I shall start with a cliché: my year abroad in Brazil during high school was the best year of my life. But I am not saying this because of the amazing people I met, or the crazy memories we share. I am not saying this because of the new language I mastered, or the new places I saw. Sure, that helped make my year a unique and wonderful experience. But what really made this year the most valuable, the best year of my life, was what I learned about myself.
To say I was not independent before my exchange would be wrong. I managed most of my everyday life by myself. However, I certainly remained within my comfort zone. It was not necessary to leave this comfort zone, mainly consisting of my friends at school and my family. I was used to the people around me. One could say I was living in a bubble.
That changed upon arrival in Brazil. I arrived in a country with a different language, in which I only spoke a few words, and a different culture, of which I had heard some typical stereotypes. I left my comfort zone, entering an unknown, albeit welcoming environment. This forced me to consider exactly how I act and what I say. Doing something simply out of habit was no longer an option.
Most importantly, I was confronted with opinions so different from the consensus in the liberal environment I came from. For example, I was always in favour of gay rights. But it took hearing repeatedly, and by a majority, that showing a kiss between two men in TV is wrong, for me to form and voice a clear opinion: yes, being homosexual is “normal” (whatever that means). I had to be confronted with intolerance to realise I want to actively promote tolerance. Similarly, I had to witness careless waste to realise how important environmental protection is to me. Going on my exchange year and leaving my comfort zone made it clear to me who I am and what I stand for.
I realised how problematic stereotypes are. Being Jewish, I was always ‘different’ from the majority, but at home most people had at least met someone Jewish and had some idea about Judaism. In the small Brazilian town where I spent my exchange year, I was the first Jew anyone met. The only knowledge, if any, people had about Judaism was taken from South Park, an animated sitcom with a lot of dark humour. I was therefore, in all honesty, repeatedly asked where my bag of gold was. It is difficult to describe how one feels when being asked such a ridiculous question.
Yet there were also positive experiences in this regard. One day, my host brother’s teacher asked me to come into class to explain Judaism. Conveying new information to kids who were genuinely interested and bombarded me with questions afterwards was fun. Overall, I believe my exchange year, through positive and negative experiences, clarified what being Jewish means to me and how important Judaism is to my identity.
Finally, reflecting about myself during my year abroad profoundly changed how I saw my future. Before I left, my mind was set: I was going to be a sports journalist! I was excited by the idea of meeting superstars and following them closely. During the year in Brazil, it became clear that simply covering big events did not appeal to me. Rather, I wanted to affect and influence important decisions. Instead of studying sports journalism and becoming a sports journalist, I soon decided to study politics and become a diplomat. To this regard, I have just started my degree in politics (and economics) at the University of Edinburgh.
My year abroad was the most valuable experience in my life. It forced me to ask and answer fundamental questions about who I am, who I want to be and what I believe in. Going abroad for a longer period of time, whether as part of an exchange programme or travelling, is, I believe, crucial to the development of any young human. By leaving one’s comfort zone and getting to know new people, new languages and new cultures, one learns things about oneself that otherwise may forever remain undiscovered.