Before I left Denmark to go on exchange, some Danes said the only pity about me going on exchange to San Francisco was that the city is so similar to Europe.
And I actually had a little bit of the same perception of San Francisco. But oh boy, I was in for a surprise.
Everything is different. Being an exchange student at SF State, I have had to learn how to navigate a foreign university, using a foreign language, in a foreign city – in a foreign nation!
At times, this has felt like doing a series of somersaults and walking straight afterwards, but it has also given me so many good experiences that the outcome overshadows the challenges.
Even something as simple as taking public transportation can be a challenge when you have to navigate in a new country.
First off, you have to know that buses and Muni trains run like the wind blows – you never know when! Secondly, it is possible that the stop sign is only a yellow stripe on a lamppost. Third off, the stop button in the bus might not be an actual button, but a wire that you pull. And finally, don’t throw a 20-dollar bill in the ticket machine, because it does not give change back. All of these I had to learn learned from experience.
Another thing that makes exchange life hard are the cultural differences and the codes for how to behave in the public sphere. If anybody asks, ”how are you,” it means ”hello.” So if you answer, ”actually, I have not had the best day, and I also have a headache” – then it is too much information.
And then there is the language barrier. As a journalism student and word nerd this has been one of the hardest things for me to adapt to. The constant struggle to translate and formulate exactly what you mean because you don’t know the words to describe it. Danish expressions and proverbs often don’t translate to English. In English, you say “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” while in Danish you say “the drop that made the glass overflow.” And Danish words like “hyggeligt” or “velbekomme” do not even have English translations.
And then there is the school system. Here, it is mandatory to show up for classes, contrary to Denmark where it is your own problem if you miss classes. Here, you are not on first-name basis with your professors, but address them by their title and last name. However, it is allowed to contribute to classes with personal anecdotes and comments. And this is just a few examples.
But all of these challenges doesn’t mean it is a drag to be on exchange – because it isn’t. It is the opposite! It has given me many good experiences that I am taking with me – and if I could, I would do it again.
The biggest plus, I think, has been gaining a unique insight into a culture that is very different from my own. And now, I am closer to understanding why topics like ”cultural appropriation” and ”cultural heritage” are sensitive, and why a politician like Bernie Sanders can’t just transfer a welfare model like the one used in Scandinavia to the U.S.
It has been a delight to live in a multicultural melting pot like San Francisco, and to go to a university like SF State. I have never been to a place as diverse and colorful as SF State. This goes for people’s ethnicities, style, religion and way of behaving. I have never stared so much at other people’s wild hair style or clothes as I have here. Hooray for dressing exactly like you want; we could really learn from this in Denmark, where everybody wears black and looks somewhat alike.
My exchange has also made me reflect upon and appreciate a lot of bigger and more important things from Denmark, like our equality, welfare model, and free schools, universities and health care system.
So to sum it up: If you have the chance to go on exchange, then go. You get so much more from it than you think. Honestly, I have not met anybody who regretted going.