The experience of a lifetime: going on exchange

Image credit: Vivian He

Image credit: Vivian He

We all know those kids. The kids who come back from exchange and are all “I’m a changed person now” this or “It was THE BEST time of my life” that while they upload a never-ending chain of picturesque photos onto Instagram. Well, Vivian He is one of those kids, and she's here to tell you why exchange is so great.


I’m just going to say this straight-up:




Okay, so we ALL know those freshly-cultured kids that come back from exchange sporting foreign fashion, speaking another language and comparing the Australian version of a foreign dish to the authentic dish they had overseas. I admit, I was guilty of straying far away from Japanese food for a few months after I came back as I already really, authentic Japanese cuisine whilst on exchange and felt that the dishes here couldn’t compare.


Believe me, I used to be somewhat critical of my classmates and friends who came back from exchange. My eyes would out-roll a Wheel-of-Fortune each time they muttered another story about their #exchangelyfe and how awesome it was being amongst the locals and exploring foreign soil. However, that was most likely the ugly green jealousy monster taking over because compared to those classmates, my passport was still pretty clean and unused. No immigration stamps nor visa stickers as mementos of a trip abroad. But after a grueling year of filling out forms, giving my exchange officer a hard time with lots of emails, and crying about the stressful process, I was finally able to send myself to Tokyo, the bustling capital of Japan.


Now I totally understand how those exchange kids felt when they came back home and why they said the things they did. After six months of being completely financially and physically independent and being away from the only home I knew, I felt so much more confident, strong and assertive.

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However, it wasn’t the language barrier that made me grow, because I studied Japanese for almost 6 years (and counting). No, the issue I had was asking for what I wanted. In the Land of the Rising Sun, if I needed something, I had to ask for it. It sounds stupidly simple, but for someone who has a hard time telling the waiter that they got her order wrong and eats whatever she received anyway, speaking up was a big personal issue I had to overcome. I definitely improved in that field because I had no one to rely on and although I still get a little nervous asking for things, I’ve felt an improvement in that area.


Of course, I can’t not mention how good the shopping and food was in Japan. I worked like crazy for the entire year leading up to my exchange just so I could play HARD overseas. And boy, did I go wild. Any free time I had was spent sightseeing, shopping like Cher from Clueless and eating any food whenever I wanted. It was and will probably be the only time I felt like a Crazy Rich Asian (Nick Young, where you at?). I also dyed my hair pink. And met my all-time favourite boy bands. Yep.


But without a doubt, the BEST part of my exchange was my roommates. I shared a cute little unit with five other girls from all over the world and despite hearing of horror stories regarding roommates, I was lucky enough to have the BEST. ROOMMATES. EVER. We instantly clicked and our unit become a home. We sat down at the dining table every morning; sleep deprived but still chiming “Good morning” to each other. At night, we’d hold secret drinking parties and have discussion and deep-and-meaningfuls until the wee hours.


Living with those five girls was what most made me grow as a person. Every girl had her own story and lifestyle, so inevitably, we’d share our differing opinions about the most trifling of topics – such as how often one should shower. But my roomies were never rude nor demanded that their opinions were correct; rather, they plainly said what they thought without a hint of malice. It was just so refreshing. Having people that state their mind without crushing the beliefs of another was most likely why we grew so tight. My roomies had strong personalities and taught me to know my worth, to never accept anything or anyone that didn’t contribute healthily to my self-confidence and organically built up my self-esteem. Though we’re apart now, we still message each other and send snail mail because we’re wholesome cutie patooties.


Though my friends and family couldn’t really tell what was different about me (believe me, I asked), I know I’ve changed. I feel better about myself, and don’t need to constantly explain myself to others. I can (mostly) ask for what I want, and I’m less afraid of failing. These factors are what will help me in the long run, both in my professional and personal life, and that is why going on exchange was the best decision I’ve made in my life. Ultimately, I highly encourage others to go on exchange – an adventure of a lifetime. You’ll find new friends, new experiences, new memories, and also discover new aspects of yourself that you would never have known you had.

Vivian He is a second-year Public Communications student, who is also completing a Diploma of Japanese. When she has time to spare, she likes to mindlessly wander through YouTube, or dance like a lunatic in her room.