Everything started three years ago as I was only a regular student in Libya not giving much thoughts to my future. Around that time, I was newly introduced to the concept ‘Exchange Student’. It wasn’t long before I became one. It is certainly a unique experience with its ups and downs, but also a culture that combined my Libyan lifestyle with the American lifestyle. As an exchange student I experienced being a member of the culture of exchange. It involved going through many steps to out of the comfort zone.
As I was laying on bed one day, I received a text message from a friend telling me that they started accepting applications of students who want to study abroad, in America specifically. I didn’t really care much about it, because I doubted that there were such programs in a country that barely had a government after an epic revolution. Anyhow, I didn’t see any harm in applying, so I did. Shortly, I got an email saying that I should take an English test- it was provided by the scholarship center. To me it was my first time to get an email from a real person; usually it’s just advertisements or notifications. I haven’t had any special language courses, but at the time my English was unnoticeably improving by watching American TV; however, I only knew that when I went to take the test and after that an interview. I was actually surprised that I did well on both of them, because before that I never really spoke English. A year later after many orientations and paperwork, I was informed that I had been selected to be one of the eight Libyan students to go to the U.S.
Before I came, the only picture I had of America was what I saw on TV (shows and movies), but after I arrived here, it didn’t take me very long to realize that that picture was far away from reality, America was much different than what I had imagined. It was just normal people like anywhere else in the world. They were all very nice and very accepting to guests like me. At first, it was a bit hard to be put in a different culture, but it wasn’t long before I got used to it, and started being a member of my American family – the family that hosted me. After the first weeks I didn’t feel away from home anymore; I felt like I had a new home.
After a few days of being in the U.S., I met all of the other exchange students in my area (Portland and Vancouver). Although we haven’t known nor seen each other before, we all became best friends; instantly. We all felt a special connection, because we were all away from
our natural families, and we were just each other’s family. We all shared very similar experiences with our American host families, and how it was different from our homes. The food was probably the biggest difference we felt; also the people around us weren’t the ones that we are used to seeing back home. The interesting thing was that each one of us was from a total different country, and some were even from different continents, but we were all in one boat sailing on foreign oceans.
Being an exchange student can possibly be seen as a responsibility. As exchange students, we felt, dutifully, as we were some sort of ambassadors; not only representing our countries, but also reflecting our own cultures and traditions and presenting them as best as we could. For me, the cultural change was particularly very different, because, as I learned throughout the year, the Libyan culture is very influenced by religion, so much so that it was very strict in different ways, especially towards women. Sadly, many Libyans think that women should have less rights than men.
After staying here for a period of time, we – exchange students, have realized that we developed almost our own culture. It is a culture that has a little bit from our homelands and a bit from where we lived in America; sometimes neither our friends at home nor ours in America gets what we do or say. A friend of mine that was an exchange student last year, wrote a very expressive statement about that on Facebook after she went back to her country. She said: “It’s strange how bad I miss America and how, at the same time, feel like I really don’t belong neither there nor here”.
We often shared what had changed in us and how we began seeing things differently. We learned that all of our cultures stereotyped Americans in their own way, in fact they stereotyped all
people, but with this up-close-experience we knew, for a fact, that whatever we were convinced by our cultures was wrong, and that people are just the same everywhere, some of them are good and some are bad. On the other hand, we saw what people thought of our cultures; though most of the times people didn’t know anything about them. It taught us, not only how to live away from home, but also how to tolerate and accept people regardless of their backgrounds or appearances, it even taught us how to think in a different way by looking to the world from a different perspective. We were always pushed out of our comfort zone, as a group and as individuals. I personally got used to it. I think it became more of a natural thing to us. Although, in reality, this experience was only a year of our lives, we all agreed that it was certainly a life in one year.
The conversation around people from all over the world, always has a different taste; it is a conversation with neither social nor cultural barriers, also with an endless amount of fun. The language that is used is not English, but the closest thing to it. Although the vocabulary is American English, you would always hear a bizarre formation of sentences that Americans cannot make sense of it, but somehow we can all understand each other very well; for example, sometimes I would want to explain something or tell a story, to convey a specific meaning, I would try to find the equivalent, of the particular Arabic expression, in English. Often, I end up not finding it and my story just does not make sense. However, around other exchange students I don’t even have to find an equivalent to expressions, I just translate the literal meaning of the words, then, oddly enough, we start laughing because we both know that it doesn’t exist in English, but we just understand each other.
Looking back to the way I was living and thinking, when I was in Libya, I never thought I would be a part of a new type of culture that would change the way I look to everything. Although it is a culture that I could only experience one year of my life, but it definitely had an impact on me that will last all of my life.