By Celine Lean (YES 2014-15, Malaysia, hosted by AFS in Nashville, TN)
A glow in the gloom. A light in the dark. No pun intended—given the circumstances of me being blind—but that is what the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program means to me. The YES program has truly been an eye-opener for me, going far beyond six months in a lifetime. In fact, it was more like a lifetime in six months. Everything from family, to life values, to goals was built anew for me.
I had two host families; the first of whom were moving out of my host state a month before the end of my exchange, and thus resulting in me moving in with a second family. Although it was sad parting so soon with my first host family and only getting to live for such a short while with my second, it was a blessing, because both families have taught me important values and I love them all very much.
In my first host family, my host siblings and I were loved and cared for by a single mother who was always willing to help in any way possible; her compassion for others knows no limit. There are certainly too many enchantingly precious moments I have shared with this family, but that which blazes ever so brightly in my recollection are all the time and effort my host mum made, despite her busy schedule, to volunteer alongside me and contribute to the community.
On a different but somewhat similar note, my loving and jovial second host family taught me a lot about the culture surrounding persons with disabilities in the U.S. Not only do my host parents work closely with individuals with disabilities—my host mum is an experienced teacher at the school for the blind I attended while my host dad’s job is related to persons with learning difficulties—but their son, my host brother, is blind. Through my bonding with this family I learned about disability through the perspectives of a parent and an educator and how it is not a barrier to success.
My favorite memories with this host family are of us indulging in the delights of country music, fully appreciating Nashville as a music city. As music lovers themselves, my host parents brought me to the country music Hall of Fame and various parks and cafes where people—families and friends—get together to sing and play music in the true country spirit.
I am extremely glad that I am still in touch with both my dear host families. The intercultural learning continues through our sharing, via social media, of detailed descriptions of life in our respective local communities. I also have a routine of sorts with each of my host families. Once every year since my return to Malaysia, we mail each other gifts representative of our respective countries.
My host school, Tennessee School for the Blind, has given me as much to learn and cherish. Studying and living on campus during the weekdays gave me invaluable insight to the lives of the visually impaired in my host community. I also particularly enjoyed the opportunities of learning and doing things that the blind in my home country, some would say, could only dream of. These included activities such as swimming and arts. Despite only having just learned to swim, I was on the school/state swim team when they competed against other schools for the blind across America.
I found myself embraced in such a warm welcome from my US school friends and teachers. Ever willing to learn about my life and local culture in Malaysia—and I, theirs—there were endless questions, from economics and politics, to social lives, and much, much more. My friends and I would spend hours talking and laughing together at our respective lack of knowledge and awe of one another’s culture. One stereotype many of my friends had of my local background that sticks in my mind is that all people from majority Muslim countries must strictly adhere to the rules of ‘hijab’ (wearing a headscarf).
When my friends were enthusiastically encouraging me to learn to swim, they were worried the swim outfit would be too revealing for my culture. It was amusing, especially given that the way I dressed for winter all wrapped up against the cold must have affirmed their misconceptions. I then explained the purpose of ‘hijab’ and how it applies to Muslim women, but not to women of other faiths living in the same community and that in Malaysia women choose whether or not to adorn the ‘hijab’.
I, on the other hand, had the typical stereotype of America as the utopian model of perfect life, no doubt from the influence of Hollywood and the preconceptions towards advanced nations. My U.S. experience, however, has shown me that, instead of the fairyland wonder that magically blossomed, America has come a long way through layers upon layers of evolution to achieve where they are today—and they are still evolving, ever improving towards progress and change for the better.
As is evident in America’s rich history, it is the people who must strive to make a change. It is here that I discovered the power and importance of self-advocacy, the understanding that each and every one of us has a role to play in order for progress to be made. Somehow, this makes the U.S. all the more perfect, rising up from their imperfections. It is this essential realization that acted as a wake-up call to me. In my own country, there’s a lack of opportunity and accessible resources for the blind. Since my U.S. experience, I realized that the power of attaining equality is in our own hands; given time and effort, we can make a difference and create a better world for future generations.
This, paired with the value and passion for volunteerism and giving back to the community that the YES experience ingrained in me, gave me a purpose. This is what ignited the determination in me to champion for global peace and justice, beginning with human rights, thus setting me on the path of pursuing legal studies and eventually emerging as an activist. Even now, while I am still studying, the flame burns on; I continue to volunteer in my local community, within and outside of AFS and YES alumni, and will be attending Cambridge University in the fall. One course, among others, that I pursue is to raise the sighted community’s awareness towards the visually impaired, hence the Gift of Sight project that I implemented in Malaysia.
In retrospect, I ought to rephrase that … It is more than six months in a lifetime. It is more than a lifetime in six months. Indeed, it is a lifetime from six months.