Shawn L. Bird

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

poem- remember June 4, 2014

Äiti was crying when I left

 hugging me close and weeping.

“Äiti?”

“Et unohta” she whispered.

Don’t forget.

“Muistat sinun Suomen kielesta,

en osaa puhua englanti!” she sniffed.

You have to remember your Finnish!

I can’t speak English!

“Minä muistan,  Äiti.”

I will remember.

Years dripped by

on memories and melancholy

but still

Muistan, Äiti.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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

 

 
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