Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Life as a Foreign Exchange Student

In about a week and a half, I'll be flying to NYC to meet up with my family from Brazil and…wait…I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me explain how I came to have family from Brazil and how gaining this extended family changed my life.

After high school graduation, I deferred my admission to UCLA to take the path less traveled: I embarked on a foreign exchange to Brazil via Rotary International. Yes, that's right, without knowing a single word in Portuguese, I left my family, friends, and then-boyfriend behind to live with complete strangers, attend school in a foreign language, and act as an American student ambassador for a year. I wasn't sure what to expect because I didn't know much about Brazil. I heard there were some beautiful places like Rio, Foz do Iguaçu and the Amazon, and I knew they spoke Portuguese, but that was it. So, not having done a ton of research ahead of time [because I wasn't really tech-savvy], I packed two suitcases filled with summer clothes, a journal, a Lonely Planet phrase book, and got on a plane headed for Brazil (crazy, I know).

Little did I know, this exchange would open my eyes to a whole world beyond my little Fresnoan one and change the direction of my life forever. I remember looking out the window of my plane and seeing tons of red roofs as I was about to land. I started feeling nervous. What am I doing? I thought. Oh God, please help me survive this! There is no turning back now. I was greeted by host cousin, Daniela, and had the funniest time trying to communicate, which continued with everyone I met for the next few months. It was such a struggle! But I kept at it. I got on my connecting flight and met my host parents and some friends in Dracena, the town I would call my home for the next 12 months. Those first few days were filled with hand motions, stuttering, Portañol (Portuguese mixed with Spanish), broken English, and laughter. It was beautiful. Luckily, I had my phrase book to help out a bit. I met SO many new people and I wanted to get to know them and hold real conversations with them. I knew it would take a lot of studying on my own and asking LOTS of questions, so I got out of my comfort zone and got to work. I was excited and eager to learn. Through all of this, it didn't take long to overcome the language barrier and love my Brazilian families and friends. Something you have to know about Brazilians is they possess a very, very warm culture of embraces and kisses. The beauty of this process is that we were all trying and learning from each other, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience for all of us.

Part of the adventure of being a Rotary foreign exchange student is getting to meet other students from different countries and hang out in their cities and Rotary activities. Because we were all away from our families and in the same situation, we had an automatic bond, and friendship flourished from there. I met some of the most amazing kids, some crazier than others, but we had so much fun together. It's been 7 years or so since then, but I have done my best to keep in contact with them. I've even been able to visit some some of them in their own countries during my travels. So blessed!

Being sent to Brazil was one of the greatest blessings of my life. I loved everything about my exchange and learned so much from it. It took a lot of work on my part to get out of my comfort zone and expose myself to new things, but it pushed every part of me to grow and mature. Being immersed in the culture allowed me to learn their stories and way of life, and see how similar we are as humans, cross-culturally. It further demonstrated to me how no matter where we are around the world, we are all created in the image of God; beautiful individuals with great potential and destinies, granted if opportunities are available. We can all seek to be more understanding of one another. There is a connection I feel with these people that will last until the end of time. The family and friends I gained and everything I learned about this new world are invaluable and have contributed tremendously to the person I am today. My new Brazilian family helped me get through some of the toughest times in my life (my parents got a divorce while I was gone and I was really worried about my siblings but that's a story for another time) and really took me in with open arms. That alone made me feel like God really knew me and He knew I needed these specific individuals in my life during that time. They did everything to make this a wonderful experience for me. And for that, I am eternally grateful. Just grateful. As I'm writing this a gush of longing and desire to be with them just overwhelm me… I think about them often and I can't wait to go back home soon.

In the mean time, this coming month, I finally have the wonderful opportunity of getting to host my host-parents from my first host-family, Adel and Telma. They are coming all the way to the U.S. to see me again [after 7 years] and to meet my own family! I'm beyond thrilled! We have so many great things planned from visiting New York City to Vegas to California (my home state)! I'm a bit nervous because so much has changed over the years, for one, I'm in a wheelchair now and another, I just had a baby - so baby fat is everywhere. jk. but seriously. Anyway, I'll just have to get passed that because getting to see my parents again will be glorious! I'm so excited for my little boy to meet his grandparents, aunt, and uncle. SO Excited! P.S. In case you couldn't already, going on an exchange was the greatest thing ever for me and I would highly recommend it [I secretly really, really hope Boston wants go on an exchange as well]!

Follow us on our vacation through the states in the next few posts. I'll do my best to keep you all updated!

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