It has been just over two weeks since I arrived at the airport in Melbourne. I was greeted by my exchange Sophie Goldsworthy, her mom and her two sisters. I think leaving the airport was the moment that I really realized that I would be spending the next two months in a country almost 10,000 miles from home, across an ocean, where I knew no one.
We got to her house in a small town in the middle of nowhere, about two hours away from where we would be boarding for school. The town reminded me a lot of where my grandmother lives in Virginia, but smaller. My host family needed to pick something up from Sophie’s grandmother’s house and so we headed into town. On the way we stopped twice because they saw a friend walking down the road. They yelled out of the windows to greet others. When we stopped at the local market, Sophie made small talk with many of the other customers and the cashier, asking them about their plans for Easter or how their brother, sister or parents were doing. I felt completely out of place. She had known all of the people around her since she was born and I was a stranger.
When we got back to her place, she introduced me to all of her animals: two goats and two calves, two dogs, three cats and a rabbit. The animals on Sophie’s farm are all ones that I have seen before, but most of the animals here in Australia are completely different from back home. On my second weekend here I went to the Halls Gap Zoo to see native animals up close. At the zoo I had the opportunity to feed the kangaroos!!! I was a bit taken aback by their odd appearance. They have disproportionately long feet and a thick tail that they will sometimes stand up on.
The first Tuesday after I started school was an Australian holiday called Anzac Day. Anzac Day is a day to remember the fallen soldiers of war, especially those that died on the 25 of April, 1915 invading the Gallipoli peninsula. This day is extremely important to Australians. They spend the day going to memorial services and marches. I myself woke up at 4:30 am to attend a dawn service. It was freezing outside and in the pouring rain I stood with hundreds of people from all over Ballarat. It struck me that, while it has been more than 100 years, the people of Australia still feel so deeply about this day. It is important enough to make hundreds of teenagers choose to wake up before 5:00 am. The sense of community was much different than anything that I had ever felt before. I simultaneously felt very out of place and as if I was right where I was meant to be all along, huddled with four other people under a tiny umbrella, singing the national anthem in the pouring rain before the sun had even begun to rise.Another unique opportunity that I have had was to participate in a school athletics day. The day after Anzac Day was Lap Of The Lake. Every student wore their PE or House uniform to school and after lunch we all walked to a lake near the school. Every student had to run 6 kilometers around the lake to gain points for their house. Before the first batch of kids started, each house did warm ups and house chants together. It was interesting to see how such an activity really brought all of the kids together. Neither I nor any of the other exchanges knew what was going on as large groups of teenagers essentially just screamed at each other. The girls from my boarding house invited us to join in and it was pretty easy to catch on with their actions, if not their words. It was also really cold outside and we were all wearing shorts and t-shirts, so occasionally all of the girls from my house would sprint into a huddle from wherever they were.
One thing that has been difficult to adjust to is the attitude around sexuality, gender and race. Living in the dorms, there is an extremely heteronormative attitude. Any interaction between boys and girls is automatically seen as sexual or romantic by both teachers and students. In the class rooms as well as dining hall, boys and girls sit completely separated. On my first day a boy walked into the dining hall talking with a girl and the entire room went dead silent. Then many students all yelled ‘oh!’ together at them. In some scenarios the separation is caused simply by cultural norms, but in many scenarios the gender segregation is enforced by the teachers. The second most common type of question that I have been asked are those regarding relationship status; however, the frequency of that question still doesn’t even compare to how many people have asked about my opinion on the current political situation in America. I often panic and try to gauge what way to answer best. Should I answer neutrally or express my frustration? Most of Australia is anti-Trump, but I do not want to offend anyone accidently. I have been lucky enough to have had several amazing discussions with the locals about American politics and government, whether it be current events, the workings of American government, or something else.
Another thing that I did not expect to be difficult was wearing a uniform. I have never worn one before. When talking to the Round Square director at Ballarat Grammar I was told that most exchanges end up wearing the Ballarat school uniform by the end of their stay, saying that they felt out of place without it. As Athenian does not have its own uniform, I was required to wear theirs from day one. Almost everyone here is white, blond, and has light eyes. One of the other exchanges told me he had never met anyone with brown eyes before. And the Indian and Colombian exchanges have both mentioned that I am hard to pick out in the crowd because of my hair and skin color. On my first two days, many Ballarat students came up to Cristina in her green uniform and introduced themselves, excited to meet a student from another country. They didn’t even realize that I too was out of place. On those first few days I felt extremely out of place, but very few people saw me as an outsider since I was wearing their uniform and I look quite a bit like most of them. Wearing a uniform everyday has made me appreciate Athenian’s lack of one that much more. I feel as though I can be an individual at home, not just another school girl in a plaid dress.