The REAL Reason I Went On Exchange…

About time I share this!

There are so many exchange students each year that being an exchange student really is not so special anymore. But each exchange student has his or her reason for leaving their home for a year and venturing out. Maybe it was to learn a new language; to learn to become independent; to finally fulfill the passion for that particular foreign country… While these do make up some of my reasons, the major reason is, in fact, very personal.

It’s been around two years since I ended my French exchange and returned to Taiwan. And the past two years have been a tiring but extremely fruitful period of self-achievement and fulfillment, thanks to the life lessons I learned during the many free hours I spent in my bedroom in France, lying on my bed, staring through the skylight at the loosely-scattered stars. These are also the life lessons that I went on to share through my TEDx Talk (“My Usually Unusual Exchange Year”) back in January 2019.

I know I wrote in one of my earliest posts “Project France” that I became an exchange student because I wanted the “foreign country” experience, but to be honest, I think it was more than that. I don’t know if there was a specific moment when the thought “Aha! I’ll go on exchange!” came into my mind. What I do know was that when I left, I felt relieved, because I was leaving behind a life that I had allowed to spiral out of my control, courtesy to my tenth-grader naivety and pettiness. My exchange year, in a sense, was a chance for me to step away from my own chaos; to take a deep, long breath, and refresh myself.

You may be wondering – how much turmoil could turn up in my life? I once received an Instagram message from someone telling me that she thinks my life is like a dream – and that was one of the moments I realized how misleading social media could be. On media platforms where the visual sense receives the most stimulation, people want to be perfect, or at least seem happy all the time. This is also why I have a blog where I can write about anything I want – ups and downs, fun experiences and random thoughts… For whoever wants to read it. As for the turmoil in my life, it can get to a handful, mostly caused by myself. And as more and more crazy things happened, I started to lose the motivation to take care of situations. Turmoil built up. Eventually, it crushed me and threw me to rock bottom.

What many people perceived about me during those times may have been more on the glamorous side – the shining lead actress in the sophomore musical; dance performer at the school anniversary… but those who were in proximity to me on a daily basis would know that while I flourished on stage, I flunked in the classroom.

But I wasn’t always this way. As a student, life is mostly about balancing academics, extracurricular activities, and having some genuine fun. This is what I know now. But when I abruptly moved to Taiwan in seventh grade and had to attend the local educational system due to other activities that caused me to miss the bilingual department entrance exam, I spent all my time catching up. My classmates were used to an all-Chinese learning environment, but I was new to everything. So I had to put aside most extracurricular activities that had nothing to do with academics. Weekends were spent with a tutor.

When sophomore year came with all the fun stuff and performance opportunities, I was too tempted to stay away. I naively thought I could put off my academics for a while, have the best of time performing, then come back and catch it all up again. After all, I’m good at catching up, right? But as I got more and more immersed in different activities, “a while” became months, and when I finally looked back, it was too late – my grades had spiraled out of control and I didn’t even know where to start pulling things back. The balance was not just tilted – it had been completely overturned.

I was living too much in the moment, experiencing an addictive, stress-free life that a student was not supposed to have. I’d lost direction, and without clear goals to work towards, I had no motivation to focus. Conflicts appeared at home between worried parents and a daughter who had completely gone off-track. I felt powerless and had lost all sense of confidence.

I believe it was my exchange that truly aided me in regaining acknowledgement of my self value; recognizing that I am capable of accomplishing things, all that mattered was if I am willing to work for it. It took jumping out of my comfort zone and facing new challenges on my own to help me realize that I’m not the failure portrayed by my tenth-grader self – I can get through difficult things. I thank my French friends for helping me through the process, whether or not they knew they were of great impact in my life. I thank friends that took measures to challenge me on a daily basis, for example refusing to explain anything to me in English even when she spoke very good English, or making me ask every question I had in mind in French. I thank most of them for simply being who they were – studious people. Hard-working. Determined to accomplish short term goals in order to achieve long term goals. It showed me just how much I’d been neglecting my own track, and furthermore, even had me start thinking about which track I wanted to continue on. Plans started forming in my head when I had the alone time to think about things.

The day I left France felt bizarre. I just had this strange feeling inside me as I waited for boarding, strangely calm but with a small tug of another emotion building up behind the tranquility. I remember sending out my last snap from France, thanking my friends for the wonderful year I had with them, and telling them to delete my phone number since it won’t work anymore after I leave. I immediately got replies saying they will keep it and read through our text messages from time to time in the future.

When the plane started to pick up speed for take-off, I could hear myself whispering “Non…”

And the second the plane took off from the runway, tears rolled down my face as in that moment I faced the reality that I’d left. It was really goodbye.

Challenges bring changes. I returned to Taiwan feeling like a new person, this time hoping I can make it right. Since then I’ve been determined to perfect the balance of my academics and anything else I wanted to do, such as giving my first try at Model United Nations (and staying with it), and dancing with all the passion inside my body at numerous performance opportunities. Embrace the unknown. Embrace letting go of the present. Embrace the change. I ended my TEDx Talk with these three mottos, short but hopefully memorable, for myself, for my listeners, and for you, reader.

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