I was one of seven people in my high school class who took four years of German, and let me tell you, that was one of the best decisions I ever made. Not only do I get to say I’m “proficient” in German on applications and résumés, I also had the opportunity to be part of not one, but two exchanges with German students. And it was rad. I made some amazing friends, experienced a rich and wonderful (if not somewhat guttural) culture, and learned some seriously significant life lessons. This is what I have elaborated on below.
You have to proceed no matter what.
What ended up being probably the most important thing I learned from doing a foreign exchange was also the first thing I learned, and I also did not realize I had learned it until a year or two later. Evidently I’m bad at learning. Anyway, I flew into Hamburg by myself and was feeling pretty confident until we started descending into the airport. Suddenly it dawned on my American and sleep-deprived mind that I had never landed in a foreign airport before. Where was I supposed to go? What would I have to say to customs agents? Would there be customs agents? What the hell is “baggage claim” in German?
Most of these problems were solved very quickly because, as it turns out, busy international airports are actually prepared for lost and scared travelers. There were signs everywhere, no one expected me to know everything, and everything was in English as well as German so I still don’t know what “baggage claim” is in German. I went through customs, got my bag, and found my host family, and everything was okay.
As I later realized, a huge part of the reason everything was okay was because I did not have a meltdown on the plane when it came to my attention how woefully unprepared I was. At that point, I had two options: I could either give up and start crying, or I could nut up, walk off the plane, and throw myself at the mercy of my own instincts and the almighty travel gods. In choosing the second option, I was able to not only avoid serious public embarrassment, I also figured out that being unprepared does not mean total failure.
This might seem obvious, but for a shy kid who wasn’t (and isn’t, let’s be honest) really used to putting myself out there, it was a major revelation. I didn’t have to shut down, give up, or cling to someone more experienced in a new situation. I didn’t need to desperately remember directions given to me ahead of time– I didn’t even need directions in the first place. I was smart and self-possessed enough to figure things out, and that has significantly reduced anxiety in my life on many occasions. (Specifically, college.)
Everyone speaks English, but that doesn’t mean you should.
Everyone has always told me my entire life that immersion is the best way to learn a language. I’m sure there’s science to back this up because I seriously doubt that every educator in my life has been lying to me (not again). I’ve just always been highly suspicious of this statement because it seems like there’s just not enough context to actually help a foreigner understand the language. And I still haven’t personally found the truth in this, because everyone in Germany speaks English.
This isn’t an exaggeration. They start learning English in elementary school (I went to several first and second grade classes where I heard children speaking in better-constructed English sentences than some of my high school classmates) and keep learning for the rest of their education. The result of this was that I didn’t actually need to use my German skills because everyone was more capable of speaking to me in my mother tongue than I was in theirs. This was especially true because the family I stayed with had lived in Scotland for six months. (The other outcome was that one of the children has an American accent and the other has a Scottish one, but that’s not particularly relevant.)
So add one German family that is fluent in English to a very shy American in an unfamiliar situation and the result is a lot of English speaking. Sure, we tried doing German hour, but that lasted for a week before we all tacitly agreed to give up. So while I had an incredibly eye-opening and horizons-broadening experience, I missed out on what would’ve been the best way for me to improve my language skills.
Luckily for me, I went back to Germany the next summer with a group, and I had the opportunity to learn from my past mistakes. I was tempted to skate through communication the same way I had last time, but luckily I had both a family that didn’t speak English as well as the family I stayed with the previous summer and a teacher who did not tolerate any of our American shenanigans, which included speaking our language.
It was hard. I was mentally exhausted after every conversation and painfully aware of how poorly I spoke German, especially compared to the German students’ English skills. But in conversing with Germans in German, I was able to improve my listening and speaking skills, vocabulary, and accent. Plus I learned how to say a lot of profane words in German. Not “baggage claim,” though.
Joining a new family is awkward, but worth it.
Full disclosure, my longest consecutive stay with one family was only about four weeks. I probably can’t speak to this as well as someone who has done, say, a year long exchange, but I did stay in touch with my first host family for a year before I visited them again for another two weeks. Even though neither I nor my exchange partner lived with the other’s family for more than a month, we’re all still family, and it’s delightful.
It did not start out that way.
Meeting new people on its own is awkward and mildly stressful, but when you are more or less invading their home and leaching their food and resources, it adds a whole new layer to the awkward. I of course already knew my exchange partner, but I had to get to know her parents and younger brother unless I wanted to spend a month avoiding them in their own house. I didn’t.
Luckily, both of my host families are awesome. However, I’m going to focus on the first one I met because I’ve known them longer and have spent more time with them. The parents are both educators and very friendly– the only word I can come up with to describe my host parents is “jolly.” (German probably has a better, longer word.) It was incredibly easy to get along to them, because in addition to being perfectly wonderful people they reminded me of my own parents in the best ways. My host partner told me after staying with my family that she thought our dads would be best friends, and I immediately agreed after meeting her father. Spoiler alert, they met last summer and are best friends. So are our moms.
The most daunting of these relationships was, in both cases, my host partner’s sibling. It’s some awkward in-between of developing a friendship and a sibling relationship, where you don’t necessarily have to be friends, but it’s so much easier if you are. If you decide on peacefully coexisting, it’s still awkward because you’re both just kind of waiting for the inevitable interactions to end when the visitor leaves.
With my first family, I ended up not even having an option to coexist because I had to go to school with my partner’s younger brother for a week while she was doing work experience. My only sibling experience is with an older sister, so I initially just resigned myself to the most uncomfortable week of my life because it seemed more or less impossible for it to not be.
After first being introduced to the family, however, I realized how straight-up awful it would be if the next month remained just as awkward as the first day, so I had to revise my game plan. We found out that we both liked Lord of the Rings, Imagine Dragons, and their stupid fat cat Püppi (the light of my life who I miss more than them sometimes.) We were able to use these mutual interests to go from talking only about Lord of the Rings, Imagine Dragons, and Püppi to actually having conversations that normal human beings have to being friends. These were probably the highest-stake relationships I’ve made in my life, but also some of the best.
Long distance friendships are not impossible.
Since these were only exchange trips and not permanent arrangements, I eventually had to leave my families and return to the U.S. of A. It sucked.
Saying goodbye to a family who welcomed you into their home and did their best to give you a fun, educational experience of their country is really hard, especially when you have no clear plans of ever seeing them again. I’m not ashamed to admit how much I cried at the airport; those were some of the most painful goodbyes I’ve ever said. However, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in maintaining these relationships, not the least because of Facebook. While ten years ago I would’ve had to write an email and twenty years ago, a letter, I can essentially text my Germans when I want to ask them a question, send them a picture, or just let them know I miss them.
It sucks sometimes, obviously. No amount of technology can replace actually being with a person you care about, and there are days that the only thing stopping me from buying a plane ticket to Germany is the fact that I can’t afford it. But in the end, I am beyond lucky to be in a position to write to my Germans on a whim, skype with them, and make plans to see them again. It’s a lot harder than maintaining friendships with people you see every day, and it would be easy to say it isn’t worth it and give up. Even though it definitely is worth it.