Kate, Outbound to Mexico

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¡Hola de Puebla, México! I have now been on my Rotary Youth Exchange here in México for over one month, and it has finally sunk in that exchange is not a dream, but a reality for me. Although it was tough saying goodbye to my family, I thankfully had an uneventful travel day where everything went smoothly and according to plan—no delays, no lost bags, and no missed connections. On August 1, I flew from Atlanta to Monterrey, had a 2.5 hour layover, and then flew from Monterrey directly to Puebla. While deplaning in Monterrey, a Rotex (past Rotary Youth Exchange student) found me because of my Rotary blazer and stayed with me until baggage claim in Puebla, which was so kind of her. I flew into Puebla at around 8 PM where my host parents and host sisters (Renata and Paula) were waiting for me with open arms and a bouquet of balloons. I ate dinner with my host family in a restaurant and when we got home, I collapsed into bed from exhaustion.

In my first two weeks, I have walked around some of the Centro Histórico, gone to a coffee convention, and visited the Museo Amparo (an art museum) and the Museo Internacional del Barroco (International Baroque Museum). My host dad also gave me a tour of where he works: one of the most popular radio stations in Puebla! I even spoke on air briefly!

After enjoying a relaxing 2 weeks here in Puebla, I started school! I absolutely love my prepa (high school) here in México. My classmates are so nice and welcoming, and the profes (teachers) are very friendly and helpful. Here in México, we have 3 years of prepa (high school), and I am in the fifth semester or the final year. I am also really enjoying all of my classes, which is good because I have nine. Most of my classes are classes pretty typical to what students take in the United States, with the exception of Ciencias y Saberes, which is a very interesting class about the theory of knowledge. I also chose medicine as my academic focus, so I take Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Bioethics. Because we have so many subjects, our class schedule is different every day of the week. But everyday, our first class starts at 7:00 AM sharp, and we finish at 2:00 PM. My host dad and I leave at 6:30 AM every day which is just a little early for me, but I am adjusting, an d I really appreciate my host dad’s willingness to take me to school every day.

Even though all my classes are in Spanish (except English!) I pretty much understand everything in my classes, so the teachers treat me like a normal student. Being a “normal” student does include doing homework, but it also means I have the opportunity to experience more of a typical life here instead of constantly being treated differently as “the exchange student.” The style of school is very collaborative, so I get to participate in all of the group work and group projects. We do almost all classwork in pairs or groups as well, which has allowed me to interact with lots of different students in my salón (group). We always stay with the same classmates in all of our classes except our electives and English, which means we get to know each other pretty well throughout the course of the semester in all of our classes. I absolutely love my classmates in my salón. They have welcomed me so warmly, and I am so excited to spend the school year with them.

Part of Rotary Youth Exchange includes the opportunity to learn and experience Rotary International in another country. I have attended two Rotary meetings of the Club Rotario de Puebla Centro Histórico. I was proud to represent my sponsor club, the Rotary Club of Alpharetta, as I exchanged Rotary Club banners with my host club. The Club Rotario de Puebla Centro Histórico is hosting 6 other inbound students, coming from Indonesia, Thailand, Germany, France, and 2 others from the U.S.

This past weekend, my host Rotary district held our inbound orientation, and it was amazing. I went to Acapulco, a beautiful beach on the Pacific coast, with over 100 other Rotary Youth Exchange students from 22 different countries from around the world. It was such a fun weekend to talk with the other inbounds. We had a talent show; we toured the city of Acapulco; we watched these crazy brave divers jump from cliffs; we had dance parties every night; we traded pins and pins and pins. My friend from Australia and I were also interviewed by the local TV station (in Spanish!) about what we thought of Acapulco as exchange students, which was so exciting for me since I have never been on TV before! The District Governor also came to our orientation, and there was a pretty formal dinner one night. (Word of advice for future exchange students: always bring a decent outfit with you on trips, because you never know if you might need one...) We staged a flag parade, and I was very hono red to be the one chosen to represent the United States. But without question, the best part of inbound orientation was talking to the other exchange students. We shared and learned so much about the represented cultures, and there is something about being fellow exchange students that can instantly create connections. I know I made some lifelong friends that weekend, and I cannot wait to see them again in November for one of our Rotary trips.

I am absolutely in love with México. Even in just my first month, I have experienced how México is not sombreros, tequila, and drug trafficking. After barely scratching the surface, I see a beautiful country with full of warm, welcoming, hard-working people, a unique culture, and rich history. Puebla is so fascinating because of the combination of historic architecture and modern conveniences, with a cathedral and a Costco only a few kilometers apart. Here, we greet and say goodbye by hugging and kissing on the cheek. Even as a foreigner, everyone greets me this way. Here, meals are more than times to sustain our bodies by feeding them. Meals are a time to relax, talk with family and friends, and enjoy each other’s company. I have already shared countless wonderful meals with the extended family, who have warmly welcomed me into the family with open arms. I have already fallen in love with my host family and the emphasis on family here in México. Yesterday my host parents told me that I am not just estadounidense (United States American), but that I am Mexican too, which just fills up my heart with love. They are my family for forever, not just temporary hosts.

Despite having studied Spanish for 9 years, I just felt so overwhelmed in my first week. I could barely keep up with the conversations and most of the time just heard words, not able to process the meanings fast enough. I constantly was translating from Spanish to English, which I could only do if someone spoke slowly and clearly. It was so frustrating not to be able to communicate or understand everything automatically without thinking. My brain was always tired from trying to understand everything in a foreign language, and I have to pay 100% of my attention to understanding someone. I constantly asked (and still do) my host family and classmates “¿Qué es ésto?” (“What is this?”) or constantly look up words on my phone in order to build vocabulary. But now, after 5 weeks, my brain has finally switched from English to Spanish. I understand almost everything said to me without translating in my head, and although my Spanish is not p erfect, I can now communicate what I think and feel. So many tell me, “Your Spanish is so good! When did you get here?” and one of my friends at school told me that she forgets that I am not fluent in Spanish. I actually was reprimanded in English class for responding in Spanish, and now it is harder to text in English. But this is not luck. This is from years of hard work with an amazing teacher. So to all future exchange students: study your language as hard as you can before you leave. In the months between your selection and your departure, it is easy to think “I will have time to study my language later.” Or “It doesn’t matter. I am going to learn it on exchange anyways.” But every little bit counts to make your exchange more meaningful, especially in the beginning. No Rotex will tell you that they studied a language too much, and most of them probably regret not learning as much as they could of the language before their exc hange. Language skills leads to trust with your host family, more freedom, friendships at school, an easier integration into your host community, and so much more.

These things are all so exciting and new now, but exchange is not a trip or a vacation; it is life. Exchange is life with ups and downs, good days and bad days. Exchange is definitely a different life than the one I left behind in Georgia, but it is still life, not all parties and excursions. We go grocery shopping, and I also help do the laundry and wash the dishes. I had to say goodbye to my host sister Renata as she embarked on her own exchange, which was sad and reminded me of my family that I left behind in the United States. Even though I have only been on exchange for five weeks, I feel so integrated with my host family, my school, and daily life here that it feels like this could have been my life forever. There are definitely moments where I miss my family and friends back in the US (and I might possibly miss hometown Chick-Fil-A a little!), but I think that these pangs are normal. They are definitely overshadowed though by a love that grows every day for the people, cult ure, and country that I am coming to know as México.

It has been such an honor to serve as an ambassador on exchange, trying to build goodwill and friendship between different parts of the world. When we go on exchange, we represent so much more than just ourselves. We represent our communities, our sponsor Rotary clubs and districts, and our countries. I think it is important to realize that people will develop opinions about our countries and our cultures based on what we share, how we interact with them, and how we behave. I was chosen to be an ambassador of the United States in México during a particularly turbulent time in U.S.-México political relations. And I do not just want to confirm the negative stereotypes portrayed by Hollywood and the news media, but I want to leave people with a real impression of my country. A United States that has conscientious, informed, and engaged students. A country that is full of compassionate people who come together to support those in need. A richly diverse nation that h as many different ethnicities, religions, and belief systems.

But as much as I came to represent, I came first to understand. I am here on exchange to fully integrate myself in my host family, school, and community and to learn the Mexican culture and their ways of life. This is how we truly break the stereotypes and misconceptions of our countries, by building strong relationships and humbling ourselves. Then, we have the opportunity to have deep conversations and represent our culture in a more personal, meaningful way. I recently was talking with two friends, inbounds from two different continents. Our conversation moved from casual chit chat to a serious discussion about our religious beliefs. It struck me how powerful it was that a Christian, Muslim, and Atheist could have such a open-minded conversation while coming from such “opposite” perspectives. But it was because we all approached the discussion with tolerance and respect for each other’s beliefs. I realized that our different beliefs do not have to divide us, but tolerance for different perspectives can help us unite if we first seek to understand.

Thank you so much, Rotary, for giving me this amazing opportunity, and thank you for reading.