What would I do to be eighteen again? I belonged to a group that would inevitably fall apart by summer. They were high school exchange students.
The first day of my senior year felt oddly different. Seated near the doorway of Social Science Survey, I glimpsed at whatever faces were nearby. I remember thinking to myself just how baffling it was that they all looked so young. They didn’t resemble the seniors featured in American movies or from when I was a freshman. Regardless of all that we were the “Ones” for that year. The teacher’s introduction was interrupted once a chunky staff lady nervously called on my name. For a moment I was the center of attention. It turned out that I didn’t pick up my last-minute updated schedule that conveniently wasn’t changed at all for me. Did I mention how this was one of the best years of my short life so far? No, no I didn’t.
One morning before class sometime during the first week, I went to my locker as I always did just to de-clutter my bag decorated with printed graffiti skulls and smoke clouds, or some other crap like that (R.I.P Border’s). And just a little bit towards my right from where I exited the bus, I could see my morning group of around five or six kids that were labeled “The Weirdos” by others higher in the social hierarchy. Like every other morning, I sat down outside of the semi-circle listening to random topics which usually did not interest me in all honestly. That year an exchange student joined in simply because her host brother happened to be a part of our little group. He was the second quietest, while I was the first. The girl was pretty short, had medium-length black hair, and spoke English slowly, which was quite a nice contrast to the ones that frequently yelled: “I need an adult!” or “that’s what she said!”
Making Actual Friends
I connected with a Turkish girl better than with the local people throughout those four years although our personalities differed quite a bit, undoubtedly. Unlike me she showed interest in guys and actually knew how to socialize with others. I was the opposite of that. We were like Yin and Yang in some ways, which is definitely not an overused expression. But that is the gist of it. The two of us clicked thanks to our interests in drawing and metal music. For the first time I would actually see others’ houses more than once a year.
The thought of being an exchange student myself terrified me. If memory serves me well there were at least two others from different organizations in our high school of close to three thousand students. One of them I befriended more towards the end of the year. He was from Hong Kong. He played the piano beautifully while also studying the scarily complicated subject of biology. In the beginning, soft English was spoken just like most new arrivals. Who could question why? All of them had come across with several ignorant comments or generalizations about their countries (ex. Does Internet exist in your country?), and hell, learning a new language in front of swarms of native speakers can be absolutely terrifying. Towards the end of his exchange year he would roll his eyes when students would assume that Hong Kong was just another city in China. After temporary annoyances fade, personal growth remains.
There were others I saw less yet their youthful vigor for life left a lasting impact. There was this French girl I knew that always danced and joked at our get-togethers. Now whenever I re-watch the Bridesmaids scene of Annie attacking a giant cookie, I can’t help but remember that one time when the AMC people turned off all of the projectors because of a tornado in the area. At first it seemed like a normal day at the movies for a group of teenagers, almost. I remember the French girl anxiously saying, “I’m going to die in America.” Then everyone had the option of leaving the movie theatre and was given a free movie ticket before heading out. Nice.
Photographs and Fashion
One stereotype that will never entirely escape exchange students is that increased desire to capture many moments via photography. Whether it is documenting moments before exotic greasy food consummation or immortalizing the far view one had of Sears Tower beside the car window, many seemingly everyday mundane activities were in fact not so mundane for others accustomed to an entirely different culture. There were times when I rolled my eyes at the amount of pictures taken during such boring moments not worth documenting, such as playing Apples To Apples. And it was especially annoying when ugly pictures came to exist, often without my awareness even. If not for the vigorous interest in documentation, I wouldn’t have the photos of my last pep assembly where my science teacher was dressed up as a caveman surrounded by fire or the moment when this one kid brought his homemade Deadmou5 head to a party. I surely wasn’t the one to photograph, but I definitely liked to reminisce the past.
It was always so fascinating to see the fashion changes towards the end of the exchange, be it slight or quite significant. It was by the clothes that set them apart from Americans for the most part. Well-fitted jeans and tops with phrases a bit awkward sounding to native English speakers was just one extreme example. By the end of the school year, some of the teens adapted so surprisingly well to the local fashion. Like photographs, fashion can tell quite a story.
Here’s for bitter truth: I will probably never see some of these former exchange students ever again in real life. For me, personally, things went swiftly downhill once everyone left that summer. Most of individuals from the morning group defriended me off of Facebook while I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. For months I would pity myself while scrolling through everyone else’s Facebook profile showcasing a life that actually went forward, unlike mine. The former exchange students either finished their last year of high school or went on to college. Certain details during our fun times slowly faded away from memory.
But no matter how much time goes by, nothing can change the fact that certain people left a lasting impact. People and pleasurable times will come and go, even if we can’t accept their departures at first. Eventually things got better for me. As for my old exchange friends? They are all in different places in their lives both literally and figuratively.