Shawn L. Bird

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

poem- around the world April 6, 2020

Filed under: Poetry — Shawn L. Bird @ 9:06 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I’m on a site celebrating my adopted culture

when someone asks which of us were exchange students.

Suddenly there are 50 comments:

their years, their homes, their hosts.

Someone writes to me from Australia,

“We were there at the same time. I wonder if we met?”

Imagine that.

A virtual rendez-vous decades later.

A tiny marble, this globe; we can

almost hold it in our hands.



6 word poem in summary of my life October 1, 2013

Filed under: Poetry — Shawn L. Bird @ 12:07 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I was lying in the bath, trying to think of a sentence that summarizes my life at the moment and I came up with

“I am home”

This summarizes my essential contentment with everything in my life: my new continuing contract at a school I love, opportunity to write and receive feedback from wonderful readers, and my brilliant husband of many, many years and the time we have together.

That just seemed too simple, so I thought of 6 word poems, and decided I needed 3 more words, and ended up with,

“Wherever I am, I am home”

Now I feel like a philosopher. ūüôā

I first discovered this concept when I was an exchange student in Finland, and I realised that even though I was known as ‘The Canadian Evangelist” (because as the lone Canadian in my district, lost in a sea of Americans, I was obliged to be loud and proud about national superiority) I knew that I could quite happily have stayed in Finland. ¬†I have experienced this sensation many times since. ¬†If you’re content in your skin, ¬†and you’re connected to those around you, it doesn’t matter where you are physically. ¬†You can live in a tent and be well satisfied.

Explaining it completely defeats the purpose of it being only 6 words, doesn’t it? lol

How about you? ¬†What’s your 6 word poem? (with or without long-winded explanation!) ūüėČ


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.


Rotary is amazing August 12, 2010

Once again at our weekly Rotary meeting, I was struck by how this organization is amazing in the scope of its vision and in the power of its members to make the vision reality.  We had two guests, a Rotarian from Calgary, and a pop in visit by a Past District Governer from Kenya.  How cool is that?  Kenya.  A few weeks ago we had Rotarian guests from Finland and from the Philippines.  It is astonishing how wide our world is, and how interesting Rotarians are all over the place!

We had a typical summer meeting.  About half the club was away and our guest speaker had canceled on us a couple days before.    A few quick calls had been made to our outbound exchange student and a former exchange student to Malaysia who was in town from university.  Both of them gave us some time, and our meeting was quite delightful and inspiring.  It is a shame that only 11 of us got to experience the inspiration!

Many clubs sponsor the Youth Exchange program and believe in its power to improve the world, one young person at a time.  Last night that was very powerfully illustrated to me, and I think our outbound Maddie (who is off to Argentina this weekend) and her father were quite amazed by the possibilities of the journey she is embarking upon when they heard Chad Shipmaker speak.

Chad remarked to me¬†at dinner that Rotary owns him.¬† It is certainly no doubt that¬†this organization¬†changed his life, though he is an impressive young man in his own right, and would have found a way to change the world without us, I’m sure.¬† I am just really glad that we have been involved, because we get to have some familial pride in his accomplishments.¬† After¬† his time as¬† a Rotary Youth Exchange¬†student¬†in Malaysia, Chad returned home to do a Bachelor’s degree at University of Victoria.¬† He worked in Africa for awhile in development work.¬† He was home working here when¬†Rotary came into his life again.

Although many clubs participate in Youth Exchange, many fewer sponsor Group Study Exchange candidates.  Due in no small part to the efforts of Lynda Wilson, our current club president who was formerly on the GSE District committee while she was Dean of Okanagan College, our club regularly sponsors GSE applicants, and quite frequently our applicants are chosen by the district to join the team.  Chad Shipmaker was chosen as a member on a team that went to Chile.  Back on our radar, we started keeping a closer eye on him.

Soon after, he decided to do his master’s degree and applied to be a Peace scholar.¬† Our club proposed him.¬† The district agreed with our nomination and forwarded his application to Rotary International.¬† Rotary International was¬†as impressed as we have¬†been,¬†and so this last year Chad has been studying at the Duke Centre for International Development in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.¬† He is “Fellow, Master of International Development Policy” and “Rotary World Peace Fellow.”¬† Even the titles sound impressive.¬† Just wait until you find out what he’s learning!¬†

As I listened to Chad’s awe over the people he’s meeting, the speakers he’s hearing, and the work he’s been doing at the World Food Agency in DC, I can’t help but be inspired.¬† Chad is just one amazing alumni of our Rotary Youth Exchange program.¬† Not all RYE students are going to end up doing things quite as amazing as Chad, but we are in good company when we support the organization that gives us all the opportunities to change the world through the skills honed and polished through involvement with Rotary.¬†

Vision and the power to make it so.  Wow. 

 Rotary is awesome.


PS. Stay tuned for another blog on the amazing accomplishments of Chad Shipmaker, coming soon to this space!


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.


Rotary Youth Exchange: open mind, broken heart July 27, 2010

Filed under: Commentary,Rotary — Shawn L. Bird @ 12:41 am
Tags: , , , ,

In the blog about The Exchange Student Cycle, I mentioned that at the end of an exchange, the worst part of being an exchange student becomes clear. No one warns you about how difficult it is to come home.

When you choose to be an exchange student, you know in your head that you are going to become attached to your new country. You know that you will have host families and that you will make friends abroad. You hope they will be close friends. You hope you will love your families. Friends and families provide the strength and value of an exchange, but they also cause the greatest pain. When you leave home, you expect to see all your friends and families in a year, but when it comes time to leave your new country, you realize that you may never see these people again. They have become a precious part of your life, and you are leaving them behind to return to your old life. If you have had the wonderful year you wanted to have, you are about to be disemboweled. Unless you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, it is unlikely you will ever have experienced the suffering you will endure when you leave your exchange friends and families behind to return to your old life. You can never return to your exchange life. Even if you return to the country, it will never be the same again.

If you’ve had a successful exchange year, you will have embraced a new life. You will feel part of a new culture. You’ll be dreaming in a new language. You will feel like you belong in that world, and the life you left at home will seem very, very far away. You will wonder that you ever found it strange and difficult to fit in. You will find it difficult to remember what life was really like back home, and that’s the moment when they send you home.

Now the crushing truth becomes clear. You are leaving people you love behind, and you may never see them again. The pain is engulfing. Your heart is about to be torn in half, and left behind in your exchange country. When your heart is left behind, the exchange was everything it was supposed to be.

Rotary Youth Exchange: opening minds and breaking hearts since 1929.


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.


%d bloggers like this: