This sermon is about my whole story. My whole exchange story, including the time I spent in Chile, the time before it, and the 2 years its been since. Because you’ve probably heard it in bits n pieces. A food I tried here. Someone I meat there. But, if I told you my whole story, it would take a lot longer than 10 minutes. Even the abbreviated version of what I did and what I learned would probably take days, no, months, because I think about it all the time, and I’ve lived it for 4 years. I could talk about it forever. Just ask the girl from Ohio who asked me for my advice on being an exchange student to Chile, or look at the sheer number of posts on my blog, Peace Love and Travel with Willow. So, here is the best I can do. The snapshot version of my “whole story” if you will.
Here is a typical school day for Willow in Chile.
In the morning, I would wake up at 6:30, shower and put on my green plaid skirt with a white polo, sheer tights, and black shoes. I would then make breakfast for me, my 13-year-old host sister, Camila, and my 11-year-old, developmentally delayed, host brother Renato, which was usually, 2 spoonfuls of instant oatmeal in a mug with hot milk. Then, my host mom would drive us to school.
At school, I would kiss all of my classmates on the cheek, and then I’d take the day’s classes from the weekly schedule, with these same 26 people. Each of these classes was followed by a 15 min recess or a 30 min break for lunch. I’d then get off of school at 4:30, and take the public bus home.
Once at home, I would lounge around and watch Netflix or regular TV and text friends, and then work on homework for like an hour. At 8 pm, I would eat Once, which is similar to a tea time with breakfast esc food, like hallulla, my favorite Chilean bread, with jam or cheese, and tea, and talk to my host family for a little while. Then, I’d go back to watching TV until bed at 10 or 11 during my later months or until I conked out at 8:30 during those first few months.
I know to you this probably sounds very relaxing, especially as the sort of lazy Saturday you come across once a month, but is it still so luxurious as a daily routine? And weren’t you expecting something a little more exciting from an exchange student? I know I was. Like maybe accounts of a Willow who explores lost civilizations on the weekends, not one who goes to the food court at the mall. Or maybe a tanned and smiley Willow with a sexy Spanish accent sitting on the beach and eating empanadas, not spending a summer playing endless games of cards at a cottage, miles from the ocean. Or even maybe you expected, an upset Willow having to eat super spicy horse meat or getting hopelessly lost during her travels up and down Chile, and not the bored, goofy, slacker Willow that I encountered. I definitely expected the exciting. The glamour, the intensity, the business of being an exchange student, only to find that life as an exchange student is still just that, life and that life is not always exciting.
I did eventually do some of these things. I visited Patagonia in November, Easter Island in April, Pucon in May, and Santiago more than once, with my fellow exchange students, host family, and friends. I ate freshly killed lamb for Christmas dinner, and a lot of avocados. And I did get lost on a public bus on my way to the mall during my last week in Chile. I did a lot of really exciting, glamorous, and stupid, story-worthy things, but I also did a lot of normal things. Normal things that taught me more, that I remember more. Like bonding with my host brother over a cake batter mishap, and chatting with my Danish friend over coffee.
The photo on the cover of your order of service is a painting. A 4ft by 3ft oil painting titled “The Whole Story” that I painted a year ago. The piece will be part of my graduation gallery here at the church during the end of this school year if you would like to see it in its full glory. The point of the piece was to show my frustration when people looked at me expectantly for wild and crazy exchange stories. You know these stories, I’m sure you’ve heard people tell them. I wanted to show that being an exchange student is not about that, and actually contains very little of that, the bright yellow cup and pie. That in fact, the majority is spent doing the mundane things that make up living life in another culture, represented by the dark background shapes and the words from my journal.
It was not my story worthy moments that taught me that failure is ok, or that showed my best Chilean friend, Maite, that not all Americans are the opinionated and ethnocentric TV personalities. I became fluent in Spanish because I went to school, and I chatted with Chileans. I learned to trust myself, not just my work ethic, but my whole self and my competence in stressful situations. I learned what walking out of your own life, not once but twice, feels like, and the true heartbreak of seeing your best friend for what will probably be the last time ever. But with this sorrow, I learned the real and intense happiness of sighting your family at the Fort Wayne Airport and bursting into tears, or of resting your head on your friend’s shoulder during math class. I learned to walk around open and vulnerable, so as to feel the world in its entirety, with all my emotions and senses heightened and available. I learned how to cope with boredom and culture shock by enjoying the little things. Like the view from a tall tree and the freedom of owning a bike.
Now that you know my whole story, you probably realize that it is full of ups and downs. ¿Pero, así es la vida, o no? Have I ever regretted it? Going off of the beaten path. Did the pros outweigh the cons? Sure, sometimes it is hard to think of my best friends Laura, Maite, Kathy, and how far away they are and that I haven’t seen them in two years. But meeting them taught me how to be a good friend and to talk to people. Sure I spent a lot of time doing absolutely nothing, but that taught me how to relax and to not take everything so seriously. Plus, there are the additional perks of getting to know before I applied to college that I could handle being away from my family. And, of not having to study for anything ever in Spanish class. And having interesting things to say in my college essays. So no. I don’t regret it. I never regret it. If I got to do it all again I would still pick going to Chile. I would still pick exchange.
When I look at the 211 photos I have in an album on my computer that I chose to encapsulate my exchange, I kind of do go back. I am flooded with memories of my year and of the people I shared it with, and also with an intense desire to share these memories, and to help other people experience the extreme beauty of exchange through going abroad, hosting, or listening to talks like this. Because of this intense desire, I have spent the last two years earning my IB diploma, and thinking about or sharing my exchange with others during my free time. I’ve talked at Rotary clubs, and Marquette elementary. I attended conferences to prepare future exchange students and to comfort them and their parents. Now, as I enter into the next chapter of my life, and close up my time as a Rotary Youth Exchange ambassador, I pass the torch to my little sister with a happy heart, knowing that I have had a successful exchange, and that she will do the same and continue to create world peace, one student at a time.