The year of living away
By Walter Ang
March 13, 2002
Philippine Daily Inquirer
AFTER my high school graduation, I spent a few agonizing weeks deciding if I should take a year off as an exchange student to the U.S.A. My father and I asked inputs from our relatives and got opinions ranging from skepticism ("You'll lose interest in going to school when you return because all your former batchmates will be ahead of you.") to enthusiastic encouragement ("It's a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity!").
I was fortunate enough to have already experienced a 4-week study tour stint in Seattle. That trip was already beyond my wildest expectations, so I hadn't expected repeating the experience on a longer timeframe. A one-year program was recommended to my dad and he confided that he was a frustrated exchange student and it was his dream to let his children experience it.
I was giddy, excited, scared and occasionally nauseous at the chance of spending a year alone abroad living with a host family. I'd go to college, meet people and "expand my horizons." Going through an agency would drastically reduce the cost versus doing the arrangements on our own, but I still worried about the cost since it wasn't simply like buying peanuts in the park.
We finally decided and a few months later, I was smack in the middle of Clinton City in Iowa state. Not yet quite a farming town but not exactly a bustling metropolis, it was an interesting change of environment for someone who grew up inhaling the noxious fumes of downtown Manila. All that big, blue sky unobstructed by tall buildings. And all those cornfields!
The first few months were a whirlwind of activity. Getting used to living with another family, meeting the seven other European exchange students who were in the same exchange program, adjusting to the school system and so on.
I hung out a lot with the other exchange students since we were all in the same boat. We clung to each other for support and constantly compared notes on our experiences. It got a little slow as the months wore on. After all, we were teenagers and got bored easily. The nearest mall was 45 minutes away (and that's going the maximum speed on the highway)!
And even though we had already been told the "real" America was nothing like "Melrose Place" or all those other chi-chi shows you see on TV, deep inside, you always kind of compare. I did have moments where I had to stop and pinch myself because living with a family of tall, blonde-haired, English speaking Caucasians did feel like I was in a TV show on certain occasions. It was very surreal at times!
But through it all, it was great fun to experience so many new things. I got to know my very amiable host-family, the Wheelers. We'd do a lot of things like go on trips or spend Thursday nights watching "e.r." together. My host dad Jerry liked to listen to classical music in his basement office-nook. My host sister Sarah and I would have fun conversations while she drove me to school. While host brother Noah and I loved to make fun of everything we saw on TV. My host mom Cheryl made me a wonderful blue quilt for Christmas that year and I still use it as a blanket to this very day.
I got to rake leaves during the fall (it smells ? er, different!). In winter, we'd sometimes wake up at the ungodly hour of 4a.m. to shovel snow off the driveway so we could leave on time at 6a.m. It was a little tough for me in winter because I experienced Seasonal Depression, although I didn't realize it at the time. I guess coming from a tropical country, not getting my fair share of UV rays from the sun affected me more than I cared to admit.
That same winter, the exchange students took a limousine to Chicago. The limo was cheaper with the bill split between us compared to buying individual bus tickets. Apart from being oh-so-glamorous, the service was door to door, not bus station to bus station! On New Year's Eve, we ate at a fancy restaurant complete with paper hats
("Just like on TV!") and forgot to tip the waiters. They ran out to the street after us!
Travel was just part of the perks in the program. We were "ambassadors of goodwill," forging ties and friendship in behalf of our respective countries. We were invited to speak at Ladies' Clubs, churches, and even with the local boy scout troop. "Do you have a moon in Europe?" someone once asked Anne from Belgium. "We have two! One of them is purple," she deadpanned, tired of being asked such silly questions.
I once got asked if Filipinos really ate dogs. To which I gave the prepared answer, "It's not good, it's not bad. It's just different." Sometimes I would add, "After all, cows are sacred in India and you guys love hamburgers."
Away from home
Transplanted from everything that you're familiar with gives you a chance to find out who you are without your old friends, without your family, without your usual arsenal of comfort zones. It's a great way to learn who you are and what you're capable of, even if you don't realize it at the time.
But in the end, it dawns on you that no matter where you are and where you're from, you're more likely to find similarities with people rather than differences. My host dad Jerry once asked me what kids in Manila liked to do in their spare time. I shrugged my shoulder and said, "Hang out at the mall." He laughed, "I guess teenagers around the world are all the same!"
We got our certificates of completion when school ended in May. I rushed back for the June opening of school here (the Europeans got to stay and travel some more). I became the only freshman student on "irregular" status on the first semester because I had some of my classes credited. But I had more fun that way because I got to meet more people instead of being stuck with my blockmates all the time. But that's another story.
An article like this is never going to be enough to recount all the wonderful, crazy, hilarious things that went on in my one-year stay away from home. I can't believe how many years have actually passed since. But I always remember it like it was just yesterday. I still keep in touch with my family in Clinton.
To all the parents out there, if you have the means to send your children away for an extended period of time, I strongly, strongly urge you to do so. It'll be a gift that's priceless.