Culture shock was something that hit me hard upon arrival in Schipol Airport in Amsterdam on August 18, 2009, and did not loosen its grip until sometime in late November. I was young, just turned 16 years old a month prior to departure and I was looking for an escape, and a student exchange was the perfect chance. I had nothing keeping me in America, and everything pushing me away.
A year in Zoetermeer, The Netherlands would give me the escape I needed, but not the one I expected.
I walked onto the plane in Buffalo with a mind-full of expectations, fantasies, and daydreams about life in Holland. I had always gone to long-term summer camps, and had few homesick issues, so I didn't think it would be too bad. I expected the open-minded attitudes of the Dutch government to be ever clear in the general Dutch population. I anticipated 0 instances of homophobia, clear acceptance and love for diversity, and just a general sense of belonging. In America I had been searching for a place like The Netherlands that lived in my mind, but not for The Netherlands that became my reality.
My host family and I did not click right off the bat. I sat in the back seat of my host-dad's teeny tiny yellow two-door car, starring out the window and the smallness of everything; the cars, trucks, roads, buildings... I silently cried consistently the entire hour ride to my new home. My stomach was in knots, and all I wanted to do was crawl into a hole and never come out. The anxiety was unbearable, and when I arrived in my new room the worst thing that could have happened, happened: I could not get internet access on my laptop. I was therefore left 100% alone, or so I thought. I could not talk to my friends or family, get support from them at home, and have a virtual shoulder to cry on. I was terrified.
I began unpacking my clothes when my host mother knocked on my door. I quickly wiped the tears away, terrified that she would ask what was wrong. I knew she could see it in my eyes that I had been crying and that I was not happy, but she didn't push the issue. Instead she just asked if I needed any help, I kindly said no, so she showed me all the closet area I had and left me to be alone.
There was nothing I wanted more than to go to sleep and wake up in my bed in Fredonia, but I woke up the next morning to rustling in the kitchen (two floors down). I have never had to push myself so hard to get out of bed, move one foot in front of the other, down two flights of stairs, and through the heavy door separating the living room/kitchen and the foyer (making my presence known since that door is impossible to remain inconspicuous while opening/closing). I wanted to be invisible. I had this sense of utter discomfort that I could not shake. Tears could not help but well, and each breath I took felt like a boulder was crushing me into nothing.
My host dad was the only one home, and asked me what I wanted for breakfast. All I could get down was water, food was repulsive and overwhelming. He told me to turn around and look into the garden, there stood an orange bike, freshly washed. It hurt to show gratitude. I was so grateful he had gotten me a bike, since that's the primary form of transportation there, but it was all too overwhelming.
The roller coaster I was on until mid-November was a lot to carry. Depression was ever present, and guilt was not in short supply. I was supposed to be having the time of my life, and instead I couldn't get my emotions in check to do so. Host family living was very difficult, but my host-sister made the first few months bearable. I thank God everyday that I had Sterre there to soften the homesickness, and conflicts with my host parents. (Her and I were always getting in trouble together all the time, so we had something to bond over, besides our already similar styles and interests).
I had some very hard times, but I also had some unbelievably wonderful times those first three months and most of them happened with Sterre. I was also so fortunate to have friends all over the country that I could freely visit each weekend. (The whole year I think I spent only 2 or 3 weekends at home).
But it got better. A lot better.
I realized that it wasn't them who needed to accept me, and change for me, but I was young, and there was truth to what they were saying. I needed to change, realize that this is a different family that what I came from, and that this country is much, much different that America. I won't go into detail but from December on things started to get better.
A huge moment that showed me how much I became a part of the family was in April. I hit a rough patch, made a bad decision but I realized that this was not just my host family, but my family. They loved me, and were proud of how far I had come in just a few months. They stuck up for me and did just what a real family would do if one of their children was in a pickle. Sterre had become my sister, someone who would remain in my life forever. We fought like sisters, had to have parental intervention like sisters, and got into trouble with our parents together, like sisters. We were always making my host dad mad, because we were obnoxious, but what teenage girls aren't?
Anyways, by the end of the year I had been changed. I matured so much. I became a much more critical thinker, I stopped taking things at face value. I knew things about the world, had a truly global perspective. I became fluent in Dutch, and saw and did things that some people never have the chance to do in their entire life. I visited 4 different countries: Holland, Germany, Belgium, and Suriname in one year. It was incredible, but most importantly, I had gained a new home, and a new family. There comes a point in exchange where it stops being a trip and starts being normal life. That's how you know you're doing it right.
So The Netherlands changed my life, dramatically, and I truly believe for the better. Reverse culture shock was hard, but not unbearable.
Now it's four years later, and I'm doing things a bit differently; learning from my mistakes to make the transition easier on myself. I'm trying not to think of the difficulties I will have in Argentina in terms of the ones I had in Holland. I'm not going in with any expectations at all. Surprisingly, that has been the easiest part, pushing out the expectations. I have ideas of how to portray myself differently than I did in The Netherlands.
When I was 16 I was a ball of uncontrollable energy, I still am energetic and bubbly, but not uncontrollable; which was the issue. I don't think I'm as overwhelming of a person to others, as I used to be. I think I'm a lot less in-your-face, and a lot more get-to-know-me. I spoke about 10 words of Dutch when I got off the plane, and now I speak quite a bit of Spanish, but am more nervous about the language than I was before.
I'm trying to quiet my nerves, but as a nervous nancy, it's been difficult, but I think I'm doing the right thing. My anxiety is not stopping me from pursuing my dream that I've had the majority of my life. This is what I've been dreaming of since I was 7, to live in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and I'm finally getting the chance. The fact that my anxiety is so strong as it is is unfortunate, but I'm going to push through regardless. I'm not going to look back in 20 years and say "I wish I would have gone..." I'm going, it's truly now or never, and excitement has begun to slowly replace the nerves and reservations. Let's hope it continues in that manner.
In one month and 2 days I will be on a plane to Buenos Aires, and onto an adventure that I'm sure is going to be just as life-changing as the first one (let's just hope with less speed bumps this time).
Stay tuned to be a part of my journey!