while and having friends from another country would be the coolest thing in the world. I would be on my own, have my own Indiana Jones adventure, and fulfill my dream of having something different. Pretty soon, at the end of my senior year, Mama and I were applying to IFS and we decided that a whole year would give me so much more immersion and would make the experience so much better. I had meetings in the weekends about rules, how to survive, homesickness, etc. Then I got an email. I had a host family! Next thing I knew, I had a flight booked.

I was so excited and happy and I was telling all my friends about it. I was researching about Wisconsin in books and in the Internet. Compared to what I saw on TV and what I experienced when I traveled to places like Los Angeles, California with my family, Wisconsin was different. It was more of farmland and countryside. I lived in Appleton and its population was around 70,000 and I thought it was a small town compared to our Manila. There was no traffic, they only had one major mall, and everything was in close proximity. I didn't even know what to think of the cold weather. I just brought cotton long-sleeved shirts with me. But when winter came, I needed to get a coat. During the winter, the sun would set at 4pm and it wouldn't go up until around 9. There were days when the temperature would go below freezing and I was wearing around 6 layers of clothing just to keep myself warm. I never even blow-dried my hair before. I had to do it every morning after I took a shower because if I didn't, my hair would FREEZE. The thing I liked best about the cold and the snow was being able to ski. People were so excited for me and telling me all their snow stories (since we don't have it in the Philippines). I have never skied in my life either, so I was excited and proud to learn.

I was placed with the greatest host family in the whole world. They treated me like their own and they are like real family in another part of the world. I had a host mom, a host dad, a brother and sister. Ben would always be sweet and give me hugs and kisses. I loved every minute of it because I never had a younger brother before. It was fun seeing Katie grow up since she started to be a teenager and we would always tell stories in the bathroom we shared. Through e-mails we established that I was going to call them Mom and Dad since I was never used to calling older people by their first names. I felt super loved. They made sure there was tuna in the pantry (since it was my favorite), hugged me when I needed to be hugged, let me stay out late at night with my friends, and even let me have parties in the basement.

I went to an American co-ed public high school and that was a big adjustment coming from an all-girl private Catholic school. The school was new, everyone was different and it was so diverse. I have never met so many kinds of people in just one place. I was scared during the first day of school. I didn't know anyone, I got lost since the school was huge, and people didn't think I knew how to speak in English every time my teachers would say, And here's Elaine she's a foreign exchange student. But pretty soon I started to get comfortable. It was funny how people always got surprised by how good I was at speaking in English. They're like, Wow, you even speak better English than me. I loved answering people's questions like, So, what do you do in the winter? or Where is the Philippines? Isn't that near South America somewhere? or What's it like to have a coconut tree outside your house do you have coconuts everyday? I had the chance to take fun classes like Spanish, photography, and art so I met people with similar interests as me and got to go to field trips. My favorite was going to Chicago to see my favorite painting Starry Night by Van Gogh. I was an honorary member of the International Club and there was even one time I was giving a talk about the Philippines for the school's Global Awareness Week and someone asked me to say something in Filipino. So I said, Magandang Umaga, ang pangalan ko ay Elaine. They thought it was so cool and people started clapping and giving me a standing ovation. Just for saying my name in Tagalog!!!

I made a lot of friends and met so many people. I joined a church youth group, volunteered for a group for teens with cognitive disabilities, an indoor soccer team during winter and the girls track team during spring. Friends took me out to movies, hockey games, restaurants, road trips, rock shows and concerts. Someone even took me to see the Incubus concert! I got to do my first American prank, which was writing on boys cars with lipstick. Everyone was warm, open, and never hesitant in giving hugs. I would say that as much as I missed my family and friends at home, I never really got homesick because I had friends who made sure I was okay. They were all always there for me and helping me with all the adjustments I had to make, like school, getting rides, hanging out, shopping, going to prom, learning slang terms, everything. I will forever remember all the fun times I had with them.

One of the things I had to get used to and eventually enjoyed was how people picked up on my difference. Girls would always tell me how lucky I was to have a year-round tan and ask if I went to tanning salons! I haven't even heard of tanning salons since I got there! Some boys would ask me how I got my hair to be so black. I was shy and surprised by how forward some guys were. Unlike here, guys do not court girls. It's more casual. Eventually, though I got used to it. I realized that guys all over the world are the same. I became excited to be actually hanging out with all these cute boys, getting calls, and going out. Hugging with someone from the opposite sex wasn't even a big deal, and it was something I enjoyed. Going out opened my eyes to more similarities and differences in the American culture. It was one of the times I was so proud of being Filipina. I was different, exotic, and new.

Every month, I met with other exchange students in our area. I made friends with people from Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, England, Hungary, etc. It was fun when we were together because we saw how language, skin color or height didn't matter. We were all the same. We even got to bond right away because we were all going through the same thing as exchange students so we talked about the differences at home, school, and out countries. I learned so many things about other cultures, and even got to share my own. I remember cooking the adobo for a Christmas party. I was stressed about it but everyone loved it!

Being away for 10 months and living alone in a completely different world has taught me a lot of things. I have grown and my perspective has changed in ways I never would have imagined. I now can say that I am independent, appreciate my family and friends here more, open to new ideas, aggressive, and more confident about myself. Having my own adventure has proven to me that anything is possible and that I can do anything. It was the best time of my life and I will always remember how choosing to go out and discover what the world has in store for me was life-changing and will be something I will always cherish.

Article provided by Exchange Student News

By Elaine Abonal

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