Foreign Exchange Diary

Hanna Ladstaetter

The first half of my high school year is unfortunately already over. On the one hand it feels like I arrived only yesterday, but on the other hand it seems as if I have lived my whole life in Texas.

When I compare my life how it is now to with what it was in August, I can see many differences. I established a new social network and know quite a lot of people.

Making friends was one of the hardest parts. People know that you will leave in less than a year, most of them already with friends and nobody makes an effort to get close with you. Eventually I found good friends here and the desire to go home gets less.

I am also done with my culture shock. The culture shock is what you experience in the first months of living in a different country or culture. Gestures, facial expressions, customs, manners, values, or norms are different and seem illogical or simply wrong to you, while in your culture everything makes sense. Often, the culture shock is combined with missing home. After a while you get used to the new environment and finally discover that “It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just different”. I can admit that I really miss Germany and the people there less and less, whereas Cedar Park feels a little bit like home.

While my English is improving, my German vocabulary shrank to a minimum of words. I often “germanize” English words, because I cannot think of the German expression. The word that I use the most is “cool.”

I got to practice my German a little, though. Two times I met with some other exchange students, most of them were from Germany. For the first time in months I talked German face-to-face. In the beginning it was awkward, but after a while I enjoyed talking about “German stuff”: politics, soccer and our experiences away from home.

Being an exchange student might seem like pure fun, but I can tell you, it is not.

The first one or two months were easy to master. It was as if I was on vacation and everything is new and interesting. But honestly, the first semester in America was a lot of work. I learned how to be responsible and grew a lot with both positive and negative experiences. I got to know myself a little better, what are my weaknesses, strengths and personality and what I want from life. The first semester was truly under the motto “What doesn’t kill you, just makes you stronger.”

Luckily I traveled a lot the last months, which showed me once more how diverse America is. I have seen many parts of Texas and also got out of this gigantically big state. My host mother took me one Saturday to San Antonio. I have to say that San Antonio is, so far, my favorite Texan city. I loved the history of it, particularly the Alamo and the Riverwalk.

I also visited my host family’s family around Houston. I saw the destruction Hurricane Ike had caused. Usually, there are no serious natural disasters in Middle Europe. It must be hard to fear about your home every year.

To my delight, I met some of the people that live right by the coast. My host mother’s sister-in-law is a middle school teacher there, so one day my host sister from Slovakia and I talked to her kids about Europe. Most children had no clue about anything that is outside of their town, some have not even been to Houston, although that is only an hour away. I met kids whose parents were or are in jail or cannot care properly for them. They all enjoyed getting to know more about the world and they pestered us with questions about our countries, cultures and, especially, languages. I was shocked by the poverty of those people, which does not exist at all were I am from.

Another nice place to visit was Abilene. Almost a year ago I watched a few episodes of “Dallas” with my family in Germany, and it was so exciting to finally see the “Cowboy land”.

The highlight was our trip to New Orleans, though. We decided to go their for New Years. The city was very impressive and I want to go there for Mardi Gras one day. I love big cities and New Orleans definitely had a great flair; I loved the old buildings and how everything was in both French and English. It is certainly one of the prettiest cities I have ever been, it is just really sad that it is so exposed to the hurricanes.

In Louisiana I also ate fried alligator tails for the first time in my life. This was one of the things that were on my to-do-list for this year. It tasted surprisingly good, though a little rubbery.

I also went to some other great places, such us Inks Lake State Park, Mount Bonnell and the NASA Space Center.

 During the last few months were also a lot of holidays celebrated. It started with Thanksgiving in November. It might be surprising for some, but Thanksgiving in not celebrated outside of America. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving made me again another three pounds, because of all the delicious food. The time after Christmas was very different for me. In Europe we celebrate the Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. We have many Christmas markets, traditional pastry, children have advent calendars. A special holiday is on December 6. On St. Nicholas day, children put their winter boots with their wish list for Christmas in front of the door, and when they get up the next morning St. Nicholas had put the boots, filled with sweets, tangerines, and walnuts, back into the house. My host sister and I introduced my host family to this tradition, although the sweets were in our stocking instead of our boots. Who needs thick winter boots in Texas anyway? However, the whole December and Advent time pumps you up, and there is probably more Christmas spirit around.

Often people asked me if I like the American or German Christmas better, but I really cannot answer this question. I think to have a nice Christmas it is most important to have the right people around you. I surely missed my family and kind of got the blues a few days before Christmas Eve, but eventually my host family distracted me from being homesick.

Altogether I had a great holiday season and an awesome first semester. I cannot believe how much I already experienced and how much I have changed. I achieved many of my goals, but I still have many plans for the next months. It has not been easy all the time, but it has been a time I will never forget. I am sure that the last half will be at least as much fun as the first, thanks to you great Texans!