John, outbound to Norway

I love my Norwegian life. I have great friends, I get along really well with my host family, and I can just about say that I speak Norwegian. I’m starting to feel like I actually belong in Norway, and that I am no longer a stranger checking things out. In a way, I feel like I’ve “done it.” I’ve managed to carve out a life here that I’m incredibly happy with. In fact, I’m trying to find a way to come back for university. I feel like the hard part is over, and now I get to enjoy this incredible country for a few months before I have to go “home.” I think I understand it all a bit more now, and I am ready to write about what exchange really means to me, and that is what this journal will be about. Surely it means something different to every exchange student, so I don’t want to say that this is the way things are. This is just simply what I’ve been thinking about in the past weeks, in the midst of a really happy time in my life.

The goals of us exchange students include many things. Learning a language, navigating a new culture, making friends, and so on. Ultimately though, I think all of these goals can be summed up into one wish: we want to feel normal. We want to go through our daily activities without being in a constant state of ineptitude. We want to have conversations, go to school, and watch tv without the heavy feeling of being different looming over our heads. When stepping into the world of exchange, it doesn’t take long to realize how weird you actually are in the eyes of the host country. Obviously that weirdness includes things like language and appearance, but it goes much deeper than that. The way you buy groceries, the way you cross the street, and even the way the toilet flushes, everything becomes alien. It’s like entering a strange new universe where everything is tweaked ever so slightly. This abrupt change robs you of your ability to function on a day to day basis, and you suddenly become reduced to a sort of infantile state. You can’t read, write, talk, or even walk in some cases (I am of course referring to the perilous task of walking on ice in the cold Norwegian winter). It’s a fascinating feeling at first, but attending high school whilst feeling as though you possess the competence of a toddler loses it’s charm rather swiftly. Life turns into a quest for normality in a bizarre, foreign world. Becoming “normal” suddenly matters a great deal.

The thing is though, we exchange students aren’t normal at all. That’s exactly why we are capable of this. For us, all of the hardships tied to spending a year abroad do not deter us, but rather motivate us to dive in head first. Every language mishap, every slip on the ice, and all the bad days are just parts of an amazing story. It definitely isn’t easy, but if it was, what would the point? I said before that as exchange students, we really just want to feel normal. But that is a very different thing from actually being normal. We’re about as far from normal as possible, halfway around the world from it, really. Normal high school students don’t willingly say farewell to everything they grew up learning, simply for the purpose of learning it all again in a foreign land. Normal high school students don’t loan their families out to teenagers halfway across the world, while simultaneously borrowing someone else’s. In the way I’ve come to see it, the goal of exchange is to become so used to this incredibly ludicrous situation that you end up fooling yourself into believing that it isn’t strange at all. It’s not about getting rid of that heavy feeling of being different, its about getting so used to it that you stop noticing the weight.