It’s 6:00 am in San Francisco as I pass through SFO International Airport security–leaving my family behind in California for the next two months. I honestly never expected that I was going to be an emotional wreck while waiting at the gate by myself. I sat on the plane for the next sixteen hours sleeping and contemplating what my exchange experience was going to be like in Perth, Australia. When I arrived in Singapore, my flight to Perth wasn’t leaving for another five hours so I decided to explore the Singapore airport, which basically resembled a colossal shopping mall. Exploring this new airport by myself was an exhilarating experience.
Arriving in Perth, I met my exchange family for the first time. Living with a whole new family was a daunting idea—but they were super friendly and amiable, which helped me with the transition into Australian culture. I found that Perth actually wasn’t that culturally different from the Bay Area.
Three days after arriving, I was back at the airport at 4:00 am with 13 other Scotch boys on an expedition to the Karijini National Park. This trip was a seven-day backpacking trip through the various gorges (canyons) of Karijini, which is about 800 miles north from Perth. The geographical layout of Karijini is basically a mountainous desert that’s covered with slippery red rocks the size of your fist. The first day of the Karijini trip was a culture shock for me. It was a challenge meeting all these new people in a dusty new environment with the added physical hurdle of a backpack that weighed more than half my weight. That’s when I realized that this backpacking trip was not going to be American glamping, as the Australians called it. I honestly didn’t think that I could get through the next eight miles on the third day with a bad fitting 65-pound backpack rubbing on my hips each time I took a step. One of the reasons that I did not have a mental and physical breakdown was because of the support from the other boys on the trip. The first few days on the expedition I was pretty quiet, but a lot of the boys engaged me with questions about our president and Burger King. On this expedition, I found that I was actually an okay camp cook. Even with the physical challenges of the trip, the scenery was amazing. These gorges were encased in rectangular rock formations with water running through the bottom like a canyon. We rock climbed and “abseiled” (rock climbing down) the gorges. Another once-in-a-lifetime experience was the opportunity to swim in the gorges. The gorges had almost freezing water with the temperature of 4˚C or 40˚F. This was icy cold, especially since my school-issued wetsuit had a hole in it. It was all worth it because we were able to see areas that no other group has seen within Karijini. Overall, my Karijini experience was amazing and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to go there.
My first day of school at Scotch College in Perth was an exhilarating experience. I did not have a uniform yet so I really stood out. One of the biggest differences from Athenian was that the two thousand students were all boys. Another difference was their community atmosphere based on respect, such as calling teachers by “Sir” or “Miss.” You could definitely see that the instructors had a lot more power over the students compared with Athenian’s democratic approach. Adjusting to this new school was not as much of a challenge as I thought it was going to be. I think speaking the same language has also made the adjustment a lot easier as well. My host, Will, introduced me to his friends. Luckily I had a lot in common with them and they have been very friendly to me. Something that usually isn’t mentioned about exchange is that it is really hard leaving your family behind and being thrust into a new culture. When I was on my Karijini expedition I sometimes really wanted to be home. My whole body wanted to flop and sleep on the ground, but I knew that I had to keep going in order for it to be over.
Nicholas Wong reflects on his time in Perth
These last four weeks have been a complete blur. It feels as if I just arrived yesterday with my bags at the airport. My exchange trip has been an extraordinary adventure that I will remember for the rest of my life. The beginning of school was rough for me; I didn’t know what to do or where I was going. But as I learned the general time table, I became more comfortable with the students around me. At Scotch, I was put with my exchange partner, Will, in every single class period. This was okay, but as time went on I decided to branch out and look for new people. I met Dan through one of Will’s friends in PE and we quickly became great friends. I never expected to make a really good friend on exchange, so I was unprepared to say goodbye when the time came to leave Perth.
Perth itself was not very different from San Francisco. The Perth culture is generally progressive and it is also located on the coast. On one of the weekends I was there, Will caught the flu and I had to decide to either go to a family friend’s farm an hour away from Perth or stay home. I really wanted to stay at his house because I didn’t have the confidence to leave Will and go to the farm alone. When Will’s family pondered if I were to go or not, I was about to say no when something changed in my mindset. I don’t know what it was, but I ended up saying yes, I’d go. After going to the farm and getting to ride in a tractor and push out a hay bale, I was very glad that I chose to go even though I was alone. After thinking about why I said yes, I think Perth has given me the confidence to say yes to live my life the way I want without worrying about the judgement of other people. Leaving my various insecurities in the dust for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure is what my decision came down to.
One of the prime highlights of my trip was walking back from school next to the train and going to one of the various cafes in the Claremont quarter. It was a cool new experience to sit down and have a berry smoothie or an iced tea after school and talk with my exchange.
Another highlight was learning how to successfully jaywalk in Australia. Unlike California, Australia doesn’t have many crosswalks, so it’s commonplace to walk across the street when there aren’t any cars coming. I must admit I’m glad to be back in California with crosswalks.
When I heard that Scotch had marching, I thought it was going to be a once a year sort of thing. It turns out that it’s a very serious event on Friday mornings and I was supposed to march with the Shearer house (pronounced Shira). I was terrible the first week and kept on shoe flat-tiring the student in front of me. The next week I was better, but got yelled at by a Shearer house head for wearing the wrong shirt with the uniform (oops). We laughed when I told him I was an exchange. (Exchanges generally wear their school uniform from home, so people thought I was a normal student.)
When I was at the farm, I had the opportunity to ride inside a tractor, which was pretty awesome. I also got to stand at a real bonfire and roast super oversized American marshmallows.
Finally, going to Perth’s city beach with my exchange host and Dan was an enjoyable experience. We didn’t go into the water because of “Warning Sharks!” signs placed everywhere, but it was still an experience I hope to never forget.
I would definitely recommend and encourage sophomores to take this wonderful opportunity to not only explore a new part of the world, but also to learn something new about yourself. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. I am grateful for the lifelong friendships I’ve made and the chance to go on exchange.