When my stepmother answered the phone, I squeaked out “hello” and then burst into tears.
“Tammy?! What’s wrong?” she asked, panicked.
“I don’t want to come home!” I sobbed.
That day 25 years ago marked a turning point in my life, and not because of any permanent damage it did to my relationship with my stepmother. (It didn’t…I think.) That was the day I returned to the US from my first foreign exchange experience. Heartbroken at leaving my newly adopted culture and host family, I phoned home once I had cleared customs in New York. That day marked the beginning of a lifelong mission to facilitate grassroots cross-cultural understanding.
The months I had spent assimilating into German everyday life had made a permanent impact on me. More than anything else, they had heightened my appreciation for a perspective other than the one I called mine. Those months forced me to put on different colored glasses, as well as to examine my own. I was a changed woman!
Little did I know, I was about to learn that the real benefit from an exchange experience comes when the person–yours truly, in this case–returns home. While I was gone, life had gone on without me. When I came back, no one was the wiser and everyone naturally expected me to jump in where I had left off.
Couldn’t anyone see that I was different?
Somewhere along the way, understanding dawned on me. This, the return home, was where cultural exchange could be most impactful. Until I learned to share my experience, that experience would remain with me alone. Only when I was able to articulate, illustrate, demonstrate the changes it had made in me, only when I could draw from the experience and advocate a broader perspective, then finally the true value of the exchange would be realized.
I’m not a high-profile diplomat or a world-renowned negotiator, but I’d like to think I’m an ambassador. My very first exchange experience, though it ended in a tearful phone call, put me on a path of facilitating connections between different perspectives. Whether those perspectives are between individuals, between vendors and customers, or between cultures, it all starts with a willingness to understand. It takes effort, but the long-term benefits are too good to keep to yourself.