I was sixteen when I stepped on the plane. My friends at that moment were working in boutiques and movie theaters, driving around recklessly, just being teenagers. But somehow, I felt different from them, wearing my Rotary jacket decorated with pins that said "World Ambassador," and saying goodbye to a continent for a year. I had no idea of what I was in for. I was going to a small European country which no one I knew had ever been to. I was stepping off the cliff of my adolescence, with only a 70-pound suitcase, a plane ticket, and a funny looking address to call home.
In July, I stepped into a Danish farmhouse I had never dreamed of being in a year ago to stay with a family I had never met. I was to live with four families this year and they were my first. Immediately, I became an observer of another culture, calculating spoken word and table manners, train schedules and milk cartons. The family was just about as different from mine as they could be. I had two younger host siblings, who hated each other half the time, but could not get away from each other the other half. They had so many things to amuse themselves. Kitt, my host sister, had three horses. I was not used to having so much noise and energy, coming from a very relaxed and quiet family. The shouts for "Mo-ah" (Mom), rushed down the stairs with every need the children had. Nevertheless, they were amazing in the way they tolerated my broken Danish. We quickly figured out an easy way for me to ask what a word meant without interrupting a whole conversation. My host mother would do the dishes while I babbled on in Danish. Some of the things I asked her about were things she had never given a second thought to. I think it must have been interesting for her to speak Danish with me.
I had so many things on my mind all the time. One of the most stressful things was college. My high school counselor had not ever dealt with someone who wanted to go outbound on exchange. I was having such trouble getting my credits to be eligible for the UC-system because I had to take mandatory graduation courses in my junior year that would usually be taken in senior year. This left no room for the second semesters of Chemistry and Advanced Algebra. I am now taking Physics and Mathematics in the Danish language, understanding a little more every day. My school in Denmark has send course outlines to my high school which will send them to the admissions offices at Santa Cruz and Berkeley. It was a hard decision to make, but by the end, I decided that it was my fate to be an exchange student. If I have to end up at the junior college for two years, so be it. I wanted to see the world and once that door opened, I could not spend senior year at home.
I had been in Denmark for a month when I started school. With only a fleeting grasp of the Danish language, I had not been able to make any Danish friends. I had always wondered why exchange students looked so confused, and then I knew. I had never been such an outsider as I was on that first day of school, my eyes darting around like a scared puppy. I was paranoid for the first week. I did not know where anything was or how to use anything. I found myself in half-coherent conversations with strangers, asking where the book room or the printer could be found. They looked so startled when they heard those first few crackling Danish words coming out of my mouth and I feared that I had become that confused exchange student that no one ever talked to, but everyone always wondered about.
At the school party, their "true" colors came out. I was one of the first few people through the door, so I sat nervously at my table until my whole class came in, drunk and singing. Immediately following them, it seems, was the whole school. The music started, people were hugging and dancing in their seats. Complete strangers started coming up to me, all of them knowing my name and what class I was in. It was so strange to me that people seemed to know all about me and yet I did not even recognize them. It was then that I realized that I was no normal kid. I could either ward off people with my nationality or I could draw them. The problem was that Danish kids put on such a cold facade when one does not know them, and I have never been the best at breaking down those barriers.
I felt so useless sometimes. I could barely hold on a conversation and felt so guilty when I had to switch the conversation to English. This drove me to learn Danish fast and efficiently, so I started opening up, listening, and looking around. When I saw a poster on the school bulletin board that said "Musik Cafe," I decided to talk to the band teacher. I thought that if I showed them that I could do something they would take notice of me more as another human being than as just "The American Girl." So, on one cold October night, I dragged the only other exchange student from my school to the auditorium, along with my guitar on the back of my bike, and played my little heart out.
I looked out after each song and smiled. After, the kids rushed up to me and said all sorts of things, including, "We did not know if you were going to sound like crap or what, but you were so great." I knew that they began to associate another thing with me and that was my music. It had been the same way when I had played for my American high school. However, this time I had done something more than showing them I could sing. I had shown them something that had nothing to do with a border and a national tongue.
It is hard to be here, but it is totally and utterly worth it. There is no way to describe walking into a house with people you have never seen and saying, "Hi, I am your new daughter." There is no way to express what it feels like to come to a place, and learn a language just by listening, by observing. There is nothing like receiving a letter from home, marked with stamps and ink and my crazy new address scrawled out on the front. I have never felt anything so foreign as walking into school on the first day, and speaking English to someone who might not have spoken to an American in their whole life. The most mind-altering thing is looking back on home and realizing things about my city and about my friends, realizing that no matter how far one tries to go, people are still the same. I had never thought about these differences before I skipped the country one deathly hot California morning, the sun glaring off the wing and my country gliding by below me, on my own and with no hint of the new reality I was about to fall into.