Reflecting on five months in a foreign country

This story was originally published in the fourth edition of The Lion’s Tale (February 7, 2021).

Five months have passed since I arrived in the United States from Finland. My journey is half way through, and already I feel like I have experienced so much. The second semester of school has started, and we are looking towards spring. The fall was a very interesting and different time for everyone living in America because of the pandemic and the election. I think the fall of 2020 will be a fascinating time period to look back on when I get back home. Personally, I was very invested in the election because I think the stakes were extraordinarily high this time, and the results of the election would affect the whole world. It was interesting to see how the American voting system works in practice with the two party candidates and the electoral college. In Finland we have multiple parties, and a presidential term is for six years instead of four.

During my months here, I have discovered new and interesting things about cultural differences, especially social ones. During my first month, I realized which stereotypes were true and which were false, but as time has gone by, I have gotten a deeper understanding of how most Americans are as compared to Finns. The main thing is that Americans often have a more laid back, talkative manner. Americans love talking and socializing, which is something I really like, but they can come off as fake and are sometimes hard to make plans with. Finnish people are usually very direct and expect you to show up at the agreed time and place. I have applied a metaphor to the two very different approaches to social life of Finnish and American people.

I describe Americans as peaches; they are soft on the outside, friendly and inviting, but they can have a hard core, meaning it can be harder to get to their inner circle or become really close with them. Finnish people are more like coconuts; they have a tough exterior that is hard to break, and they are less social and maybe a little shy, but once you break the shell, they are soft on the inside. Once you get to know them and become friends, you become super tight, and you stay friends for a long time. Obviously the metaphor does not apply to everyone in either country, and I do not think either is better than the other; they are just different.

All of this has been a lot to get used to. I have definitely experienced frustration and confusion when living here. Sometimes it just feels like things do not make any sense at all and could be dealt with in an easier way. Still, I try to tell myself that just because things work differently here does not mean that they are bad. Adjusting to life here has overall been easy thanks to all the amazing people I have met, my host family and my friends. I am a very independent person, and I enjoy taking risks and challenging myself, so I was able to handle the stress of moving and adjusting to another country very well. I immediately felt comfortable, and I did not miss home for the three first months at all. Now after a few more months, I do miss my friends back home a lot, especially if something is going on back home and I can not be there to help. 

Because of the special circumstances of this year, I do not feel like I am missing out on much, which definitely helps with homesickness, as does the fact that communication is very easy through social media. It is one of the privileges of living in the modern age. I can talk with people on the other side of the world basically whenever I want to. That, of course, can be a problem too. Some exchange students talk too much with people back home, and it ends up distracting them from their current life in their host country. Fortunately, I have not experienced this. I always make sure to be focused on my life here first and what is going on back home second.

Looking back at everything I have already seen and done here in the United States makes me feel so grateful and lucky. Being an exchange student is such an amazing opportunity, and I wish to spread awareness about it to those who may not be familiar. If you are interested in studying abroad, language trips, exchange programs or hosting an exchange student, I am more than happy to answer questions or talk about my experience. Doing an exchange year could be the most interesting and fun experience of your life.