Kate, Outbound to Mexico

June 30, 2018

This final month of exchange has been a whirlwind for me, with school finishing, some traveling, and also saying goodbye, and a million other memories big and small, I tried to maximize every moment of my time left on exchange by spending time with the people I love.

We all process and handle the end differently, and I do not know how to begin explaining the emotional rollercoaster of the last month of exchange and the first days back in the United States. For me, every day had its own ups and downs, and it was overwhelming at times with my mind and its endless train of thoughts and my heart with its thousands of conflicting emotions. Sometimes I felt everything at once and then nothing at all. There were some moments where I would feel so content, peaceful, and fulfilled by the relationships I had built; I would just step back and smile and feel so loved. Then in an instant, that fullness of my heart would turn to lead, a deep and heavy sadness from having to leave these people too. Sometimes I would miss people so deeply, and the pain was truly heart-wrenching, and other times, I just walked around with only a dull ache in my heart. I had moments so full of joy and times when I just could not cry enough tears to express the agony of leaving behind families, friends, and a life. However, other days, even while saying goodbye to very dear friends, I could not even cry more tears because of how emotionally numb and empty I felt. The countdown of how many days left was like a timer on an emotional bomb, and every morning, I woke up to the dull realization that I had one day less of exchange, one last opportunity to share a meal with my host families, one last time to laugh alongside my friends, one last chance to be a part of the streets’ beautiful chaos. How could I even imaging leaving this life?

However, as difficult as the emotional journey was, I still faced every day with a determination to make it count, to live life to the fullest, not to waste time. I finished school two weeks before my return date, so I used every day to check off some bucket list items and make some final memories with the people I love. With my best friends from school, we had a bonfire where we burned old tests, homework assignments, and notes together. One of my close U.S. exchange student friends and I finally made a traditional Thanksgiving dinner from scratch for our host families (which we had been talking about since October) that included stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, corn casserole, pumpkin pies, and chicken from a local takeout restaurant chain. My third host family took me on trips to the coastal beach city of Veracruz and México City, and I also went with my friend from Poland to visit the pueblo mágico (small historic town) of Zacatlán for a few days, where I could see another piece of the beautiful country of México. I also had a small goodbye party with all three of my host families (including extended family) and a few close friends, which was such a bittersweet day. I was surrounded with so many of the people I love, but it was also a goodbye.

The beginning of exchange is characterized by lots of new faces (and name-forgetting for me), a general sense of confusion, a nervous excitedness, and maybe some heartache for our first home. But the end of exchange? The end means saying goodbye; it means leaving behind everything and everyone whose names are now etched in our hearts forever; it means suffering and grieving a loss. Having to leave to the end of exchange is another challenge, another struggle we must overcome in order to build more resilience and personal growth. For me, it was not easy to “return home” because I also had to leave my new home. But I am so grateful that it has been challenging because if leaving was easy, I wouldn’t have had the amazing relationships that broke my heart to leave. For me, easier is not always better because it would definitely be easier not to have to carry this burden in my heart every day. But, I would rather have my heart ripped out a million times and cry a thousand rivers of tears, and say goodbye over and over again if it means that I have the memories with friends and families that I do. It is all worth it for the times when my best friends and I walked for miles to find a place to print school assignments. For every time I sang at the top of my lungs in the car alongside my different sisters. For every time I stayed late after school to talk with my teachers as real people. For every time my host parents would roll their eyes, take a deep breath, and say “Ay, Kate.” For every time I stayed up until 2 AM talking about everything under the sun with other exchange student friends. For me, all the heartbreak and all the goodbyes are made worth it a million times over with the little moments, the little memories, that happen every day with the people we love. So that is how I deal with leaving, with exchange ending by realizing how grateful I am for the relationships and for the people I will always carry with me in my heart.

My first host family and my two best friends took me to the airport that final day, and on the plane ride back to the United States, I cried and cried and cried. Looking back, I probably worried the flight attendants...this young kid, in a crazy pin-covered blazer, travelling alone, who couldn’t stop crying and who didn’t understand English. (True story: After speaking Spanish for eleven months, my brain had trouble thinking, processing, and speaking English. One U.S.-based flight attendant resorted to speaking English very loudly and using charade-like gestures in order to offer me the complimentary snacks and a drink with ice). On my flights, I was reading the book of absolutely beautiful letters people had handwritten me. Their words made me laugh and cry and smile; their phrases reminded me of all the memories we had made, and their sentences and paragraphs that will forever remain dear to my heart. So the tears were equal parts happy and sad - devastated to be leaving but also so fulfilled by the impact I had. When I finally exited immigration and customs, I was greeted by my smiling family and best friend as well as a poster and a balloon bouquet. I completely lost all composure (and ability to speak English) after hugging them again after so long. And, although I was excited to see my family again and ready for this next chapter of my life (and eat Chick Fil A again), my heart does not ever cease aching for what I left behind.

Besides struggling to speak English, I have been also dealing with reverse culture shock. My mom even jokes it is like they are hosting an exchange student from Mexico as I work to readjust to the United States again. They have to explain their routines to me while I listen with a wide-eyed expression, smile, and nod. Roads seemed so wide, and everything seemed so quiet after eleven months in a big, bustling, chaotic city (and people actually follow the traffic laws!). It feels weird to be in air conditioning and a Hotlanta summer again after Puebla’s moderate climate. I tried to greet people with a hug and a kiss on the cheek before embarrassedly realizing that we do not do that in the U.S. My old room did not feel like my own, and I felt like a stranger in my own house. Without thinking, I respond in Spanish before hurriedly translating back to (a somewhat broken) English. I had not realized how much I was integrated into my host families and the Mexican culture until I started adapting, and I am so grateful to my family for being so patient and understanding with me. For future exchange students: be patient with yourselves too. We have grown and changed so much on exchange, and it may take time to find a new “normal” post-exchange, just like it did when we first arrived in our host countries.

I know people say don’t cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened. But what I have learned on this emotional rollercoaster of saying goodbye, it is okay to feel everything. Know that it is okay to laugh even when your heart is broken, okay to cry even when you feel like you are on cloud nine, okay to feel so empty and drained that you can’t even cry, and everything else in between. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel, but I think it is also important to not let the emotions distract us from the moments we can still share. So I would also say be fully present, and make sure your head and heart are where your feet are, or you might miss opportunities to spend time with the people you love.

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