By Hiba Mudassir (YES 2022-2023, Pakistan, placed by AFS in Perrysburg, OH)
Dear Exchange Year,
It’s all ending, and I’m not ready. But will I ever be?
Do I say thank you for all of these experiences, for all of these life lessons? That doesn’t seem enough. It's too weak of a word to describe the immense feeling of gratitude and to describe all the emotions I have felt in the past ten months.
I have changed in so many ways that there aren’t words in all the languages that I now speak to do justice to all those changes. I’m more independent, louder, and more outspoken. The way I now react to things and the way I handle emotions has changed. So much of it has been a surprise.
I have new likes that have helped me make friends for life, as we have bonded over characters that have shaped us, or music that we’ve grown up on. Finding out I like Star Wars wasn’t on my bingo card, but as I write this letter, I am watching the original franchise and balling my eyes out with someone I now consider my best friend. I like hockey now, too, which I think was the biggest surprise, because six months ago Hiba was solely a cricket fan, as no other sport really made any sense. Now I’m obsessed with the Detroit Red Wings.
I crossed off becoming a theater kid from my exchange student bucket list, too. It’s official because I made my mandatory theater kid end of season post on Instagram. Joining theater at my high school was probably one of the best decisions I made this year, because it set off a chain reaction of memories, people, places, and feelings I’ve never felt. I have to thank my host parents for that, though.
Man, am I going to miss Amanda and Mike. I hit the host parent jackpot with them, but I don’t know how to tell them that yet without bawling my eyes out. They are more than half the reason my year was so amazing. They traveled with me and we saw Chicago from the tallest building I’ve ever seen, and on spring break I turned to my right and I saw the Hollywood sign. It was all so crazy.
But you know what I’m gonna miss the most? Having Josie to snuggle with when I get home from school, especially on the bad days. I swear, that Beagle is magic: a single snuggle and I’m back to my happy-go-lucky self.
How do I let it go? How do I let go of these friends that now feel like family? This family that opened their home to me, supported me, and allowed me these amazing experiences. All these places that feel like home, all these places that are now painted in memories I’m never going to be able to forget.
My friends and I, we’ve made a bazillion plans. Some we hope to fulfill a year from now, others maybe five. Trips to Disney Land where we can jump around like little kids, concerts we can be insufferably loud at, road trips full of chaos, and nostalgia from this year as we catch up. I don’t think I’m ever going to go into a Waffle House without hearing the laughs of my friends echoing in my ears, their faces forever imprinted in my memory as I stuffed my face with chocolate chip waffles.
But I need to leave before we can get to all that, and I guess that’ll make it easier to say goodbye.
'Cause we’ll know.
We’ll know it isn't actually goodbye.
It's “see you soon, dummy.”
But that doesn’t mean the tears will magically stop. It’ll happen in phases. First the initial watery eyes, rubbing the tears away, putting on a happy face. Then the hugs, the tears on the edge of the waterline, crying but not really. And then the dams will blow and the tears will ricochet, and the airport will flood and I won't have to go back!
That’s a little extreme, but something along the lines of that.
Wouldn’t it make sense for me to be happy right now? After the amazing year I’ve had, I get to go home and see my family, my friends, my school, everything that is safe and familiar.
But this is safe and familiar. Now, after ten months, it is my new normal. A normal that's going to make my old normal hard to get used to. But I don’t want to leave with sadness.
I want to leave with smiles, to make the most of what we have, like warm hugs and sleepovers. I want to leave with stories to tell and people to remember, so that 50 years from now, when I’m old and grumpy sitting in a rocking chair, I can remember and smile.
Thank you, exchange year. I’ll miss you.