How It Feels to Be "Exchanged" Me
Latvian exchange student running in cross country meet gives the thumbs up

Target, "kid drivers," and brain freeze 

[This article was featured in the Oct. 2021 issue of PAX Press.]

I am an exchange student. I moved from the country where I grew up, where all of my happiness lies, to a strange, new place. The only things I have left from my comfort zone are my values and opinions, which now I have to rawly expose to people who do not share them with me. I am "exchanged."

My journey of being exchanged really started two years ago. I saw an advertisement for an exchange program promising a scholarship to study in an American high school. Sending teenagers from post-Soviet countries for free to the U.S., not suspicious at all, right? Well, the biggest risk is not taking it. I took a deep breath and clicked on “Apply now.”

Fast forward through a painfully long and competitive selection process, tons of essays, and a pandemic, I stand in my room at 2 a.m. trying to figure out how I can fit my whole life in a suitcase. And no more than 50 pounds. The only thought that calmed me down was that I wasn’t the first, only, or last to do it, so it’s not impossible. At least I hoped so.

After a few tearful goodbyes (mostly with my cat), I hopped on a plane. Then another one. Then another one. Then (you guessed it) another one. By the time I got to Indiana, I was so jet-lagged that I could sleep standing. At the airport, I met some strangers, who now I call my family. They opened not only their home but also their hearts for me. Now I have a title to carry with me for the next 10 months—the exchanged.

The only spurt of energy I got that day was a glimpse of Target from the highway. I remember thinking that this was surreal. I mean, that’s stuff from movies! I hit the hay almost immediately after stepping through the door.

I woke up after 14 hours and sat in my bed in disbelief. I knew that the bedsheets I felt, the American flag dancing in the wind, and the smell of breakfast were real, but it just felt like a dream. I may or may not have pinched myself a couple of times just to check, then headed downstairs to live my new life.

Sending teenagers from post-Soviet countries for free to the U.S., not suspicious at all, right?

Now that I’ve spent some time in the unknown, I can proudly say that I’m challenging my fears and fulfilling the duty of being exchanged. Getting in the car with literal kids? I sweat like crazy the whole first car ride with a 17-year-old. The school’s parking lot still seems like a scary place. Facing all these new fears and challenges might be one of my favorite parts of being exchanged.

But the people, even the scary kid-drivers? The best part. They are so curious and open, sometimes asking silly questions, but I probably ask those too. (“So, do you eat McDonald’s every day?”) I love exchanging small, seemingly unimportant cultural things that actually make up the whole culture. Ice, for instance. Why can’t Americans have a single drink without ice? I have to admit, I’ve picked up this habit and now I enjoy the brain-freezing level of coldness in my drinks too.

I feel the most exchanged when, strangely, I’m around people my own age. Every day leaves me wondering—how can two human beings grow up to be so different? If I had a dishwasher, would I have a better relationship with my mom? If her dad didn’t have guns, would my friend still be okay with them? Those are the small cultural differences we grow up with, not even realizing how they affect us. Sometimes, I feel like night and day with my classmates.

I’m exchanging the knowledge of my culture for the knowledge of the U.S. culture. I’m not losing anything in the exchange, I can only gain and grow. Being exchanged is a little scary and sometimes even lonely, but mostly it’s making my heart bounce and jump, and race in the best possible way. The adrenaline I get when trying something new and the happiness I feel when I educate someone about my country—words can’t describe how it makes me feel inside. I am proud of my title and would never trade it for anything else.

—Beate (FLEX, Latvia), hosted by the Zwaska family (WI)