My goal in 2013 is to write a book of my experiences as an exchange student. That time was not my first encounter with other cultures, but it was a formative time and an experience I try to recreate as often as I can. Through the book, I hope to inspire the current generation of young people to spend a year in another culture, living with a local family and being involved in daily life.
When I did my exchange to Japan in 1990, I was one of about 200 students leaving Australia, just from AFS. Now the numbers are down to fifty each year, few of whom go for a full twelve months. The trend is towards gap year backpacking holidays. The experience is diluted because backpackers tend to travel with friends, or at least other people who speak the same language. The experience is diluted because backpackers visit ten countries instead of just one. The experience is diluted because backpackers rush through each place, viewing the sights rather than becoming a local, experiencing the life and understanding who the people are.
Some of the personal growth benefits of doing an exchange can be gained by backpacking – learning to budget, plan and deal with unexpected situations, for example – but many such as becoming fluent in another language or dealing with different ways of life are not as effectively.
I also hope to encourage parents to let their children fly the coup for a time, to grow in new ways, and to consider hosting a student themselves. Hosting puts you and your remaining children (if one has gone on exchange already) in direct contact with an outsider who can share his or her culture with you. You will begin to see your own culture through different eyes and enjoy the good aspects anew or begin to reconsider why you behave in certain ways.
Not Right, Not Wrong will be set in Japan, but will not be about Japanese culture. It will be about the challenges faced by an exchange student and the growth during that period. It will be about an awakening to a larger world and the realisation that there are other valid ways of living and other paradigms for understanding the world. It will be about the life-long bonds created with others who share the experience and look at the world in the same way. It will be about creating a better person.