The Power of Exchange
“You think I’m really gonna do this?”
It was a fall afternoon, senior-year, and unlike my friends pouring over the college applications and brochures spread around us, I was applying to spend12 months as an American Field Service (AFS) exchange student. I really was asking, ‘Will I be okay even though I’m terrified? This feels really out there’ I was seventeen; had never left North America.
My assignment arrived in April: Pergamino, Argentina. Well-wishers kept confusing it with Austria and Australia. Nobody knew anything about Argentina. I was disappointed. What had I been I thinking?
12 months passed. I learned among other things that, Argentineans didn’t eat tortillas, rice or beans, that the sun did shine just as brightly in the Southern Hemisphere, and that I was to call myself an ‘estado-unidensa’, not an ‘americana’. My skin prickled with goosebumps listening to my host-dad’s stories of friends disappearing during the Dirty War. I walked past houses made of mud in ‘villas miseras’ on my way to school. I rode in the back of a pick-up, honking, waving flags, celebrated River’s victory over La Boca. I began dreaming in Spanish.
I recently learned it was the Quakers who started AFS. They believed the most effective way to spread their mission of peace was through cultural exchange. Waging war on those with whom you’ve shared a meal, slept under the same roof, laughed with and told your secrets too is much harder; no matter how different your lives may seem on the surface. It made absolute sense to me.
In the eleven years that have passed since Argentina I’ve continued traveling. I am in love with the moments when I meet someone trusting enough to share a bit of their life with me. But despite a passport full of stamps, I still find myself confronting cultural preconceptions I didn’t know I had; a natural, I think, or at least highly common reaction to things unfamiliar. Before flying to Kyrgyzstan, I tossed with nightmares about Islamic fundamentalists car-jacking and beheading foreigners; it was one of the most respectful, hospitable places I have ever traveled. I never once felt threatened. Walking through a market in rural Russia, the women’s’ simple kindness and friendliness took me by surprise; it didn’t match the gruff, stone-faced Russian I’d learned about in school. On a recent trip to Eastern Asia I expected more similarities in the daily habits and attitude of the Chinese and Japanese; but as countries separated by an ocean should be- they are quite different.
By returning home with stories that transform foreign countries from colors and shapes in an atlas to places where real people live, I believe I can help make far flung corners of the world more human to those who might never have the chance or desire to travel there; and perhaps, if even just for an instant, help them feel the effects of the peaceful reverberations of cultural exchange.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.