By Jonathan Lee Rong Sheng (YES 2018-2019, Malaysia, hosted with AFS in Fremont, NH)
Growing up, I’ve always been fascinated with the outside world. I longed to discover how life was like in a foreign land and would jump on every opportunity to travel, near or far. However, never in my wildest dreams had I thought I would be given the chance to serve as a youth ambassador halfway across the world. I vividly remember seeing the iconic New York City skyline of skyscrapers for the first time when we arrived at the John F. Kennedy International Airport. It felt surreal and dreamlike. There was a palpable sense of anticipation tinged with curiosity and excitement among all of us. After an arrival orientation in New York, we were dispatched to our host states across the US.
I was warmly received by my host family in rural New Hampshire, which is known for its dense forests and unforgiving winter. As an only child in my family, I was intrigued by the prospect of interacting with my nine-year-old host brother. My host grandparents even dropped by on my very first day in New Hampshire to welcome me.
Having grown up in Kuala Lumpur with no experience in seasonal changes, my new environment was a huge challenge for me in the beginning. Nevertheless, the warmth of my host parents, who are both army veterans, has helped me tremendously in easing my transition. Within the space of two months, I crossed numerous items on my bucket list. Be it ice fishing in freezing temperatures or lying supine on a frozen lake gazing at a star-lit sky, my time here has been full of firsts.
My immersion in the local culture and outdoor activities did not end there. I found myself shoveling snow off a lake (you read that right) to make an ice hockey rink. Despite waking up the next day with aching muscles, I had no complaints as I got to play ice hockey.
My experience with my host school has been equally exciting. Getting there in a yellow school bus and stepping into the locker-lined hallways for the first time felt familiar (probably due to the many Hollywood movies and TV shows I have seen) yet so alien to me at that moment. Here, I have the liberty to pick my own subjects, namely, biology, chemistry, forensic science, marine biology, STEM engineering, US Government and History.
My teachers have been incredibly encouraging and greatly helped my integration into the classrooms. The amazing facilities have enabled me to take part in many interesting science experiments. For example, I have analysed bullets in forensic science class, grown crystals in my chemistry class and bred trout eggs in marine biology class. What’s more, I was tasked with heading a partnered experiment with a local university to design an oil refinery that converts plastics into bio-fuel. It is moments like these that make waking up early for school, despite the chilly weather, less dreadful.
But as all exchange students can tell you, the first week of school was, in all honesty, terrifying and it was no exception for me. The classroom environment and etiquette were very different. I had to navigate around classrooms, make friends and find people to sit with at lunch. The latter might sound ridiculous, but it was a real fear. I’m thankful that my neighbour’s children welcomed me into their group on my first day. They later introduced me to American football and I had the opportunity to follow one of them to Boston to celebrate this year’s Super Bowl champions’ victory parade.
Now I can gladly share that I have adapted well and learned many things. I have taken part on field trips with my classmates, including visiting a trout hatchery farm. I have also contested in inter-school math competitions and cheered along enthusiastically with the senior class at a pep rally. All these things will be forever etched in my mind.
As a youth ambassador, I have taken every opportunity to share about my home country and culture. I’ve shared the diversity of the Malaysian culture among friends, as well as organised outings to Chinatown during Chinese New Year. Through my interaction with the Americans, I’ve seen their genuine curiosity about Malaysia and our hidden gems. More recently, I brought durian candy to class to share with the students and teachers. It was a pure joy watching their reactions, be it their eyes twinkling with curiosity or their faces showing pure revulsion.
My experience thus far has been a humbling learning curve. It has reminded me of the importance of learning to adapt, being open-minded and seeing things from different perspectives before making judgements. This program has truly served as a platform for me to discover myself while encouraging me to get out of my comfort zone, meet new people and improve myself as a person. I am aware that in the months ahead, there will be more good times to be savoured as well as hurdles to be overcome. I will persevere through the challenges, enjoy my experience to the fullest and learn the most I can out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.