By Minahil Awais (YES 2022-2023, Pakistan, placed by AIFS/AYA in Easley, SC)
Learning about a new culture was one of my main objectives for my exchange year in the United States. I spent all my life in the comfort of my traditions and customs. And while I did always like to learn about other cultures, I would have never thought that I would get to experience it first hand. That is why when I had the opportunity to travel to the States and have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I immediately signed up for it. At that time, I could have never imagined what this following year had planned for me. All I knew was I wanted to travel to the States and participate in all it offered. Now as I sit behind the screen typing my story for the world to read, I am so glad I took this chance.
In my opinion, an essential aspect of a culture is its holidays — and you can not have a whole American experience without partaking in the holidays such as Halloween, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas etc. For me, all these holidays were things out of books and movies. However, thanks to this exchange program, I got to participate in these special festivities. Of course, one of my favourite celebrations is Christmas. I spent my first-ever Christmas with my host family decorating the house, putting up a giant Christmas tree and wrapping presents next to the fireplace. I remember having a great meal on Christmas Eve and having endless talks with each other. The following day, I woke up to numerous presents under the tree. According to my host mom, Santa Claus has had a trip around the neighbourhood. I might have fallen for it if I did not know her better. We exchanged presents, the fireplace was blazing, and all that was heard were laughter and giggles. That was, hands down, the best day of my exchange year. I remember writing paragraphs in my journal that night. This was one of the many memorable events of the year, which expanded my understanding of American culture and the zeal of the people's spirits.
Experiencing a new culture was exciting. And while I learned so many new things, I also got to share my culture with others. From cooking traditional food for my friends and host family to sharing customary celebrations with them, I got to represent my country aesthetically. Every day since I first came here, I have tried to share the beauty of Pakistani culture with my host community. And it is no surprise that they love the cuisine and the national attire so thoroughly. However, my proudest moment was when during IEW, I gave presentations about my homeland to my fellow students and teachers. I still remember the wide-eyed look on their faces looking at the landscapes and the food. Another one of my favorite things was sharing the most celebrated holiday of all with my host family.
As I mentioned above, the most exciting part of a culture is its celebrations. And I could not have returned home without sharing one of our holidays. Hence, after the end of Ramadan, my host family and I celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr. Eid is one of the most important festivals for Muslims. And to say that my host family was excited to celebrate it with me was an understatement. Before coming to the States, I bought traditional dresses and jewellery for my host family, which came in handy for Eid. Early morning, Silvia (an exchange student from Italy who also lives with my host family) and I were out of bed rummaging through the house. We had to start our day with something sweet according to the custom. Next, we dressed in traditional clothes and took pictures with our host mom and the flags of our respective countries. It was amazing that we had so many nationalities celebrating the festival. Later in the day, we cooked traditional food and enjoyed it together during dinner. This was my first Eid away from my home and family, but I did not feel the void because I was in my second home with my other family.
My exchange year in South Carolina with Silvia, my host mom and our pet dog Bailey has been the most memorable year of my life. Although, seven months ago, I was highly overwhelmed by the idea of travelling to a completely unfamiliar place. I am glad I took the chance. The possibilities of a more than fantastic exchange year are endless as long as we remember to make the most of it. Thank you, YES, for this tremendous opportunity.