- Posted March 16, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Why study abroad? Ask Michelle Obama
Being a Youth Ambassador
I was 14 when the travel bug first bit me, when the wanderlust creeped into my veins. Growing up in a suburban town, I had never travelled farther than Canada, but I wanted to see more of the world. I couldn't tell you what it was that made me realize there was so much more out there, maybe my world history class or an article I read, but I knew that I had to go out and explore the vast unknown that was the world around me. I applied for a few different scholarships to travel abroad, and on April 13, 2012 I received the e-mail that I had been accepted to the Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad Youth Exchange and Study Abroad Program (KL YES Abroad). Created after September 11th, the YES program is sponsored by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to create understanding between American youth and youth from countries with significant Muslim populations. It sends 65 Americans abroad each year, as well as brings in 600 teens from other countries to attend high school and live with families in the US. The scholarship I received sent me to spend my sophomore year abroad in Malaysia. Before I left, people in my school bombarded me with questions, everything from whether or not I would be living in trees to how I would live without Starbucks for a year.
I was 15 when I got on a plane and left behind everything I knew, the town I had lived in my whole life. When I first stepped out of the airport into the Malaysian heat, I was immediately struck by how different everything was. It was a sensory overload. People were shouting in different languages, the air was full of a spicy scent from street vendors, shopkeepers called out for people to look at their brightly colored fabrics and sparkling jewelry. I was simultaneously hooked and overwhelmed.
As part of my program, I lived with a Malaysian host family. I was completely immersed in their culture, living under their roof and becoming ingrained in their daily routine. They were eager to share. They took me back to their village for the last few days of Ramadan and the subsequent Eid celebration. I fasted with them for five days, and helped to cook traditional foods, and of course eat them. My host family didn’t speak English very well, and I left the US knowing three words of sign language, so there was a lot of sign language and some miscommunications at first, but the bond I developed with them far surpassed any cultural barriers. After a while, the “host” in host family disappeared. I was a daughter and a sister, and they were my second family. They were there for me when I was at my most homesick times, and put up with my sad attempts at cooking American dishes (granted, they had no stove so I was at a disadvantage). Despite all our differences-- religious, cultural, geographic, physical, we were a family. I also attended a local Malaysian school, where I was the only white face in a sea of Asian features. It meant all eyes were always on me. My very first day of school, I had to stand up in front of every single student and teacher and introduce myself. I was nervous and shy and probably a little awkward, but I was met with thunderous applause. They were so excited that an American wanted to learn about their culture. For them, I was a face and a name to a country they had heard so much about. This of course raised some questions, and I must have told at least 400 people that Americans don’t eat McDonald’s every day, or that high school isn’t really like High School Musical, there’s a lot less singing for one. The Malaysian education system is very different than the American one; the students stay in one classroom the whole day, and the different subject teachers switch classrooms. The class kind of becomes like a little family, as they spend the whole day together. The 41 girls in my class became translators, cultural teachers, and above all friends. One of my favorite days of school was a few days before “summer” break (there are no seasons in Malaysia). My biology teacher, who always made a point to slip me mooncakes and other treats, took my class outside for a few hours. He cut down coconuts from one of the trees on the school grounds and we shared them, sipping the sweet coconut water, then scooping out the flesh. It was one of those moments where we were enjoying each other’s presence as humans, rather than nationalities.
In Malay, there is a word “boleh.” Directly translated, it means can, but in Malaysia it’s more of as sure, why not? In developing a “boleh” attitude towards my exchange year I had some of the best adventures. I went jungle trekking in the highlands to see the world's largest (and smelliest) flower, I waded through a river to learn how to cook handmade bread over a fire, I saw countless sunsets and rises, I fell in love with exploring. Malaysia is a multi-cultural country, so not only did I learn about my host family’s Islamic traditions, I spent time with Indians and Chinese to learn about theirs. I had henna done and dressed up in sarees for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. I went to Buddhist chanting ceremonies and released paper lanterns into the sky for Lunar NEw Year. I learned so much, just from everyday life. I was also very lucky to participate in community service, teaching English to students on an island in the Northeast of the country, giving presentations about the United States to Malaysian students, serving food to people making religious pilgrimages.
Studying abroad wasn’t always easy. I got homesick, I missed out on a year of sweet sixteens and school dances and Friday nights at the mall, but I learned so much more. You really become the face of your country for your host community. There were questions that were hard to answer: if Americans really hate Muslims, why we were sending troops to the Middle East, my opinions on gun laws. In offering my perspective, I think what others took away from that was that not all Americans fit the stereotypes. Misconceptions happen for a reason, and if I changed even one mind by sharing my experience as an American girl, then I made an impact.
So what do you gain from exchange? There’s the tangible stuff, the fluency in a new language, the sparkly sarees and bangles your suitcases will be full of when you return, the stamps in your passport, but it’s the stuff you can’t see that matters most. The family and friends you now have,the greater appreciation you have for your host and your home country, the memories of standing in the village watching fireworks with people you didn’t even know a year ago. A country I knew little about before I went there became a second home. The world has opened up to me, places becoming more than colors and lines on a map.
I left the United States as a shy, oblivious, and typical American teen, but I came back different. I became much more comfortable with myself, more confident, more tolerant, more aware. I now know what I want to do with my life, and have a pretty much endless list of countries I want to explore. Exchange wasn’t a year of my life, it was a life in a year.
Maybe the question isn’t what is there to gain from going abroad, it’s what is there to lose.
My name is Hannah Foster, I’m 17 years old, and studying abroad changed my life.