By Visar Zeka (YES 2014-2015, Kosovo, hosted by AYUSA in Prosper,TX)
Remember your first day of high school? I experienced it twice… on two different continents. High school is the period where everyone is trying to find who they are but at the same time not be different from others. My very first day of high school was in the city where I was born and raised so I didn’t feel any differences between me and my new friends. My second first day of high school was when I went on my exchange year in the U.S. where everything around me was different from what I was used to. I walked into the school confident and happy about my new experience. The moment I opened my mouth to say the most simple word in English, “hi,” and received the response, “Where are you from?” made me realize how different I was from the people I would be surrounded by for a year.
I remember my first week in the U.S., the doctor who was giving me vaccine shots, when he learned that I was an exchange student, asked me: “So, who has your room back home now?” I explained to him that my “exchange” did not literally mean I had switched places with another student, but that I was here to learn about U.S. culture and share my own.
Adjusting to a new culture is always hard, but at a certain point you realize that you have adjusted without even trying anymore. You follow a new routine, celebrate new holidays, and also speak a new language every day while everything seems normal. Food, routine, language, and clothing are some of the attributes that define our culture. The moment you realize you are really integrated into your host culture is when you are Skyping with your old friends from back home and you are having difficulties saying a certain word in your native language because it comes to you more naturally in your second language.
As I adjusted to American culture, I came to realize the true meaning and purpose of cultural exchange. The more adjusted I became, the greater my fear began to grow that I was losing my own culture. I felt the need to share my culture with the people around me. I started talking more about home with others, cooked traditional dishes for my host family, did presentations about Kosovo in my school, and so on. This way, I not only practiced doing things from back home, but also helped people around me learn new things about a new culture.
Ever since my exchange year, I have seen the importance of being in a new culture and trying to adjust to it. You get to see how differently other people in the world live and at the same time you can bring some of the attributes of that culture with you no matter where you are. These attributes are the best souvenirs you can bring back home. This is the main reason why I love traveling and especially mingling with locals.
The beauty of the YES program is not only going to the U.S. for a year to get a lot of new experiences. For me, the most important thing was coming back home and getting involved with our alumni community and sharing our experiences with members of our communities through activities and projects. These activities help us implement and represent the culture we lived during our exchange year, continuing indefinitely the cycle of cultural exchange that began with that first day in the U.S.