A Lifetime In A Year

What is it really like for an exchange student when they leave their family and travel to the other side of the world?

For me it was a fantastically surreal, life changing experience that I will forever be grateful for but its only now, almost 20 years later that I feel like I can reflect fully on the experience.

I was 17 when my Mother heard a radio interview with a local Rotary member explaining that they were looking to sponsor on their exchange programme in Brazil. I’d been learning about Brazil and had mentioned it on many occassions so naturally my Mother suggested I give it a shot.

I don’t think my Mother seriously thought I would be interested or perhaps that I would be selected to go. Let’s face it I really shouldn’t have stood a chance. I was from a good family but we had no previous connection to the Rotary club, I grew up in a council estate, I went to a normal school and wasn’t exactly a grade A student. Maybe it was luck, perhaps the other applicants weren’t as good or maybe I was the only applicant.

Back then the idea of a kid from my estate going to Brazil was unheard of, most of my friends had never even heard of Brazil and those that had thought I was crazy.

Obviously I applied and it all seemed to happen so fast, I got myself a part time job so I would have some money to take with me. I realise now how good my parents were to let me think that what little money I was earning was going to be enough, I struggle to imagine how much they must have sacrificed during those years to support me.

I was also studying for my A-levels so the 6 months before I left went quickly. I was focused on doing everything I could start my great adventure. In hindsight, I realise I didn’t stop to think about what was going on around me and what I would be leaving behind or how things would change.

I had a great group of friends growing up and just presumed I would always have them but when your 17 and you disappear of the face of the planet for a year the day you receive your exam results and then go off to University straight afterwards without keeping in touch it becomes inevitable that you drift apart.

I also didn’t stop to think how I would change, I guess I presumed I would still be the same person when I came home but not only did I do a lot of growing up that year but my whole perspective on life and the world had changed so much that I couldn’t even remember being different before I left. I didn’t think about how hard it would be for my parents. I also never gave any thought as to how close I would become to my host families and of course how hard that would be for my real parents when I came home to hear me talking about home and family but not meaning them.

Coming home would prove to be difficult for me as well as my family. You become so ingrained in the culture and way of living that returning home after a year feels almost as alien as moving to brazil had a year earlier. I’ll never forget the week after my return when I took a bus across town but couldn’t figure out how to get it to stop as I’d forgotten British busses had stop buttons on the handrails rather than bits of string running along the ceiling. I was a mess when I finally got off three stops too far.

The day of my departure came around fast, I went to my School in the morning to collect my test results but this just felt like a formality to me. I was so excited and focused on Brazil I would have happily left the envelope sealed until came back in a year. That was it, my old life was over and I was off to start my new one. My parent’s drove me to Heathrow Airport and saw me off at the gate. My Mum never fails to remind me that I just said goodbye and walked through the gate without looking back. I feel bad for that now but forward was the only direction my mind would contemplate.

Nothing fazed me, that is until I saw the lights of Sao Paulo spreading out in all directions for as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t contemplate anywhere being so big. The moment the wheels touched the ground everything hit me at once. I wasn’t going to see my family for the next year. I’d never even seen an aeroplane before let alone flown across the world on one to a country so foreign I had no hope of being prepared for. I couldn’t speak the language and I still had to get off the plane and find my connecting flight to Brasilia where I would be met by my host family.

Oddly it wasn’t fear that I felt as all these thoughts flooded my mind it was excitement and that feeling didn’t go away for the rest of the year. I was riding the crest of a wave that never seemed to end.

When I finally arrived in Brasilia I was met by members of the local Rotary Club and my new host family.

It was loud! They were loud! Here I was, a pale, introverted 17-year-old even by British standards and these people were louder and more extroverted than anyone I’d ever met.

The handshakes and hugs left my head ringing. I assumed we would be heading straight to my new home to settle in and get to know each other but that’s not the Brazilian way. Instead we went to a party full of colour, noise, amazing smells and tastes from foods I’d never heard of. A few days later I attended the local Rotary club along with the other exchange students in the area. Our mentor for the area gave us one simple piece of advice on how to get the most out of the experience. He told us not to ‘Ficar’ which means; “to stay”.  As we puzzled over what that meant he went on to explain that the women in Brazil are beautiful and it would be tempting to ‘stay’ with the first girl we met. His advice was “to stay” with lots of different women which would mean that we met lots of different groups of people and didn’t miss out on anything. Needless to say, that brought a big smile to faces of all the young lads in the audience. Rather than being just a lecherous 70-year-old Brazilian (And that he was) this was just his way of saying travel everywhere, try everything, meet as many people as you can and learn to be the best person you can.

These first few days typified the rest of my year and by the time I returned home I was unrecognisable both to myself and my family. I sometimes wonder if my parents felt as if someone else had returned in my place. I talked differently, walked confidently, ate and drank different things and I was no longer focused upon a single goal but rather I looked at the World as a much wider place full of life and opportunity.

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I don’t know who said it but this really hits the nail on the head.

“Exchange isn’t a year in a life, it’s a life in a year.”

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