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Diary of an Exchange Student : After 1 Year, Helena Has Learned a Lot--About Herself

This is the last in a series of a monthly columns by Portuguese exchange student Helena Goncalves .

June 23, 1988

During my last month in America, I have been reading back over my diary, and I have found these sentences written in the first days I arrived.

"I am in the U.S., but I still don't believe it. I feel I have all the time in the world in front of me and so many things to do."

Now that the time is behind me, it seems so much shorter than it did then, and yet it does somehow feel enough. I'm quite sure that what I went through this year was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I know, too, that it will probably take me some years to assimilate and even understand all that I learned.

Having experienced so much and lived with other parents and other families, I now understand my parents at home much better. How wrong I was in thinking, when I first came, that I wouldn't miss them much. After being away one year, I have such a lot to tell them that I never had the courage to say before. One's time as a child is so short, and I feel that if I hadn't always been so proud and independent, we could have been closer. So I'm going home realizing how much I owe them and how important they are to me.

Above all in America, I have learned about me. When you leave your context--home, family, country--it can bring you closer to yourself and show you who you really are and what you believe. Leaving Portugal, I was able to step back from my country and feel a pride I had never felt in it. At home, I was critical. After all, we're a small country; we haven't been important since the 16th Century; we're at the bottom of Europe economically. Here, in the big, powerful United States, I was able to take pride that my small country had such an adventurous history. I saw how close we are to our history, constantly living around buildings built centuries ago, whereas here, there isn't that connection with the past.

But I also have a great admiration for this country. It embraces people who come from all over the world with different customs, religions and ways of life. I feel that the United States is special that way. For me, it would have been impossible to understand my own culture so well if I hadn't been in a country that so easily accepts many cultures.

I have changed in the United States, too. I have taken on new customs and things American. I have forgotten the Portuguese habit of kissing everyone to greet them. I talk a lot more with American girls, and I don't just think, "She's not my type," if they are wearing a lot of makeup.

I am much more sports-oriented here. In Portugal, though I walked everywhere, I never thought of it as exercise. Here, because everyone has a car, I have been more conscious of walking, running and swimming for fitness. And here, I have taken on some American eating habits. I have come to love Mexican food, to crave tacos, which I will miss terribly when I go home.

Perhaps the main thing I will take with me, though, is greater self-reliance and knowledge of myself. Until I came here, I didn't know that I would be able to stand up in front of people and talk about my country, the way I have through AFS (American Field Service). I feel I could talk to 1,000 people now and not be afraid.

In another way, I've also learned how easy it is to speak too fast and not think and hurt people's feelings, especially if you are outside your own culture and not speaking your own language. This has happened to me, for example, when I have met Americans with different cultural backgrounds--perhaps Asian or Mexican. I would always want to know where they were from, where their parents were from. "Are you Mexican?" I would ask. They'd be offended and say, "I'm an American."

So a lot of misunderstanding is possible, but I've also learned that if we really try, we can build bridges and we can hold hands.

This year in the United States, I've met people from all over the world. I have had many mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, and how different they all are from each other! Among them, I have seen that I belong to a vast, international family which has no barriers.

I once wrote a poem which expresses these ideas:

Sometimes we feel like being weak

and afraid . . .

We need someone to protect us . . .

Other times, we feel strong

and brave

and we're sure we will win.

These are feelings in all of us.

No one is always fragile

No one is always a hero

We are just all human.

World peace begins in people understanding each other. Before I came to the United States, I believed in world peace, but I didn't know how I could contribute. By participating in an exchange program, I have understood more clearly the human aspect of politics--that we are all ambassadors from our own countries; that we are accessible to each other on a person-to-person level and not through generalities about what a certain country is or isn't. I can see that the exchange student experience could have its greatest impact in a few years when the students involved will be in charge in their countries, or have positions of influence.

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