Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

The surreal life July 14, 2013

Filed under: Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 1:30 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I thought I’d share with you this recent comment I left on the blog of a young lady recently returned from time abroad (slightly edited for broader audience!)

We have a saying in Rotary, “Once an exchange student, always an exchange student.”

If I am in a room, outbound exchange students find me, whether they know I was one or not. They bounce in their chairs, anticipating their year, and I share their enthusiasm, offer packing tips, and give them hugs.

At school, students from far away sit in my class room to discuss ‘life’ in the surreal bubble that is an inbound exchange year.  They vent their frustrations, shout their celebrations, observe their confusions.  I listen, encourage, bake, and give them hugs.

They write when they’re back home,  rebound students, about the strange dream that their year abroad becomes in memory.  The students my club sent join me at my table at our Rotary meeting upon their return in a numbed stupor.  I commiserate about the loss they’re experiencing, the strange sensation of being home, but being far from home.  I give them hugs.


See that sad face? That’s me on my last day in Finland posing with my 4th host family. That is the face of a broken heart. Still miss them and think of them every day!  (Thank heaven for Facebook).

We are tied by the experience of youth exchange, because it’s all paradox.  We feel disconnected and connected. Lost and found. Happy and sad.

We each leave pieces of our heart behind in these places that become our second homes, and we never get them back. Hopefully, those we love and leave behind, cherish those pieces for the precious parts of ourselves that they are. Sometimes we are blessed with an opportunity to hold those people against our hearts again, but most of the people who made such a profound impact on our lives, we will never touch again. It is a bitter sweet reality of those who live and love abroad.

Welcome home. Welcome to life with pieces missing. We just go on.  We find others with missing pieces and we hold each other as we celebrate what we have known.

Rotary Youth Exchange:

Opening minds and breaking hearts

since 1929. 

If you know any exchange students returning home this month.  Listen to their stories, ask questions about their year, and give them hugs.  They really need them right now.


29 Responses to “The surreal life”

  1. rcprice Says:

    Hey, I would like to let you know I nominated you for the Super Sweet Blogger Award. Please check out my latest post for details.

  2. […] also The Surreal Life and hug your returning exchange students.  They’re going to be kind of messed up for a […]

  3. 1writeplace Says:

    What I like about this post is that it gives of a glimpse of something we might otherwise have missed. Thank you.

    • I’m not going to lie, I shed tears writing it. Unless you’ve been an exchange student (or lived/studied abroad) you can’t appreciate the depth of the schism that has been created in our lives. We are forever in parts.

  4. Johnny Ojanpera Says:

    My family hosted a Finnish exchange student when I was a kid. I’m not sure how it worked out, but she landed in a Finnish home. She was my sister for almost a year. Great memories.

    • Have you been in touch in the intervening years?

      • Johnny Ojanpera Says:

        We did for about 5 years by letter. After that we were 18, starting our lives. She was very reserved. Now we get a picture here and there. Did you eat pulla while you were there?

      • Of course, I did! Pulla is a staple. 🙂 I make it now in the breadmaker. We had a Finnish exchange student at the high school where I taught last year. It was so wonderful to have her come and chat with me in Finnish a couple of times a week. Such good ear training for me, and a nice ‘touch of home’ for her. I baked her pulla and karjalanpiirakka. Mmm. 🙂 (Here’s a post from when I made karjalanpiirakka last: ) It’s making me hungry looking at this. lol

      • Johnny Ojanpera Says:

        Those are so good. I haven’t attempted to make them for myself yet. We didn’t speak very much Finn growing up. I know a little from growing up around it, but I speak far better Spanish. Go figure. Most people think my last name is Spanish too. 🙂

      • Ojanpera = “trench bottom!” Your ancestors must have lived in some sort of a declivity?

        Here’s a pulla recipe. I let the bread maker do all the kneading etc since otherwise my dough is as heavy as cement bags. I generally make this a little round buns (they start about golf ball size before rising), and freeze several. However making it as bread allows you to make awesome cinnamon toast! Kardemummaa always sucks me back to Finland in an instant. Inhale deeply now…. Mmmmmm. 🙂

      • Johnny Ojanpera Says:

        Or “end of the ditch”. They are from Suomussalmi. My maternal grandfather is from way up in Lapland, probably lived next door to Santa. I have a near century old pulla recipe that my moo moo got from her mom. I do the traditional braid loaf with raisins and glaze. I might make some this weekend…

  5. 8 years growing up in Argentina. I wish more people got this sort of thing. I miss it every day…

  6. yapparister Says:

    Brilliantly observed. I think it’s important to recognise that it cuts both ways.

  7. This is all so truth (and somewhat hurtful), it brought me to tears. I’ve just returned to ‘home’ after an amazing year abroad with Rotary, and agree so much with what you wrote. A piece of me is missing, and it’s hard to accept I will never get it back. Such a sweet feeling to have gone on exchange, and bitter feeling to have come back.
    Very well written, thank you for posting it!

    • You’re welcome. Life does go on. You fit in with your friends and family again. There is always a piece that is ‘elsewhere’ though, and I don’t think it ever goes away. Where have you left a painful piece of your heart, Aline?

  8. […] a fellow blogger recently who perfectly encapsulated the Rotary Youth Exchange journey in a blog post. She spoke about providing some advice to an exchange student who had recently returned home from a […]

  9. randee Says:

    Love this! My daughter just found out she’s going to France next year (August – ish). I will always think about the “missing pieces” of which you speak. Happy and sad, lost and found… Really great post.

  10. This just reminded me of my entire journey as a part of the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. You really hit it all on the head. Leaving really does break your heart. Lord knows I needed a million ears and hugs when I got back. At the same time, my heartbreak also comforted me in a way, because it validated my year in that it let me know I had accomplished what I set out to do – become part of another culture, and make a new place home, and new people family.

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