IMAGINE BEING in a new country, on a new continent, living in a new house with a new family where you don’t speak the language. That’s what it was like for my French exchange student,
Margot Dubois, when she arrived in Palo Alto last summer. Not only was it a completely bizarre experience for her, but it was very difficult for me as well.
When you live with a stranger, it’s really hard to read them. It takes a lot of effort to understand someone with a completely different background and different traditions, especially when that person doesn’t understand you either.
When my family was first matched with Margot through the organization Adolesco, we read biographies about one another, saw photos of each other and exchanged emails.
On June 16, my family got in the car and drove to the San Francisco Airport. When she showed up at arrivals, everyone froze for a second. Then, my dad reached out and hugged her, a stiff, awkward moment and welcomed her to what she’d call “home” for seven weeks.
“Not only was it a completely bizarre experience for her, but it was very difficult for me as well.”
At first, we found it difficult to communicate with each other. Margot had studied English for many years, but it took a few weeks for her to get comfortable speaking. She didn’t know how to say certain words and was more inclined to stay silent rather than make a mistake. She detested talking to anyone other than my family because she feared people wouldn’t understand her slightly broken English.
In the beginning, I was tentative about the whole experience. It was difficult to feel comfortable around Margot, I had started to regret hosting, and I felt like I wasn’t ever going to click with her no matter how hard we both tried to connect. I was worried that the seven weeks would grow long. Over time, however, we spoke more and started to find common interests.
Eventually, we grew more comfortable around one another. She helped my mom out with chores in the kitchen and played board games with little my brother. She told jokes, spoke her mind more often, and most of all, she really opened up. She overcame her fear of making mistakes while speaking English with people.
“In France, the people laugh and make fun [of] you! I didn’t want to be seen as a beginner,” she told me.
Two weeks before the end of Margot’s stay, we drove to Arroyo Seco, a campground near Salinas, where the water runs through a steep valley. We climbed far down into the canyon and slept on the riverside beach.
That night, Margot and I lay under the stars on the still-warm sand that lined the riverbed. Long after the embers of our fire stopped glowing, we chatted about the many differences that she had noticed between France and the US, and how coming here differed from her expectations. This was the moment I finally felt us click.
“In France the people laugh and make fun [of] you! I didn’t want to be seen as a beginner,”
— Margot Dubois, summer exchange student
It had been a long journey for us, but I think Margot and I both learned a lot. Not only did we learn how to adapt to one another, but we learned more about each other’s cultures, traditions and customs. We both were pushed out of our comfort zones. By putting our hearts into it and not being afraid of trying new things, Margot and I taught each other a lesson that can only be learned through experience.