The Art of the Exchange

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Here in New Zealand, I am not “studying abroad” but rather “on exchange.” I am not actually on a Temple Exchange program, rather a Direct Enrollment program through an external provider, but in New Zealand going abroad to study at a different school for a few months is referred to as “going on exchange.” Rarely does Kiwi slang make a lot of sense to me–Why are swimsuits called “togs?” Or flip flops “jandals?” Couldn’t tell ya — but in this case New Zealand lingo has the right idea. While “study abroad” implies that my home life continues as usual, albeit abroad, “on exchange,” implies just that — a complete swap. At UC, it does not matter what is happening at home, because I’ve exchanged my Temple University Life for my University of Canterbury Life. In order to adapt and immerse myself as fully as possible  — the main reason I chose to do an External Program that directly enrolled me at a foreign university — I have crafted a new life for myself here, save the occasional reference to “my home school.”

(photo courtesy of University of Canterbury)

At least UC has the same color scheme as Temple. (photo courtesy of University of Canterbury)

My opportunities to travel in college have taught me that I have a knack for adapting to new environments. I’m lucky that I rarely feel homesick and that I feel comfortable in new social situations and that I can calm myself when things go wrong. These things are easy for me, and as a result I adapted more quickly to life at a new school with new people in a new country than some of my friends who are also “on exchange.” It’s easy to find people, wherever I am, who remind me of people I left in Philadelphia, or places with a ring of familiarity. It’s easy, as callous as this sounds, to replace.

However, with quick-adaptation skills come quick-forgetting skills, and the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” rings all-too-true for me here. It’s easy to pick up relationships where you left off, but hard to explain why you’re temporarily dropping them. I often feel guilty for not keeping in better touch with people from home, but simultaneously feel that too much contact is intruding on my experience in New Zealand. It’s easy to dampen your experience as an international student by constantly checking social media, wallowing in a dark hole of FOMO, and choosing to Skype a familiar face over meeting a new one. This philosophy, however, is a difficult sell to the people I’m “abandoning.” There’s a thin line when exchanging one life for another.

I’m lucky that I have to opportunity to even have this internal conflict, and it’s nothing original in the canon of travel philosophy. But this is, for me, my longest stint away from not only the States but the Philadelphia area. I’ve removed the “constant variable” of my surroundings and can see who I am without the backdrop of good ol’ Pennsylvania.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of life being composed of blocks of smaller lives, some that continue throughout the overarching Life, and some that begin or end with change, a move, or a removal of a “constant variable.”

Not too shabby scenery for a change of surroundings!

Not too shabby scenery for a change of surroundings!

One friend I’ve made here, who has a lot of similar ideas about traveling, calls it “compartmentalizing.” I’m good at compartmentalizing. I can organize my different lives into mental boxes, and focus on one at a time. I am aware of what’s going on in the lives of my roommates and friends and acquaintances at home, and I Skype my family relatively regularly (although my mother might have a different opinion). But I simply don’t have enough time to be invested equally in two lives, and the new guy in my roommate’s life isn’t quite as exciting as it is when I’m sharing an apartment with her. When I open that mental box in December, I’ll have focus and investment, but for now I’d rather focus on the people and the events in closest proximity to me, so I can be fully present in New Zealand before I inevitably close that lid.

I think part of this is that I know that I will return to the U.S. in a few short months and most aspects of my life will be the same as they were before I left. I don’t mind swapping out my Temple/Philadelphia/American life for my UC/Christchurch/New Zealand one because I know I’ll get the former back. The latter, however, only exists for the 5 and a half months I’m in New Zealand, and won’t be waiting for me to return after I leave. It will be easier to keep in touch with people I’ve met here when I’m back in the U.S. because I won’t feel as though my attachment to New Zealand and my relationships here are intruding on my experience at Temple — rather, they’re enriching my overall life. But for now, in order to be fully present in New Zealand, I also must be disconnected for a while.

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