Every little thing that happens in your life builds towards the person you become. My life altering moment came at the age of 16, when I went to Belgium for a year on a Rotary Youth Exchange program.
Being the youngest daughter from a traditional, Indian joint family, I had always been shielded from the “big bad world”. Just out of High school, totally confused and almost close to zero cross-cultural interaction or knowledge. It was the era before the fanatical advent of the social media! You can imagine the culture shock.
However, my struggle started before I even reached Belgium. As I had studied in a boarding school since the age of 9, my dad wasn’t very keen on sending me away for a whole year again. But me being my adamant and stubborn self, found a way and got hold of the forms. Although my dad could have easily helped me out with the entire visa process and all other paper work that followed, he simply said, “If you plan to stay on your own for a year, you should be able to do all this. I will not be there to help you in Belgium”. I think it was one of his ruse to try to keep me from going! But in the end I did land up going. Yay! This helped me learn that I need to work for my success it’s not going to be given to me on a silver platter. Ever! Also, my “spoon-feeding” years were now officially over. Damn!
That is how I arrived in a country with no knowledge of their culture, history or language! Lucky for me, the Belgians are not like the “stereotypical” French people we hear about. They spoke to me and tried to interact with me in spite of me not knowing the language (I became an expert at sign language!). And my second host dad, Daniel; even made a deal with me that he would speak in English to me and I in French to him so we can both polish are language skills! That worked immensely – for both of us I hope! (Need to brush up on my French again! That means a trip to Belgium should be on the cards now *wink wink*)
At first when I reached there, it all felt so new and weird. I wondered what was I doing there? Why did I sign up for this? Why did I leave the comfort of my home and came to a place where no one understands me. And (of course!) the weather did not help either. But then after a couple of months when I had settled down to the new life, people, school, culture and friends, it was absolutely worth it. Patience and determination paid off.
I stayed with three amazing families while I was there. Met so many wonderful people from all over the world. How ever difficult and life changing it was, I enjoyed every bit. On retrospect, it was one of the best decision I made. I became independent, stronger and more confident of myself.
If today anyone asks me if they should go on this exchange, or any exchange for that matter, I would instinctively say yes. Not even a moment will be regretted.
A few memories! (A couple year ago my had disk crashed, these are a few photos I managed to salvage, and Facebook to the rescue!)