The Other Side of Exchange

November 22, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

One April morning last year, the pink Sony VAIO that I had been using for just a little over a year decided to die on me. Desperate to finally switch to a MacBook and terribly strapped for cash, I borrowed some money off my dad and told him I’d work over the summer to pay him back for it. By late May I was still job-hunting and sending out applications on a near daily basis, because good grades apparently don’t guarantee you a job…anywhere, really, if you’re not willing to work for free in exchange for ‘work experience’ (that would involve a lot documents and hole-punching). In the end, I landed a job with CEDARS; I was to show new incoming international and exchange students around Hong Kong and plan orientation programmes for them. Sounds great in theory, but in actuality it was a lot of sitting in the office, sipping tea, and wondering when the students would finally arrive (and they didn’t till the last week of my two-month term).

I learnt little from the job and all, and my salary was a little pitiful (though extremely decent by student standards since that standard was usually $0), but the rewards laid elsewhere. During those last two weeks of my job, I was basically getting paid to just take students out to yum cha and go on excursions around Hong Kong. I met people from all over the world and become close friends with a few. When the semester began and they settled into their new life here, I still frequently hung out with them, and it was interesting, getting to see Hong Kong from an exchange student’s point of view. The adventurous spirit they held during their couple of months in Hong Kong was probably bigger than I the one I had in all of the 20 years I lived here. They visited places I’ve never even heard of, drank in bars I didn’t know existed, and according to them, those months they spent here were the ‘best times of their lives’. I was part of them, but not really – the strange ‘local’ girl sometimes seen in the On Hing apartments, whom everyone had sort of talked to but didn’t really know. I was like a voyeur, glimpsing through a curtain at their glorious exchange life as I continued with my rather mundane everyday one.

But because of this with them, I was also convinced this was how my exchange life was going to be too. Meeting the best friends of my life, whom I’ll bond with and keep in touch forever; being able to put aside all my Hong Kong stress for once, because for once all I have to do is pass; thoroughly enjoying myself without schoolwork or internships or part-time job questions constantly nagging me at the back of my mind, drinking every night because that’s practically the JD of exchange students, travelling somewhere new every other weekend to be amazed by the world. We’ve all seen the marketing for exchange programmes. Once in a lifetime experience, they say. Rewarding and life-changing.

There’s also a lot they don’t tell you about exchange.

They don’t tell you that exchange is like freshmen year all over again. That you meet a hundred people in just about the first week and as you struggle to remember their names you realize that you’ll possibly end up being friends with none of them in the end (and you don’t). That you go all out for two consecutive nights in a row and it was fun, but then you also spend two days in bed with a hangover, and wonder if this really was the Brave New World they promised. They don’t tell you that sometimes you get lucky and you meet people and you just click and you feel comfortable with them, but sometimes you don’t, and for weeks you float around looking for people to hold on to. They don’t tell you that unlike back home, when you cherish days you have all to yourself, loneliness here is no longer a choice at times.

They don’t tell you that as much as exchange is about learning, it’s even more so about relearning. It’s about doing all the things you thought you already knew how to do, in a completely different setting. First the basics: relearning how to shop at supermarkets (“Welcome to Sainsbury’s Self-Checkout!”). Relearning how to count money. Relearning how to drink water (from a tap). Relearning how to watch movies without subtitles to fall back on when your bilingualism fails you temporarily. Relearning how to plan your days because everything gets dark by four and shops close by six in Scotland. Then there’s relearning how to say no, to have the courage to want to stay in with a book while your friends are blasting music next door at a kitchen party. Because back home there’s a comfortable group of people you know will always be there and you can choose to say no when all you want is a night in with hot chocolate and movie marathons, but here, if you miss just a step, one key social event where private jokes are born and connections are made, you could suddenly find yourself excluded. Here, no isn’t really an option. Relearning how to go to Starbucks on your own and sit for hours and work, something that was as natural to you as breathing back home. Relearning how to get yourself into a good enough state of mind to just read and be at peace. Relearning how to want to be by yourself again; it’s difficult not to be self-conscious when you’re alone, because being alone doesn’t really sit well with the exchange narrative of going out and exploring the city you’re in and just having fun. Relearning how to develop a whole new support system to deal with the bad days without your best friends. Relearning how to learn, for god’s sake, because your lecture hours and half that of back home and you have no idea how to just sit in the library for the whole day and be expected to ‘self-learn’. Relearning how to fill up your schedule and what to do with so much spare time, because turns out ‘Il bel far niente’, the beauty of doing nothing, is far more romantic in principle than in practice, because you’re too in tuned to the Hong Kong lifestyle to actually know how to do nothing.

They don’t tell you that behind every glossy picture of places you’ve been there are also the trips that aren’t so good, trips when you’d have to take alone because no one else have the same class schedule as you, trips when your sole source of company is people you randomly meet on couchsurfing sites that can be either be really good banter or, a lot of the other times, people you can only manage small talk with, but are stuck for the rest of the day who can’t escape from because it’ll seem rude. Trips when after a 9-hour bus ride, you can barely summon the energy to see the city and all you want to do is crash when you finally make it to the hostel. You get sick of decanting stuff into little 100ml bottles (stupid airport regulations) and trying to remember to self-check in to avoid exorbitant Ryanair fees. Trips you take for the sole reason of feeling like you need to cross more things off the bucket list, that you take for the sake of taking and not because you feel like it’ll be fun. You forget that the whole point of you coming here is to see the world, to get to know different cultures, to meet new people and be inspired – instead all you can see is what’s in front of you, which is that you’re dead tired and you just want to stop stepping out of your comfort zone and crawl back into it already. It no longer feels like relaxation; it feels like a task.

The hardest part to deal with is the expectations. Expectations of your friends and family back home. Expectations you have on yourself. Because you’ve chosen to come here, because you’ve looked forward to it for so long, it’s as if you’re not allowed to be upset. Because everyone expects you to be happy, and if you’re not it’s like you’ve disappointed both them and yourselves. I was on the phone with my mom the other day and she was asking how I was, and when I told her I was a bit down she sounded almost accusatory when she told me that by spending all this money to coming here it’s almost my duty to have a good time. If you’ve read my previous posts you might be able to tell that I’m one of those people who like to tell others to suck it up. If you don’t like your life, change it; do things to make it better. Being in this situation is interesting, and perhaps it’s making me a more empathetic person, because I’m at a loss myself at how to make me feel better. Rationally I know, and physically and mentally I can’t bring myself to do it.

Have I made my exchange sound utterly miserable and terrifying? It’s not. There have been some very good moments here: taking a walk in the rain in the middle of the night with my housemates just because; fireworks, cotton candy and a beautiful stroll along the River Clyde to celebrate the 5th of November; nights of debauchery and singing loudly and off-key as a friend does a Franz Ferdinand guitar cover; going to gigs at amazing underground venues at Glasgow; movie nights when everyone curl up onto the sofa and watch Sherlock. Those are often the only parts you get to see when people post pictures of their exchange life, and it’s far from the full story. And this – this is the other side of exchange.

Photo: Me and my roommate Sierra from Santa Cruz at the Scottish Highlands – she’s one of the more awesome things about my exchange experience.