My experience as a virtual exchange student at the San Silvestre School in Lima, Peru is one I will not soon forget. Despite the obvious differences between an in-person exchange and a virtual one, it was still an incredible opportunity.
The best part of going on exchange is making friends with people who live in a completely different place. While it was harder for me to immerse myself in Peruvian culture because everything was over Zoom, there were a few experiences that gave me the opportunity to get beyond the screen and learn more about Peru and my host family.
My exchange buddy was so kind and welcoming. We instantly connected over Netflix, especially because that was one thing that had become a staple of life over quarantine. It was also interesting to see the effects of COVID in Peru, and I was surprised that we were actually having similar quarantine experiences. I also had the opportunity to get to know another girl at the school. We had a bunch of classes together, and we were in the same group for many projects. She also taught Victoria, another exchange student from Athenian, and I how to cook a meal that her family usually makes on Christmas. It was so fun to share traditional family recipes and spend some time getting to know each other.
One of the challenges I faced while going to school in Peru was the language barrier. Usually, the students who to go to Peru for exchange are taking Spanish in school, or at least, can understand the language. However, because it was a virtual exchange, I was able to go to school in Peru despite not knowing Spanish at all. This proved to be a challenge because while the main classes I attended were taught in English, the extracurricular classes were taught in Spanish. Although it was sometimes difficult to figure out what was happening in the classes, I got better at following what the other students in the class were doing. I also got much better at using google translate throughout the whole experience.
In conclusion, going on exchange, even over Zoom, is an incredible opportunity. You are able to form connections with people you would otherwise never meet, and you will learn so much about another culture.
Monday was the first day of my exchange at San Silvestre, an all-girls school in Lima. I met the exchange coordinators and the two students who would be my exchange hosts. After we all introduced ourselves and talked about some of our interests, the San Silvestre girls went back to class and the four Athenian students going there on exchange got to choose what extracurricular classes we would take, as well as normal classes. I decided to take Volleyball, Model UN Training, and their drama elective. For academic classes, I was offered five, of which I chose to take three. I chose English, Math, and History of Peru, which was taught in Spanish.
Tuesday was a special day called a “Self Care Day.” There were some different activities, including dancing, smoothie making, a makeup session, face mask making, and nail painting. I chose to do the nail art session, during which I chatted with one of my hosts via the Zoom. I also joined a house meeting that was happening that day. San Silvestre has houses, which are kinda like advisories but way bigger with around 80 – 90 people each. The house leaders gave a presentation about some community service they were doing. I understood most of it, but they talked fast, so I didn’t have much time to process what they were saying. Afterwards, they hosted a couple Kahoots which I joined and had fun in.
Thursday morning, I found a text from the exchange communicator, Adriana, that something sad had happened and that she needed to talk with me and Cecilia as well as the other Athenian girls on exchange right away. Adriana gave us the news that one of my exchange host’s father had passed away the night before, and that she would be taking some time off from school. They also decided that Cecilia and I would not attend regular classes for the rest of the week to allow the community some time to process the loss. Fortunately, I was on a virtual exchange so her and her family didn’t have to actually, physically, take care of me. Otherwise it would have been a lot to handle. I still didn’t get to connect with my exchange hosts, Zoe and Natalia, as much because we wanted to give them their space and not be a burden. My family contacted a flower shop in Lima and sent flowers to my exchange host’s family. I wrote a message for them in Spanish. She told me later in a Zoom call that she had received them and that her family was thankful.
Early in the exchange I hadn’t been able to attend any academic classes yet; however, I did get to attend some extracurricular classes, including an MUN training meeting. MUN stands for Model United Nations. It is a mock meeting between countries to discuss issues many countries are confronting and potential solutions to them. I’d never been to an MUN meeting before, so it was a new experience for me. The students explained what it was and asked me if I wanted to join an unofficial practice MUN held within San Silvestre only. They had several different topics for the committees. I chose to join the one on abortion rights because you could do it with a partner. Victoria, another girl from Athenian going on exchange there, and I decided to be partners for the project. The country we were assigned was Gabon, a country in Africa, where abortion is only legal in some cases. We put together a position paper over the week and prepared for the meeting on Saturday, which would begin at 6:44 AM for us.
On Saturday morning we started with an opening ceremony, jumped right into reading the opening statements of some of the countries, and then moved on to moderated caucuses. It was kind of confusing at first. We didn’t know what to do or when we should speak, but eventually we did speak and got the hang of how the conference worked. After a few unmoderated caucuses, we formed blocs, which are groups of different countries that share similar ideas, and we began writing a working paper with the girls from other countries. After lunch, we finished writing resolution papers. When all the blocs had finished their resolution papers, we read them out and voted on them. The first vote failed, so we re-voted to see if one would pass and it still failed. We were all kind of disappointed, but it was still a really fun experience. It was one of the highlights of my exchange at San Silvestre. I got to talk and collaborate with a lot of people and had a great time.
Another elective I joined was a one-act play. I joined pretty late in the game, so the script was already completely developed and the girls were working on performing it. There wasn’t a role I could play so I didn’t get to do too much, but I helped where I could. They already had someone taking care of costumes, but they didn’t know what they were going to do for the set because using a Zoom virtual background just wasn’t working. Also, because of the way the play was translated over Zoom, each person had to have a different set in their own house. I thought it might help to find images on the internet they could either print and tape behind them or just use as a reference. They said the pictures helped and they each modeled their sets after them. I also helped timing the performance so they could know if they needed to slow it down or do it faster. Aside from timing and working on the set, I would occasionally get to fill in if someone was out, which I enjoyed. It was fun and think people are going to enjoy their play. I’m glad I was able to contribute.
The Pros and Cons of a Virtual Exchange
One of the difficulties the virtual exchange was the time difference. Peru is two hours ahead, so I would have to occasionally wake up early to go to classes and my whole day would be skewed very oddly. I got hungry at weird times, sometimes got really tired, or got a bad headache. You are very much living in two different time zones at once. Had my exchange been with a school with an even larger time difference, I’m sure it would have been more complicated. The reason this isn’t an issue on a real exchange is because even though you may be operating on a different time than the country you’re in, everyone else is not and eventually you get used to it. Doing an in-person exchange, you physically attend class and there’s not really a way to accidentally sleep through them. However, on a virtual exchange all you have to do is forget to set an alarm and you can easily miss your morning class, which I may have done one or twice.
I did not to get to see Peru because I wasn’t there to go places and my hosts were under lockdown so they couldn’t even give me a virtual tour. My exchange buddies and I did get to compare our countries though. We found out that they are pretty different, but there were a couple of similarities. We had multiple Zoom calls during the exchange in which we talked and played some games. It is very easy to stay in contact with my new friends from exchange because digital communication was already our only means of communication. Every possible kink has already been worked out.
I really enjoyed the whole experience of going on a virtual exchange and I think it is a good way for people to go on exchange. Part of the reason I jumped on the opportunity is because my family does not have much room to host an exchange student, but I always wanted to go because I thought it would be really cool. The virtual exchange, though some elements were more difficult or lost, was a lovely experience. Unfortunately for my family, I now want to go on an in-person exchange even more. I am going to be begging them to do it as soon as I get the opportunity again.
As I reflect upon my time as a virtual exchange student at Markham College, my experience seems defined by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Peru has been on strict lockdown beginning March 16th and many students have not been able to leave their houses in months. Because of this, the pandemic was on everybody’s mind. It was not only central to conversations with students, but present in course materials as well. This made for interesting differences from a more traditional in-person exchange.
Foremost, nobody socializes as they would normally. There were many Zoom meetings, but the medium is a far cry from the constant in-person interaction that defines a traditional exchange. This made the exchange feel more distanced, but feeling distant is inherent to virtual learning.
On the other hand, there was a sense of unity as the pandemic and surrounding measures built common ground as we all were experiencing similar things. While we currently have more freedom than the Peruvian students, the isolation that we are experiencing is much the same.
These aspects are just a snapshot of the unique experience that is virtual exchange. While it certainly isn’t a full substitute for an in-person exchange, I would highly encourage going on virtual exchange as you will make global connections and learn about yourself, nonetheless.
My name is Cecilia, and I went on a virtual exchange to Lima Peru “with” my buddy Isa. It was a perfect match. We immediately bonded over TikTok, baking, cooking, sports, school, even Covid-19, sharing our frustration and quarantine activities. We cooked together over Zoom and watched a movie together. We also had most of our classes together, so we got to work on slides in breakout rooms, and she was able to introduce me to lots of other girls. She was the best buddy I could have asked for, always making sure I had the material for class, the links, the correct times.
As for my classes, the teachers did a great job welcoming and introducing me to everyone. They always made sure to fill me in on content I had missed, which was very helpful. The classes I participated in were child development, biology, physics, history, and history of Peru. One challenge in the history of Peru class was that it was taught in Spanish, but I was able to observe the teacher’s screen and gain some context. In a lot of my classes the teachers would put us in breakout rooms to research different topics, which I really enjoyed because I would usually be with my buddy and 1-2 other girls. I learned a lot about ecosystems, childbirth, China and Japan’s history, and kinetic energy.
My favorite class was one day at 6:30 am. Our teacher let us start the class by introducing ourselves and asking questions about Peru or California. At the beginning it was regular questions about school, coronavirus, etc., but then we started to be bold. We bonded over the topic of boys, TikTok, junk food, and more. It was interesting to hear about how different it is going to an all-girls school, and they were intrigued to hear about me attending a co-ed school. After about 30 minutes with the conversation flowing, Miss Ines let us save the work for next class and keep talking.
It was easier than I expected to form friendships over Zoom. I thought it would be awkward and tough to find a conversation topic, but it was super easy to start with basic questions and then let the conversation take its own course. I am super excited to meet them one day in person, and I know we will stay in touch!
After picking up my bag from baggage claim, I turned around and saw my host, Gaby, and her dad, Camilo. It had been exactly a year since I hosted Gaby at Athenian and we were both so excited to see each other again. On our way home, we stopped at one of the only bagel stores in Bogota (since Gaby knows how much I love bagels), and then to the apartment that I now call home. One of the first things I noticed was how aggressive the driving is here. Despite it being 6:30 AM, there was already a significant amount of traffic and drivers honking every two minutes.
The day after my arrival in Bogota, my host family and I hopped on another plane to the beautiful Caribbean coast of Colombia. We stayed in the old city of Cartagena for one week. This was a very peaceful and relaxing way for me to assimilate into Colombian culture and get to know my host family. Some of my favorite memories from Cartagena were walking around the old city to get ice cream or pastries with Gaby and Lucas, her younger brother.
After an amazing week in Cartagena, we flew back and began school at Colegio Los Nogales. After an early 5:00 AM wake-up and an hour commute to school, I was immediately greeted by my exchange mentor, Paula, and by the other exchange students, Kelly and Ingrid (from Beijing and Denmark). My host introduced me to all of her friends during recess and we all got along so well. Everyone at Nogales is so welcoming and helpful, which made it very easy for me to make friends and feel comfortable.
On the weekends, we usually drive to other parts of Bogota to go shopping or have lunch. Some of my favorite places are Boho, which has many cute cafes and flea-market stands, and Andino, which is similar to Walnut Creek. Last weekend, I went with the other exchanges to a country house in Cajica, which is about two hours away from Bogota. We had a barbeque and fondue and spent a lot of time playing with Salma’s dogs. The country house was near a forest and had breathtaking views of the mountains.
At the time I am writing this, my exchange is about halfway over. I am very excited to see what is in store for these next few weeks.
I had known for months that I was going on exchange. I had
completely accepted the reality of living in a foreign country without my
family for more than a month. I had been on community service and Round Square
trips without my parents before, so I thought I was thoroughly prepared for
whatever was coming my way. Going onto the escalator up to the security line at
LAX, however, was like taking a giant leap of faith. It was hard for me to go
because I didn’t know what was there waiting for me. That particular moment taught
me a lot about taking risks. I just have to dive right in and take the plunge –
it might be worth it. In this case, it certainly was.
Despite my moment of panic in security, the journey to
Melbourne was uneventful. The grueling 16-hour flight passed quickly with the
help of plenty of movies. Australian customs was also a breeze – because I was
unaccompanied and under 16 I went in a separate line that took less than 10
minutes. I took a deep breath before walking out of the security area, all
three bags in hand. When I saw my host, Annie, waiting for me, I was so
overjoyed to finally be reunited with my best friend from Australia.
Immediately after meeting her family, we packed my bags in
the car and began the long ride home. Annie and her family live on a farm two
hours outside of Melbourne and an hour outside the nearest city, Ballarat. It
was shocking for me to live on a farm so far away from a city. I’m used to
biking 5 minutes to pick up groceries; however, I got used to living on a farm.
I learned that sometimes a commute to school or the grocery store is worth it for
the amazing experience of living surrounded by beautiful countryside.
The day after I arrived, we packed up our things, and began
a road trip along the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road felt like the Highway
One of Australia, complete with breathtaking views of the coast and charming
towns all along the way. This was a great opportunity to get to know my host
family before school started in a week.
Going to school for the first time was incredibly difficult.
I was really scared to go into an environment where I knew absolutely no one. Annie
and I were in different year-levels. She introduced me to a few people in my
grade and helped me with my schedule, but besides that, I was on my own. I
learned a lot in the first few days of term–about being outgoing and
persevering through tough situations. By the end of my first week, I had many friends
and knew a lot about Australia and the differences between their schools and Athenian.
In Australia, not only are the course selections different,
but so are the ways that school is structured. One of the unique opportunities
I had at Ballarat Grammar was to take an Agriculture class, which is a standard
course offering in Australia. In Vet Ag, I learned about farm management as
well as about buying and selling sheep. In our practicals, I had the amazing
experience of working on the school farm every Thursday, participating in a
“Sheep Showing Competition,” and witnessing a lamb birth.
Another thing that was different about Australian school was
that each student is placed in a house once they enter year 7. It reminded me a
lot of Hogwarts because each house has its own uniform for certain days and a
crest complete with a fancy Latin motto. My school had 12 different houses,
each one of them in pairs of brother-sister houses. From years 7-12, students
participate in many activities and competitions in their houses. As I
experienced, there is a lot of house spirit and everyone gets quite
competitive. While I was attending Grammar, they held an annual house
competition called Chorales. Brother-sister houses do a singing and dance
routine to an assigned song, performing in front of the whole school. Everyone
was required to participate, including me. Our song was “Funky Town” and we won
On the weekends, Annie and I would try to jam in as much
time together as possible. While we spent a lot of time doing typical tourist
things–going to the Wildlife Park to pet kangaroos and koalas–some of the
things I enjoyed the most came from just being with her as she went through her
day-to-day life. I would come to her Netball games (an Australian sport that’s
like basketball but with the rules of ultimate Frisbee) and then we’d stay and
watch part of the neighboring Footie game. Or, we’d spend an afternoon on the
farm riding motorcycles and checking out the shearing shed. These are the
moments I treasure the most, because it’s such a unique experience only
exchange could have given me. Because I wasn’t a tourist, I had many other
opportunities and I was able to see the country in a different way. Australia
is not all about the accent and the bizarre marsupials. Australian people
really have a strong spirit and connection to their country that you can only
really understand by living there.
By August 16, my trip was coming to a close. I had already
bid adieu to all of my incredible school friends, and only had one weekend left
with my host family. I was heartbroken that exchange had come to pass so quickly;
however, we made the most of our last weekend together. We took a plane up to
Sydney and had the time of our lives exploring the city. From the Harbor Bridge
and the Opera House to the gorgeous coastline around Bondi Beach, Sydney really
had it all.
My last day was so emotional for me. It was so hard to
reckon with the fact that I was actually leaving Australia–my home away from
home–and my second family. I know that I will be back as soon as possible to
visit my amazing friends and family. I will forever cherish my time in
Australia, and all the little moments that brought me so much joy.
arrived here in Germany! From the time I arrived until now, time has flown by
very quickly. It has already been three weeks since getting off the plane in
Munich. It has been quite the experience so far. I have met so many new faces, gone
to many places, and have adjusted to the boarding culture at Schule Schloss Salem,
something drastically different than being a day student at Athenian.
difficult aspect of my trip so far has been the language barrier. There have
been several occasions where it has been challenging to interact with the
German students. If they are all together as a group, they often aren’t
interested in speaking in English. It does make friendship more difficult, but
usually one or two of them in the group will talk with me in English. Luckily,
I have found a lot of students in the English system that I have become great
friends with. I wish I had used Duolingo before I left for exchange.
in the school is much stricter than Athenian. All devices must to be turned in
each night at 9:30 pm until the next day after lessons are over. We usually get
them back around 2:15 or 4:00 pm depending on the length of the school day. It
is definitely something to get used to coming from the relaxed phone culture at
Athenian. The phone policy feels nice after a while to simply interact without
the distraction of phones and live in the moment. They have a silencium each day
for two minutes during lunch, where students and teachers must be quiet while
eating. Also, all students are woken up each morning at six-thirty for a
morning run. It is a tradition where everyone must run for about five minutes
outside before getting ready for school. It is such a rude awakening, but it
does get the blood flowing and makes me less tired. In reality, it is probably
not that strict, just coming from relaxed Athenian.
come mainly from all over Europe and Asia, and even the U.S, representing a
broad range of nationalities. It’s unlike Athenian, where the majority of
students are local except for the small number of boarders.
first arrived, the weather here contrasted to the sunny California climate. It
was pouring rain and cold here for many days, which had me missing home. My spring
tan had quickly faded. At the beginning of June, it luckily turned sunny and
warm. Many of us swam in the local lake and ate ice cream to cool us down.
here in Baden-Württemberg, which is the German state I am in, I will definitely
miss. Sausages and meat are the main cuisine. One of my favorites is
“Currywurst mit pommes,” which is sausage covered in a delicious red sauce and
French fries on the side. It’s so good and I have had it many times. All of the
traditional food is quite heavy.
At my last
day in Salem, there was a massive alumnus gathering of about 1,000 people. One
of the school’s buildings was transformed into a dining hall to serve dinner to
all of these people. It was the job of the students to serve dinner to those adults
who used to attend Salem. I decided to help out as I had nothing else to do and
since all of my friends would be participating. It ended up being one of the
most memorable experiences of my time in Germany. It was chaos as about fifty
students with their serving plates navigated through a jam-packed sea of alumni.
When I was serving, I felt like a fish going against the current. It was
overwhelming serving and cleaning up after them. However, it was incredibly
interesting to me to watch all of these wealthy people going crazy and
screaming German words I didn’t understand at each other. The vibe was like an
over-the-top bachelor or bachelorette party. The dinner looked fantastic, and
the students were able to eat the leftovers. All of these alumni were invited
because they had donated a certain amount of money to the school.
time at the school ended, I found myself so grateful for the experience I had,
yet a little disappointed. I wanted more of my exchange experience. I only went
to school for three and a half weeks. That’s a short time for exchange. My time
at Salem was amazing, yet I think if I was there for a few more weeks I could
have gotten much closer with the friends and made a lot more memories with
them. Other than that, this experience has been something I will never forget.
I had so much fun with everyone there and it was a nice change from going to
school at Athenian. It’s so cool to stay in touch with friends across the
world. Another of my friends lives in New York City, which is much easier to
get to than Germany.
Salem, there was a two-week holiday. My exchange partner and I traveled to
Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. These are the three biggest cities in Germany.
Since Olivia Ghorai was on also on exchange at the same time in Hamburg, I was
actually able to meet up with her for an hour. We both talked about our exchange
experiences and how it felt to be in a completely foreign place. It was a lot
of fun to be with somebody that lives so close to you, yet see them across the
Now, as I
write this, I am about an hour-and-a-half from landing in San Francisco. It
makes me sad that this experience has come to an end. But I am excited to live
my life in California in a different way, having grown from this exchange
program and become more confident in myself. I hope to visit Germany next year
and see Yannick again. We’ve become much closer friends and laughed a lot
together. I will miss annoying each other and all of our inside jokes. His
family was so amazing and kind to me. I will definitely stay in touch with
writing this is on US soil, so maybe it’s cheating, but I’ve only been in the
United States 34 hours. I honestly expected coming back to the monotony of home
to feel like a letdown after being surrounded by novelty and intrigue and challenge
for a month, but I was surprised. It felt good to come home. Driving through
LA–I flew from Buenos Aires to LA, had breakfast with family, and then flew on
to Oakland–after landing felt like visiting my grandparent’s house as a kid. I
don’t know how to describe it better than that.
into my driveway didn’t feel as jarring as I thought it would, just like I was
back after a road trip for a week or two. Seeing my family felt good. My sister
ran and hugged me in the driveway, refusing to let me go for several moments. My
bed felt amazing. There’s something about your own sheets and comforter and
pillows. Nothing else will ever really measure up.
terms of the last week of exchange, I’d say what I felt more than anything was
just wanting to stay for longer. I missed my family the most the first weekend
and the last weekend. But, I was really sad to leave Buenos Aires as I was just
beginning to make friends. I was also sick the last two days of school, so I
didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone from school. I did say goodbye to my host,
and that was sad for both of us. We plan to keep in touch.
adjustment to home so far has been good. It has started to feel normal pretty
quickly. School starts tomorrow, though, so perhaps I shouldn’t give you my
assessment until after that.
you go on exchange to the Doon School, the first thing I recommend you do after
taking your bag to your room is to get a uniform. I found that this was
an important step for two reasons. First, you will feel much less out of place
once you have a uniform. Chances are, when you arrive, you will still be
wearing whatever you wore on the plane, while the rest of the boys are required
to arrive already in uniform. This will make you feel even more out of place
than you would normally. You will feel much less obtrusive once you have a
uniform. Second, your clothes are likely not a fit for the climate, while the
uniform is. If it is hot when you arrive, you will want to put on something
breathable, which the uniform surprisingly is.
Once you have gotten yourself a uniform and unpacked, you should introduce yourself to your roommates. You will likely be in a room with four other boys, one of whom will be your exchange partner and you will have to get to know the other three. These will be the boys who will look after you and make sure you are doing alright. They can only do this if you get to know them.
Seniority is everything. Older boys have the power to make younger boys their servants. Younger boys will have to wake up early with alarms so that they can get dressed before going upstairs to gently wake the older boys. They also distribute snacks at night to the older boys while they are studying. If they fail to do this in any way (skip a room in the morning, wake someone up too violently, forget a person when distributing snacks, etc.), the older boys will punish them by making them hold a push-up position for as long as they feel is necessary. Younger boys will be expected to yield to older boys in any situation. They will be very confused if, for example, you do not cut them in a line.
of the most interesting things about the Doon School is the culture built
around academics. The school is the absolute best in the entire country, which
means that it intrinsically attracts students who are academically motivated
and then only selects a choice few of those who are especially capable. Thus,
all the students who attend must be distinctly smart and academically motivated.
Once inside it is apparent, however, that the reputation of the school precedes
the characteristics and motivations of the student body. In an obvious attempt
to address this issue, the administration tries to fabricate more academic
motivation in the following ways:
grades, marks, scores, etc. are 100% public to anyone who wants to see them at
any time regardless of relation. Rankings of students are posted in the
classroom and are attached to report cards. This is designed to make the top
boys feel competitive for the best spot and to shame those who fall to the
bottom, so that all boys feel more motivated to do better than their peers.
Average Grades on standard tests by class are posted on the doors of the
teacher’s classroom, so that it is obvious which teacher’s classes do best on
tests. This similarly encourages the teachers to compete and thus to spend
class time pressuring their students to study harder rather than teaching the
compete for the best overall grades. Even if pressure from your teacher and
yourself is not enough to motivate you, you will be pressured by your peers in
your house to do well.
is very effective. Students care A LOT about receiving High Marks.
They score with a similar system of Letters (A* instead of A+) except that
everything is shifted down. In a math class, it might be something like A* =
100-90%, A = 90-80%, B = 80-70%, C = 70-60, D = 60-50%. I am unsure if this is
a kind of grade inflation or if the grading is just harsher in general to make
up for this.
is safe. Somethings which you think will be spicy (like chicken) will be plain.
Nothing is guaranteed.
I found more interesting than the local food, however, were the foreign foods.
They apply their own tastes to foods from the US and China: pizza usually has
chicken, chow mein is spicy, etc. This is especially notable in non-American
foreign foods. This strikes me as evidence that we in the US also do this (which
we already knew). If we are also changing the food from its original, then to
go from the American adaptation to the Indian is two degrees of separation
instead of one. This idea suggests the existence of a kind of feedback loop
where a food could be exported, changed, imported, changed, exported, and so on.
This happens with a lot of Mexican food. This also allows for repeat parodies, like
Indian pizza, which is an adaptation of American pizza, which is an adaptation
of Italian pizza.
Doon, they study a lot of the same things we do at Athenian. I was able to
wander into Physics, Chemistry, and Math classes and keep up with no extra
effort. They hang posters about the American Revolutionary War in their History
rooms. They offer Spanish classes. They study authors like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda
Ngozi Adichie in their Literature Classes. The only distinct difference in the general
curriculum was Economics. They offer Economics as a year-round class from 10th
through 12th grade. Many students take it for all three years. I
took this class. I have to say that it seems like very valuable knowledge and
that there is too much for our new seminars to be able to fully cover.
NOTE: I was born Christian and technically identify as Atheist and this will
inform my analysis.
other exchanges and I attended a religious ceremony on the bank of the Ganges
River in nearby Rishikesh. There were many differences between the prayer there
and common prayer in a Christian church in the US: Polytheism, Dress, Language,
etc. What I found most interesting, however, transcends those more appearance-like
aspects of the spirituality. To draw this distinction, I will again compare to
the traditional American Christian church. A common church in the United States
is arranged such that there is a podium in front at which a religious figure
preaches and receives prayer from the audience as a representative of ‘God.’. I
call this method of expressing spiritual devotion “indirect” as you pray to
something which is abstract and because the sacrifice you make is generally
monetary (indirect in its own regard) and is lost once it leaves your hands. In
direct contrast to the American Christian church, the Hindu religious ceremony
I attended was designed such that everyone (attendees, priests, musicians, etc.)
was sitting together on the same stage, all facing towards the water (the
actual, real-life, physical embodiment of the divine). In this regard, the
ceremony is one of more community – the religious leaders sit next to the
average attendee and do not preach but rather guide the prayer, a prayer that
they do not receive but rather encourage. The sacrifice made here is not
monetary but takes the form of fire given to the river on hand-sized boats. I
call this more “direct” because the community prays together directly to the
divine embodiment. There is no middle man and there is no disconnect between
the devotees and the aspect of their devotion. I feel that this distinction is
rather profound, because the average person is much more spiritual/religious,
which I attest to this.
in Delhi, I visited several religious places, including a Mosque, a Sikh
Temple, multiple Hindu Temples, and a Bahá’í
Temple. The Sikh Temple serves free meals 22 hours a day and has a pond with
holy fish (which you apparently can’t pet). One Hindu Temple has an amusement
park containing animatronic nativities and an indoor boat ride/exhibit
depicting the lives of religious figures. The Bahá’í Temple is shaped like a
massive nine-pedal lotus. The Bahá’í religion is interesting. It concludes that
prophets and holy messengers from other religions like Jesus, Abraham, Mohamed,
Krishna, Buddha, etc. (notably not Joseph Smith) are all representatives of the
same God and are carrying effectively the same message. Because of this, they
are very accepting to basically any faith that enters their temple as they
believe in a portion of the Bahá’í faith.
There is a sort of comradery between faiths. Many people
respect each other for their beliefs as there is a lot commonality between
them. In the same regard, many are confused or offended by the concept of
atheism. It contradicts their faith in more ways than other faiths because it
doesn’t make sense that someone would not have something to believe in.
The Emporium – Every driver in Delhi tried to convince us to
go to this place called the Emporium. Some drivers we found were even waiting
on street corners for tourists to pass by so they could walk beside them to
earn their trust and casually mention the Emporium. (Most are pretty good. They
walk in front of you so you don’t think you’re being followed and offer
assistance like “now’s the time to cross the street.”) One driver was honest
and said something like “they have good handicraft and give me a gas voucher if
I bring tourists” so we went with him and they gave him a voucher proportional
to how much we spent.
Bracelets – Many of the boys in my form wear these silver
bracelets. This seemed odd to me because I think of bracelet-wearing as a feminine
thing and noticed that the boys who did tended to be the more masculine ones. I
learned later that the bracelets function as a weapon. They can be taken off
and used as a kind of brass knuckle. I never saw or heard about these ever
actually being used; however if you know what they are, they work as a pretty
good ‘don’t mess with me’ fashion item.
Teachers ask, “any doubts?” instead of “any questions?” to which
students almost never respond. At first this struck me as a challenge, like,
“Do you doubt my lecture?” I now think it more of a symptom of an overall
culture of not asking questions because you do not want to appear stupid.
After living in Johannesburg for six weeks, I can confidently say that the memories and lasting sense of culture were well worth 48 hours of round-trip travel and a month and a half away from home. Arriving in Johannesburg and being met by my host family, the Bremners, I was immediately thrown into the fascinating cultural chaos that is South Africa.
After a day to recuperate at my new home, school began immediately for me at St Stithian’s College (Stithian being a Saint I’m positively sure Johannesburg pulled out of thin air) where I was greeted by a thousand-strong student body of blazer-clad students in the freezing (literally) morning air. With this many students, even in my sixth week I found myself having to introduce myself as “the new exchange student from America” at a school that otherwise felt surprisingly similar to Athenian. The dress code was strict, and Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans may have been language options, but the similarity in curriculums and most classes was uncanny. After school, I often found myself watching a rugby game or a cricket match at home with my host family. On the weekends, I occasionally found myself at one of Saint’s rugby or cricket games where the crowd was encouraged to sing and yell in broken half Zulu-half English at the opposing team in what they call a “war cry.”
One weekend I was lucky enough to visit Cape Town with my host family. I was shown a wonderful city that I found quite different than Johannesburg. Cape Town is more international than the culturally-confined Johannesburg, as well as more scenic. Cape Town was built from the ocean’s edge up into the mountains that Johannesburg sits on top of–700 miles away and 4,000 feet above Cape Town’s ocean front promenade. And while Cape Town was built into the natural valleys and hills of the Cape, Johannesburg was thrown on top of the ever-so-flat Highveld, the miles and miles of grassland above Cape Town (think Nebraska but with ostriches). That fleeting change of scenery made the walks on the oceanfront promenade and the hikes up the Cape’s vast mountains even more special. My host family also took me on a short boat trip to Robben Island, the prison that was used to house political inmates throughout the historical period of apartheid, where an Afrikaaner party used a political majority to hold down and segregate the country’s Black population.
Another week I was treated to a four-day stay in the Kruger Park, a seven-hour drive from Johannesburg. On game drives, I saw animals such as giraffes, leopards and elephants. At night, we routinely had to chase hyenas away from our barbecues. Here, I was also introduced to the African foods pap, which I was pleased to learn I could eat with my hands, and biltong (think beef jerky but worse), which most people in Johannesburg treat more patriotically than their flag. Every day we woke up early and went on a game drive before returning to our zero-emissions house to retreat from the afternoon’s blazing heat.
In between these two fantastic vacations, I found myself waking up daily at 5 am, tiredly looking forward to attending my classes for the day. I hung out with two Jordanian exchange students and small group of Saint’s boys I befriended. While I took slightly fewer classes than the regular Saint’s student (the school graciously allowed me to customize my schedule), I always looked forward to attending my several South African and world history classes. There I learned more about apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, and African history and politics than I ever could have hoped to learn in the United States.
In between classes, the connections I made with my fellow exchange students and students at Saints were transformative. The conversations we had over the best two-dollar coffee I’d ever had will always stick with me. I’m still in contact with some of these students today. While I was initially apprehensive when signing up for the exchange program, this experience is one I would gladly repeat.