Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX)

September 17, 2012

I'm living here in Germany for a year.

I'm really lucky to have gotten this chance.

It's kind of like when you have your side that you've learned and then you learn their side of it and you kind of put them together and something in between comes out of it.

I'm interested in what's going on in the world.

I had no difficulties saying goodbye to Arizona and saying, oh, I'm not going to miss the hot, 100-degree weather, no problem. I was so excited. I thought, wow, this is going to be such an adventure.

A whole year away from everything I've known and loved.

It was part of my dream to work or study, so this program has both. It's perfect.

It's along application and it takes, actually, a lot of thinking over things. So when I actually got it done and sent it in was something that was not normal with me.

I've had the best experience that carries through to this day. I mean, I still talk about the experience of being in Germany for that one year, even though it was 20 years ago, I still talk about experiences as though they were extremely fresh in my mind.

I loved it. The year was amazing and I just can't imagine not having done it.

I think it was a good decision to go to the USA because the USA has such a dominant role in our world, whether it's political or cultural.  Especially with regards to Germany and the influence after World War II, the influence America had on Germany.

I think you really begin to understand this influence once you've lived here for a while.

And so I had just thought, why not do it? I don't know. It's also this adventure. It's hard to say. I thought, You don't have anything to lose. You can only gain from it.
They'll be there for you when you get back. So, I'll just go.

You have the obvious cultural differences. I went to bed every night with a headache for the first three months just because my brain was constantly bombarded with so much it didn't understand that it would just ache.

I remember my first night, I did cry. I thought, What have I gotten myself into? Everybody is talking at me and I cannot understand them!

But I would say by the third month, you know - people are very kind - people were very kind to me and helped me along, my classmates, my host family.
I think they were very tolerant and patient helping me get up to speed, to communicate.

You know, you're in a new family and it's kind of hard to be straightforward. People try different things to be close to each other and kind of fail. But we worked it out, so it was really - that was the first month.

After that, the rest of the year was awesome. I couldn't believe it. They were really good to me. And I tried really hard to be a good kid.

My family is Jewish. I get to learn a completely different religion here. Instead of Christmas, I celebrate Hannukah. Instead of Easter, I celebrate Passover.

You can read about it in books and find that it's like this or that and here I get to personally take part and personally celebrate the holidays. It's a great experience, really.

It's a really loving culture. It's a little bit hard to break into because, you know, they're not like the Italians who will come up and hug you when they don't know you.

But once you get to know a German, they're really warm. I still keep in touch with some of the friends I made.

But school was very difficult. I was lucky to have a host sister who was my same age group. She was there at one time, so she had friends in the class.

She would call them up and say, Could you help Krista? Could you give her - she wants your notes, she doesn't know how to ask. I'm sure that every family - you have to ask for help with those kinds of things.

I had the traditional subjects, as most exchange students do. American literature, American history. I learned a great deal about the USA and American history through this, which also really helped me apply to what I experienced in my everyday life.

I'm learning stuff here that I wouldn't learn in college. You're 16 years old, you have three languages, music theory, art history. Incredible.

It's hard work. It's hard for me because I have to do it all double. I do it in English and I do it in German, so then I'm learning it both. But it's stuff that I'd be learning anyways later on in life, but I get the opportunity to learn it now.

And there's no other time in your life when you can be 16 and live in a different country. Even if you go in college - in college you live in the dorms, you live with other exchange students. It's really not the same.

I feel like you don't get immersed in the culture. In college if you do the work program, you get to be immersed in the culture and I think that's just such a big deal.

The first couple of months I was really disappointed because it was hard to find people that were really interested. It's always easy if you tell them you're German, you're an exchange student. It's like, Wow, yeah, I know somebody in Germany or I'm half German or something like that.

Everybody has a relation. But now that I'm here for over seven months, I've got some really, really nice friends. It's going to be hard to go back to Germany and leave them here.

On one hand it's hard because you're separated from  your friends and family for so long. But I also think it makes you stronger. You become more independent by coming to a new country where you don't know anyone and you have to make new contacts yourself and get to know new people.

I always say to myself, Okay, you're here with Congress-Bundestag with a parliamentary scholarship, they're at home celebrating carnival. You can celebrate carnival your whole life. But they're not sitting here doing what you're doing.

That's what I say to myself. Or when I'm not doing well, I just say to myself, Okay, you wanted to do this year abroad. You knew how hard it would be, so get yourself together and go through with it.

The people are completely different than what I'm used to. I don't know. Here, everyone is planning and organized and clean and I just think, Wow.

Because at home and where I'm from - the first time my mother told me there was this much dirt in the doorway and I'm thinking so what, the reservation is covered in dirt. What are you going to do, vacuum every hour or something?

It was just such a contrast. It was just something so different. I wanted something different and, yeah, I think I've got something different.

One of the things that really, really jumped out at me when I was in Germany is - I remember from the picture window on my host family's house, you could see it was rolling hills, but you could see three towns because they're all such little compact towns.

I found that was a way to help me understand their political system, the way they made decisions, because they felt - and they feel, especially in foreign affairs I think it comes out -- that their decisions impact the countries around them.

That, in a way, we just don't even think about that.

In that sense, I'm probably more European in that you grow up seeing other countries and cultures. And maybe a bit, in this regard, you have a bit more awareness than Americans are able to have, because they live in such a big country that even after driving for hours you can actually only reach another state.

From the German view, I always thought, that's kind of weird that they don't know what's going on. But, living here, I think it changed my mind because America is a huge country. Especially because I came here with Amtrak, all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast.

And I can imagine that people in Kansas or in Arkansas don't really care what's going on in the world because this country alone is so huge and there are so many things going on in this country.

So it was kind of interesting to kind of go over there and see somebody talk about the US from a viewpoint different than what we've learned at school the whole time and be in the context of viewing the US from a different perspective.

Because people ask you things, like, why is your president doing this? And you're like, I didn't even know we did it. Or like, why did you guys do this? And you're like, I didn't even know we did those things.

And so, like, it was kind of interesting to see that. People were really viewing the US and seeing what we were doing and making a difference in their lives and it was really important for us to understand that.

I thought, Well this is important to know about, and became more interested in politics once I was there and had a lot of opportunity to discuss politics with the youth or the adults and to sort of read the different newspapers.

As Americans, we tend to do first, and then say, well OK, either that was right or that was wrong. But, here they consider everything first before they do anything. I've had to totally mellow out because I get so enthusiastic and that's great, and I've always thought that that was great, but I really had to learn to appreciate the other side, the whole enthusiasm is good when you've made sure that it's not going to get in somebody else's personal space.

Otherwise, maybe also German in the sense that I, at least as a German of my generation, you are more likely to question yourself. Maybe because of - or to question yourself or what your country does simply because of our experience with World War II and the way in which it is taught in history lessons.

The history and the way they think about their country, that's a difference, that's a big difference. And it comes right down to the way they've thought about their school and their school spirit and the lack of school teams. There were town teams.

But I think at the time I was applying for the program, I really wanted to go to the USA because of high school spirit and cheerleading. It's a bit ridiculous, I admit. But it just really introgued me, if it's really so - because at home, there's no spirit at my school. 

It doesn't matter to anyone where he goes to school. "Oh, no, the Americans and their school pride." And I just thought, "Yeah, but it's so cool." Yeah, with football teams and everything.

That's why, and because America is just - there's just a spirit that comes with America.

There isn't another country where a person has the privilege of simultaneously being 25 percent Swedish, 50 percent British, 25 percent Italian. And at the same time, 100 percent American. I don't think this exists in any other country.

That's this very special American patriotism, which we Germans initially can't relate to at all. And at the same time, we're fascinated by it. At the same time, we think it's especially thrilling and alluring.

I have a Finnish mama, a Canadian papa and a Canadian sister and two sisters born here in the USA. And I thought that even within my host family you already have Europe, Canada and the USA. You know, I didn't really think about things like that.

Or about how you have in the United States, practically the whole palette of all different peoples and that's just what really excites me about this.

I think when you live in another culture for a year, you begin to understand why certain things are handled the way they are handled.

During my exchange year I learned about the USA and in the years after, learned about myself and rediscovered Germany.

You return from the exchange year and are open to seeing what is suddenly different in your own culture. So you actually get to know your own country better after an exchange year.

I'm not going to change anything. I'm going to change me. Then I'm going to come back home and I'm going to say, I'm going to keep these changes, thanks.

When you're living in the US and you're just kind of going through the motions of trying to get yourself started as a kid and figuring things out, you don't really have time for relationships.

High school is such a hard time to have relationships with people. When you go there, you're kind of thrown into situations where you're forced to kind of figure out how to deal with other people and be close to them, because you're there for such a short period of time, but you need friends while you're there. So it's amazing that, in a short period of time, you can make friends with people that, you know, you're still friends with today. You know, you still stay in touch with them.

I feel closer to them than people I've known for many years.

Also being on the other end of being the one who isn't fluent, especially when you know your mind is going a million times faster than any of the words you're saying. It teaches you a certain kind of tolerance, an understanding for being not necessarily an outsider, but being different.

It changed my outlook on life. It's really hard to quantify exactly how it changed it, I just know that I wouldn't be as outgoing if I hadn't gone. And I wouldn't have had as much confidence as I gained that year.

I don't think I would have tried anything else before that. If I hadn't gone, I wouldn't have tried - I've always just been really tracked, you know? All the honors programs, going to college, junior year would have been a lot of work just with school.

And it would have been - it made me kind of discover myself. I think that Germany was just an opportunity to do that. You get to figure out things that are really important. What things in life are really important.

You get to see that when you're there. You don't get to see that when you're here. You forget.

It can be difficult, at times, but I think with all the difficulty, I've learned so much. I've come so far and done so much that I've never imagined I could do in six months of my life that I don't - I don't know, I wouldn't be anywhere else.

Now when I go home I'll have an especially close connection to the USA. Even though before, I might not have been so USA, but now when I go home, I definitely am. Because I lived here and know how everything is.

So now I'll always want to know everything about the USA, what's going on and so, in any case, this brings me closer, in hindsight, to feeling connected with the US.