Shawn L. Bird

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

How to be a crappy exchange student July 31, 2010

Over the years, I have met probably a thousand exchange students. 90% of them have been amazing young people, but some really should not have been sent abroad.  Some of them had a really horrible exchange year, and they were thrilled to leave their new country and go home.  Some chose to leave voluntarily before the year was over. Some were sent home.  Some of them managed to get through the challenges and salvage their year.

Here are some of the strategies these students employed to ensure they had a year they have been grumbling about ever since.  Of course, most of these students blamed everyone but themselves for their horrible experience. 

1. Go on exchange to escape troubles at home.  Leave to escape SATs. Leave boyfriend problems.  Leave to avoid college decisions or family problems. Believe it or not, your issues will just follow you. You can’t escape. Deal with your issues before you apply to go on exchange.

2. Go on exchange to become a celebrity. While it is true that you may be highly recognizable in your new town, you may not be admired. Your home and host countries might be in political dispute, as when Canada seized Spanish fishing boats they claimed were illegally fishing on The Grand Banks. Your religious background might be unpopular in your host country. Your ethnicity might make you a target, like it was for the Indo-Canadian student in Germany presumed to be a Turk and bullied in the streets and refused service in restaurants.

3. Be afraid of or be overwhelmed by your host culture. If you are not willing to face crowds, language, smells, religion, attitudes, and ideas that are different from your own, you’re not going to be able to handle the stress of being an exchange student.

4. Be shy. Avoid talking to people.  Don’t make friends at school.  Hide in your bedroom and don’t socialize with your host family.  Don’t attend Rotary meetings.  If you do, don’t talk to the Rotarians.  Stare at the floor a lot.

5. Insult people.  Take your nationalism to extreme.  Make sure that everyone knows where you are from and that your home country is MUCH better than your host country.  Explain how they are stupid, backward, or ignorant in your host country.

6. Borrow money.  Whenever you go out, whether with host families, school friends, or other exchange students, make it a point to leave your wallet at home, and ask others to pay for you.  Never pay them back.   This is particularly effective when people learn that you are receiving several hundred dollars of spending money every month from home.

7. Lie.   Pretend you are going to school when you aren’t.  Claim you’re making lots of friends when you’re in your room on the computer all day.  Tell your family you’re with friends, but go to a bush party, get drunk, and then get in a car accident.  While in the hospital, keep telling people you weren’t drinking at a party…  (These students were sent home , one with a broken neck and severe brain damage).  

8. Moon over your boy/girlfriend back home.  Spend all your time on the phone or  sending email messages to your love back home.  Neglect making friends and participating in events so you don’t miss chat/call opportunities.  If you don’t believe either of you are mature enough to handle separation without daily contact, you are probably not mature enough to be on exchange.

9. Be a snob.  Whether because of insecurity, inferiority or actual narcisism, some students behave as if they are much better than those in their new community.   Show this by refusing to do chores your host family assigns, refusing to help in Rotary service projects, or refusing to attend functions.  You can also show this with a bored or uninterested attitude when you do deign to attend an event or by talking about yourself and never showing any interest in others’ interests or opinions.

10. Never spend a night away from home before the exchange.  The trauma of homesickness from kids from tightly emeshed homes almost always ensures the kids are home within a month of their arrival in the new country.  Your mother will probably be thrilled to have you back, tied to her apron where you belong.

11. Be disrespectful to your host mom.  The most important person for you to impress is your host mom.  She is the power behind the home.  If she likes you, you will be eating your favourite foods, going to special places, and receiving gifts for years.  If she dislikes you, well, let’s just say that you will probably be very uncomfortable. 

12. Whine a lot  and complain about your treatment by school mates, family and other exchange students.   If it seems to be a universal opinion, consider that perhaps you aren’t very likeable.  Study points 1-10 above and determine what you need to change about yourself. 

Be aware: If you aren’t usually so obnoxious in your home country, the manifestation of a few of the above points may indicate that you are suffering from culture shock.   Please speak to your club exchange counselor.  If s/he can’t help, speak to the district exchange officer.  If you address the issues early enough, you can turn your horrendous time into a wonderful, enriching exchange.  It’s not the host family, your club, or your circumstances that create a great year.  Your attitude is the most important thing, so if you find yourself having problems, decide what YOU can change to improve the situation.


PS.  In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that more than a few of the points above applied to my own exchange year.   I think I had a great year abroad, but like everyone, I had some things I could have done better in order to have had an even better experience.


The Exchange Student Cycle July 22, 2010

Filed under: Commentary,Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 7:37 am
Tags: , , , ,

Canadian Rotary exchange students at Helsinki World Figureskating Championships 1983 (+1 Aussie)

A couple decades ago, when I was working as an exchange student counselor, I came across some information about the exchange student cycle. It was such an accurate description that I have always made a point to tell exchange students about this cycle, because it is good to be warned of the bumps ahead.  If you know what to expect, when you’re in a rough spot, you can think of it rationally, knowing that soon enough you’ll move into the next part of the cycle. Everything has a season. These are the seasons of exchange student life.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re involved in a two week exchange, a three month exchange, or a year long exchange; the cycle remains pretty much the same. An exchange is divided into three sections.  Each section seems to last roughly one third of the exchange.  Knowing the three parts to the exchange cycle helps you understand the changes in relationships and attitudes that occur throughout the year. If you imagine a typical ten month exchange in which a student arrives in the new country in late August and is set to return home around the end of June, the cycles will be split somewhere around November and March. There is no specific line, and you may find yourself moving back and forth between two stages for a month or two. If you rotate to a new host family every ten weeks or so, you will likely experience mini exchange student cycles in each home, as well as the over-riding year cycle.

During the honeymoon phase of the exchange, everything is new and wonderful. While sometimes there is an issue of culture shock, the student is usually expecting so much change that it isn’t too difficult to accept.  You’ve been warned that everything will be new and different.  You’re prepared for these differences and you’re excited to experience them. In this phase, the host family is still treating the student as a guest, showing them the sites and being solicitous. The school might be particularly challenging because of language issues, but you often feel like a celebrity, and are often treated as such. You tend to be on your best behaviour making an effort to be liked and interested in the new culture.  You tend to love your new culture a lot in this stage.

In the second phase, the bloom is off the rose. The family is used to having the student in the home. At this time, if there are host brothers and sisters, it is more likely that there will be some ‘sibling rivalry’ than at other times in the exchange. The novelty of the new experiences has worn off, and now the real work has begun. This is the point in the exchange when your new culture is a pain in the butt.  You long for your favourite meal, your favourite snack.  You want your friends.  You want your old, easy life. There is more expectation for you to be functioning in the new language, which can be stressful. School seems difficult and unaccommodating. In a year long exchange, this phase tends to coincide with Christmas time, which adds another challenge. You’re used to certain weather, special family traditions and foods, etc, but now you’re in a new place where the traditions are completely different, if they celebrate the holiday at all.  It’s not better or worse, it’s just different, but at Christmas time we often don’t want different, so it is not unexpected that you should be a little nostalgic for home and family. This is the period in the exchange where it feels like work. You let your best behaviour lapse and let your warts show up.  At this stage, petty irritations start to become issues.   This might be the point in the change when you want to give up and go home.  Hang on.  Keep trying,  talk to your counselor, and wait it out.  Luckily, at some point the challenge of this stage lifts, and one day you relax into life in your new culture.  You just fit comfortably into school and family.  You feel settled. 

Suddenly you realize that the exchange time is moving on, and that it is not going to be long before you are heading home. Now there is a last minute rush to do all the things you wanted to do. Now is when the student starts to enjoy every possible activity, because it might be the last opportunity to do it. There is a clear awareness that you have become at home in this new culture, and that it would not be difficult to stay here forever. In the third phase everything is bittersweet. Experiences are grabbed and savoured, but with the understanding of your attachment to this world, there is a sense of impending loss. The last few weeks of the exchange can be extremely difficult, as the worst part of being an exchange student becomes clear, but we’ll discuss that in another blog.

Be prepared for the changes and celebrate the victories!   You are experiencing one of the most challenging, most valuable, and most amazing year of your life.  Enjoy each phase.


How to have an amazing Rotary Youth Exchange year July 14, 2010

Filed under: Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 5:45 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Today I got an email from an outbound exchange student in response to my blog “Why I am a Rotarian.”  I started to write some hints for Chris, but then thought perhaps they’re best recorded as whole blog entry rather than a comment.  So here is a message dedicated to Chris who is on the way to India, and any other outbound Rotary Exchange Student.   

Rotary Youth Exchange will be a life changing experience, but how successful your year is completely rests upon your shoulders.  You need to approach your exchange with an attitude of openness.  You have to be willing to try new things, whether it’s new clothes like a burka or school uniform, new food like liver casserole or goats’ eyes, or new experiences like attending a different place of worship  or participating in inexplicable festivals.  This is a cultural exchange and your job as an exchange student is much more that representing your culture.  It is even more important that you learn as much as you can about your host culture so that when you return home, you can reflect a new view of the world to your home community.  This year will impact the rest of your life.   

So here is some advice from me from my rather broad perspective as a returned exchange student, a host mom, an exchange counselor, the mother of an exchange student , a Rotarian and a high school teacher.  I hope these suggestions will help you approach the most difficult year of your life with enthusiasm so that in embracing the challenges, you find yourself becoming a global citizen.   

embrace cultural practices- like Finnish sauna

1. Adjust your attitude.  Whenever you are faced with a cultural challenge, remember it’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different! We don’t all have to be the same on this planet; diversity brings beauty in the world.  Embrace it all.  Be open to the new.  Avoid saying, “At home we do it like this…”  Say, “That’s interesting.  Can you tell me more about that?”  Listen.  Learn.  Keep your better/worse thoughts in your private journal.   A lot of brilliant A students struggle as exchange students.  They’re used to being the best in the class.  They don’t like to make mistakes.  They expect excellence in themselves.  Let it go.  You are not in your perfect world any more.  There are new rules on exchange.  Relax.  Let yourself make mistakes so you are free to learn.  Embrace the novelty of not being the best.  Just be.   

2. Learn the language of your area as soon as possible. Speak it often.  Take special classes if necessary.  Everyone will want to speak to you in English, don’t fall into the trap. If you’re in Barcelona, the area language is Catalan, not Spanish.  What is the language or dialect of your region? Make that your focus.  Language is the gate to culture, and you want to open that gate.  If you don’t learn the language, you will miss significant understanding of your hosts and your host culture.  Even if you do it badly, the effort to learn the language is crucial to your host community seeing that you are committed to learning about them.  Go beyond Hello, Good-bye, Please and Thank You.  Be willing to make mistakes and be laughed at for your mistakes.  Join into the laughter, learn the correct way, keep talking.  Especially learn the words that have no English translations, because those words represent important cultural concepts.   

Finnish Independence Day parade

3. Take every opportunity you can. Go wherever you can.  You will frequently be invited somewhere, and you won’t have a clue what it is.  Go anyway.  Take your camera.  Prepare to be amazed.   

4.  Get involved with your sponsor Rotary Club.  Sometimes you have to work hard to do this, because overseas clubs often don’t involve their exchange students.  Be sure the club knows you want to help with their service projects.  Go to meetings at least once a month.  Pester them to involve you if you must.  Yes, the business component is boring, but use the social time to meet members.  Find out what they do, express curiousity.  You may get invited to join them on a ski trip or a reindeer round up.  You never know.  Rotarians are amazing community leaders with fascinating experiences.  They have a lot to teach you.  Ask questions.  Learn.   


 5.  Don’t be shy. Don’t wait for others to approach you.  Make the first move.  You’re going to be gone in a year and so some people won’t want to make the effort to be your friend.  They might become your best friend if you make the first move.  Say something like, “Excuse me, I’m an exchange student, can you explain this…?”  Ask questions.  Be curious.  Smile.   Your closest friends are quite likely going to be other exchange students or former exchange students.  This is a comfortable thing, because you have the most in common with them.  You can rely on them to help process the cultural challenges, but beware of pity parties and grumbling.  Don’t let exchange students be your only friends; the more friends you have from your host culture, the more experiences and opportunities you will have.   

a knitting party with Finnish teens

6. This might be the most important point, especially in this age of instant communication around the world. Let go of home. Certainly, post a weekly log of your activities to share your experiences with your friends and family back home, that’s an important reason you went on exchange.  Keeping a journal provides a record of what you learn and gives you a tool to reflect upon for the rest of your life.  However, daily writing with your girl/boyfriend back home, trying to negotiate your best friend’s break up or panicking about your college entrance means your focus is back home instead of on your cultural immersion.  You’ll need to contact home now and then so your mother doesn’t go crazy, but your focus must be on your new culture.  You’re never going to have this exchange opportunity again.  Don’t waste it! Embrace your new culture and let go of home.  Your home culture will still be there at the end of your exchange year.   

Have an absolutely amazing, fascinating, life changing Rotary Exchange!


Why I Am a Rotarian. July 9, 2010

I was first drawn to Rotary when I became interested in Rotary Youth Exchange as a teen. I was chosen to represent the brand new Rotary Club of Okanagan Mission and Canada in Kotka, Finland. The Rotary International theme for my exchange year was “Mankind is One–Build Bridges of Friendship Throughout the World.” I truly embraced that vision and in the intervening years that message summed up what my exchange meant to me. We were taught (and since we’ve hosted many students, and my own daughter has been on exchange as well, I know they’re still teaching) exchange students that the purpose of the Rotary Youth Exchange program is to send kids around the world to become part of a family (or several families) in a new place, so that when they return to their homes, they will be able to advocate for peace. They won’t tolerate bombs being dropped on their new families and friends. They will be instrumental in teaching tolerance and understanding. The exchange student mantra is shared: “Not better. Not worse. Just different!” Living in a new culture requires acceptance, openness and steadfastness. It is not an easy experience, but it is worthwhile. Leaving the new culture and returning to one’s original country, we are unable to see our own culture quite the same way as we did before we left. We become instruments for peace in our world. We are changed. 

My daughter was raised knowing that we had ‘family’ in Finland. Every Christmas would come plates, glass, ornaments, and textiles from companies like Arabia, Iittala, Aarikka, or Marimekko. She knew they were very special people because they were my host families. We hosted many exchange students ourselves over the years, and the kids learned about other places, cultures and experiences from their foreign siblings. My daughter dreamed of becoming a Rotary exchange student herself. When the time came, she studied the history of Rotary, the purpose of exchange, and the  projects of local clubs. As a result, she did well on her interviews, and was chosen to represent the Rotary Club of Salmon Arm (Shuswap) in Spain for 2005-06. During her year of preparation we were invited to attend several Rotary meetings. My past experience as an exchange student was made known. At one of those meetings a Rotarian asked, “With all your history with Rotary, why aren’t you a Rotarian?” I responded frankly, “Because I was never asked.” Needless to say, within a few months, I had become a member of the club.

Was it just nostalgia for my own involvement as a student? Perhaps. But I still believe in the things that I respected most about Rotary back in 1982. When I was a student, there were no women members in Rotary. When I heard on the news in 1987 that women were being accepted as Rotarians, my first thought was that it was now possible that I could actually join this amazing organizaation. It was a delightful prospect. Of course, it was eighteen years before the opportunity presented itself! I am fiercely proud of Rotary’s international and local service projects. I am honoured to be part of the battle to eradicate polio from the planet. I am thrilled to support literacy projects. I am delighted to see lives changed because of who we are and what we do. Our communities are better because of us.

My little club stuns me on a regular basis. The members are a poster for Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “Never underestimate the power of a small but committed group of people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The twenty-five members raised over $40,000 to fund a CT scanner for our local hospital. We have built and maintained trails, built fences for a shelter, provided an industrial shredder that allows mentally challenged adults to do meaningful work. We support single parents going to college. We support innumerable community projects, particularly for youth. Internationally, we’ve provided funds to vaccinate twenty-six thousand children against polio in the last two years. We support mid-wife training in Guatemala, are putting two girls in Africa through high school, and have provided dental care to orphans in the Ukraine and to the poor in Ecuador. We have sent youth and young professionals to participate in year long high school exchanges, short term Ambassadorial Exchanges, Group Study Exchanges, and this year we sponsored a graduate student who is now a Rotary Peace Fellow. We are making a huge difference in our community and around the world.

That’s why I am a Rotarian.


Becoming ‘puoli-Suomalainen’ June 2, 2010

I have 5 mothers, 5 fathers, 17 siblings and two nations.

I am a returned Rotary Exchange Student, and my experience living abroad changed my life. I was blessed to live for a year in Kotka, Finland (Suomi to the Finns) and now my world is paradoxically both larger and smaller.

My first involvement with Rotary was with at a Candy Striper conference the year I was in grade eleven. Katy Jensen, a Rotary Exchange student from New Zealand, was a delegate from a hospital in her exchange community. She described her adventures in Canada and a world of possibility opened up to me. I decided to find out about the program.

I knew my high school vice-principal, Bob Lemon, was a Rotarian, so I asked him about the exchange. He told me to watch for information about interviews the following September. I have noticed since that a lot of students miss out on the opportunity because the interviews happen so early in the school year. If you’re looking at exploring an exchange, be sure you’re hunting for the application details the first week back at school in the fall!

It was a thorough interview process. A short application to start. Next there were interviews at the club level. A longer form. An intensive panel interview at district level. Then thick application form package. By October I had been chosen to represent District 5060 in Finland. Wow. I didn’t know a thing about Finland, so I had a lot to learn to prepare for a year there!

Many people wonder how I ended up in Finland. Short answer: by mistake. On my application, my 3 choices were Belgium (the only French speaking country the district was exchanging with that year), Japan (obviously about to explode in economic activity with Canada), and then…. I had no real interest in anywhere else, so I chose Denmark because it was near Belgium, and I really wanted to see the Vimy Memorial.

The district committee lost some paperwork and they phoned to ask again what my country choices were. I was out as usual volunteering or something. My mom knew the first two, but couldn’t recall the third choice. I had a Finnish pen pal at the time, so she said, “I think the third was Finland?” The rest is history. No one ever asks to go to Finland. No one even knows where Finland is! They were so excited that someone asked for Finland that I was a shoe-in. They happily phoned to offer me an exchange in Finland. What was I going to say? I went.

I tried to learn Finnish before I left. I’m good at languages. It was something completely new. Finno-Ugaric languages have very little in common with Romance languages! When I stepped on the plane with Karyn Engler I could say a few things besides the basics of please and thank you, hello and good bye:

“I’m a Canadian exchange student.”
“I don’t speak Finnish.”
“I’m hungry.”
“I’m thirsty.”

“I’m lost.”

“Where’s the bathroom?”
“Get your hands off me.”

“ice cream” and “Help!”

You’d be surprised just how far those simple phrases can take you! (By my first month in Finland I’d used them all!)

Unlike most of the other outbound students, I had not heard from my host family before I’d left Canada. All I knew about them was from the letter I’d received from my club exchange officer: their professions and family composition. It was very scary going off to a new culture and language with so little information, but it was an adventure and I was ready for anything.

After a week of orientation in Karkku my host father and sister came to get me. We had a few hours to drive to get to Kotka where they lived. I liked them immediately. They were quiet, intellectual and kind. My sister had a shy smile that won me instantly. It was when I arrived at their home though, that my true transition began.

As I opened the front door, a warm bundle of love grabbed me in a crushing hug and weepily exclaimed, “Tervetuloa! Velcome!” As my host-mom beamed at me with excitement and affection, I knew I had a new home. I was on my way to becoming half-Finnish “puoli-Suomalainen” in my heart.


PS.  Click on “Rotary” on the categories list to find my other blogs on being an exchange student.


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