I recently got an email from a young woman in central Pennsylvania -- where I'm from! -- asking for advice about youth exchange in Turkey. She just found out that she is coming here this summer -- she's not sure where exactly she's headed yet -- but she will live in Turkey for a year, go to high school, and live with a host family, which is precisely what I did back in 1999!
For those who are unfamiliar with exchange programs, youth exchange students typically spend about a year abroad living with a host family and attending a local high school. Students are typically between 16 and 18 years old and are fully immersed in local culture and are unlike university exchange students who mainly go abroad for academic reasons. Two popular exchange programs are Rotary International Youth Exchange (through which I came to Turkey) and AFS Intercultural Programs (for which my parents now volunteer).
Here's what I told the soon-to-be exchange student in Pennsylvania:
Coming to Istanbul in 1999 for me was such an incredible rush, and I don't think that feeling every really left me during the entire time I was here. Turkey is a wonderful place to be on exchange and it won't matter too much whether you are in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Bandirma or elsewhere. Sure, life might be a bit more exciting in Istanbul but the quality of your exchange year depends largely on you and what you make of it. You can learn just as much of the Turkish language, Turkish culture, eat just as much amazing food, and form life-long relationships with your host family and friends just as easily in a smaller city.
I was given a lot of advice before coming to Turkey, some of which was very good and some of which was not so good at all. I listened to all of it, took it all in and decided which to implement myself. Here's my completely unofficial list of advice for exchange in Turkey:
Make friends with everyone. I had someone tell me waaay back in 1998 before I came on exchange to make friends with all the Turks and not to spend as much time with the other exchange students or foreigners in general. If I had listened to that advice, I never would have formed a lifelong friendship with my friend Kara who lives in Canada and I never would have planned a four-week long backpacking trip through Brazil with other exchange students from around the world who were in Turkey the same year I was. I have made some truly lasting friendships with some of the other exchange students. Now that I live in Turkey, I see some of those people every year when they come to visit! So my point is, really, to try to make friends with everyone. There will be people you don't like, sure, but don't limit yourself to certain groups of people to befriend.
Treat your host family better than you treat your own family. Most of the advice on this front says to treat your host family the way you do your own. I say differently. Your host family is doing you a huge favor in letting you live with them, often for an entire year! And no matter how close you get with these people, they are not your real family. Don't pull the same crap with your host brother that you pull with your real brother, for example. Make every effort to integrate into your host family's household, schedule and natural rhythm. That's part of the exchange experience -- learning to adapt to a completely different environment, whether it's a new country or new household rules and chores.
Start learning Turkish before you leave home. Learning Turkish, I think, is the single most important thing you can do to ensure you get the most out of your exchange year. Not only is everything easier when you speak Turkish -- you can order food for yourself and tell a taxi driver where you want to go, for example -- speaking some basic Turkish opens up doors to the culture that simply will not be available to you if you insist on speaking English with everyone. I know for a fact that my cultural learning of Turkey has stagnated in recent months because my Turkish language learning has suffered.
Learn how to cook a couple of your favorite dishes before coming to Turkey so that you can make them for your host family. Turks love food -- really, who doesn't? -- but food plays a much more central role in daily family life here than it does for most people in the US. Gifts are nice, but preparing a full-on meal every now and again for your host family is excellent. Host families are usually eager to learn more about your culture and your family and food is an excellent way to do that!
Eat a little bit of everything. No one's saying that you have to like everything given to you, but at least try it. Don't wrinkle your nose at something based on the ingredients. Eating pudding with chicken inside it sounds gross, but believe me, it's really excellent! And if you find a dish or dishes that you really like, learn how to make it! Turkish restaurants in the US are hard to come by outside of New York and D.C.
Come to terms with the fact that there are going to be a lot of things you don't -- and will never -- understand. This, I think, is right up there with starting to learn a bit of Turkish. Turkey can be a very modern place at times, but sometimes it just isn't. There will be a lot you just don't "get" -- and that's ok. You'll have to learn to not have all the answers to your questions, like "where are we going?" and "why?" The best way to do this is to cultivate patience and understanding in yourself so that you can deal with all of the curveballs people will throw at you here. In the end, everything will always work out, even if you have no idea what just happened!
There is so much more advice I could have given, but I had to remind myself that 1) there is no way I could possibly tell her everything; and 2) she's supposed to figure out a lot of this exchange stuff on her own, in her own way.
Fellow exchangers, what advice would you add to students coming to Turkey? Or, if you haven't been on exchange here, is there any general advice you can offer on coming to Turkey?