“What language is that?” I was asked as she stated at my phone, realizing the settings are not the normal words one would expect when looking at the screen.
“It’s Dutch.” I replied and explained that I was an exchange student in the Netherlands for a year and wanted to keep some connection and immersion in the language. She and her husband know and deal with one of the Rotary clubs in the area, and told me how they haven’t been able to facilitate exchanges lately. Social media and phones are a big problem now. When kids come here, they don’t interact and join in with kids and families here to truly participate in the exchange. They are glued to their phones, keep all their connections with home and don’t allow themselves the chance to build relationships or experience the culture. They feel a sense of loss when they miss out on parties or social gatherings at home that they see posted on social media. They don’t ‘buy in’ to participate in the life here.
I hadn’t thought of any of this being a problem, but I can really understand as they were explaining it to me. I was on my exchange just over 20 years ago. I had never owned a cell phone before I went. The first family I stayed with supplied me with a flip phone for safety reasons, Traveling around on trains and my bike all over the place alone or with other kids was normal. Internet was slow dial up so I would email home every few days or once a week if I was busy. With the 8 hour time difference and long distance call charges, I rarely phoned. There was no texting, no Facebook messenger or Instagram.
I guess I have now officially turned into an ‘old’ lady saying, ‘back in my day, it was better.’ Well in this instance, it was better. Better in that I truly became part of the families (thanks to being very fortune with the 3 families I ended up with during the year). They taught me the language. They included me, while also pushing me out of my comfort zone. The first family said one day that they were no longer going to speak English. I learned flash cards of words daily with their help and I just had to start picking it up. This was 2 weeks after my arrival.
I made a faux pas when I said I would attend a Sinterklaas party with some kids at school. They made a gift exchange based on my being there and then a few days before, I realized it conflicted with an event my family was taking me to. 16 year old girls in any country have a way of punishing people who annoy them, and I was no different for wrecking their exchange. As a result, there were some horrible, awkward moments of standing alone at school at lunch when no one talked to me when it would have been nicer if I had Instagram or Pinterest to scroll through, or pretend that I was being included still in something cool back home. As awful and embarrassing as some of those moments were, I just tell myself everyone goes through isolating or awkward moments in their life. I am no different. I got over it. I can be proud that I did learn the language. I made life long ‘family’ connections. At least some from each family I lived with have been to my home in Canada to visit me. The first family who stopped speaking English for me even attended my wedding.
I get that it depends on the families you land with. Some other kids who were ‘inbound’ in the Netherlands (those of us from elsewhere), still ended up barely speaking a word of Dutch. It depends on you too. You have to have your own reason for wanting to be there and commit to it.
It does sadden me to think that with society now, it’s difficult to make such a priceless experience work. After my recent interaction and conversation with this couple, I felt so thankful again that I had my exchange experience. It was the perfect timing in my life, and my life was perfectly timed for the experience.