I had always wanted to participate in an intercultural exchange program like AFS, but the timing never worked out for me. Then one day after SPM, I thought, “If I don’t do it now, I might never get the chance to again”.
So amidst my overachieving friends who had already started college applications, I did something spontaneous. Restless as I was, I decided to go to Spain for three months and work as an au pair for a family in Pontevedra, located northwest of Spain.
After my mother’s initial confusion at my sudden outburst of spontaneity, she finally wrapped her head around my crazy idea and helped me buy a ticket to Spain. Within two weeks, I had packed my suitcase and settled my legal documents, and I was getting butterflies at the thought of meeting the family whose children I was going to be taking care of for the next few months. They lived in a part of the country where people spoke only Spanish, a language I had taken up just several months before and could barely even converse in.
My adventure began with a luggage mix-up, a hardship that was frustrating during that period of time (imagine having to buy four days worth of underwear with people you just met!), but my host family did all they could to make me as comfortable as possible despite the language barrier. On that note, we communicated mostly though hand gestures and by slowly enunciating individual words for the first three weeks. Conversation was slow at times, with miscommunications that were both hilarious and embarrassing.
Every morning, I woke up to the sound of Spanish television – which dubbed everything, even the Simpsons and the Fight Club, in Spanish – and the chatter of the family getting ready for school or work. It was a surreal experience, rather like stepping into an alternate universe. I loved it, then I hated it, then loved it again; ultimately, I managed to overcome the barrier and start conversing fluidly in Spanish with the family, and I learnt so much just by understanding the rhythm and structure of their language, their points of view, and the way they thought.
I also led a very independent lifestyle; my days consisted of driving the children, Juan and Carmen, to school every morning, going for Spanish classes till lunchtime before doing some shopping or people-observing at the pueblos (little cafés) across town. Then I would pick the children up again in the evening and help them with their homework until dinnertime at 10 p.m. which is phenomenally late for most Malaysians, but perfectly normal for the Spanish!
After a month had passed, I began to feel comfortable with my new lifestyle, enjoyed my independence, and gradually got used to the Spanish and their crazy driving. Then one day, as I was waiting for Carmen and Juan at their school, I met another au pair, Krista, from Canada. She had been in Pontevedra for almost a year now, and we became fast friends. I soon began to spend a lot of time with Krista and her Spanish friends; we travelled to nearby towns, explored the nightlife, and met more people. We even visited other parts of Europe together – Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, and England, just to name a few.
It was exhilarating. After three months, my Spanish was almost on par with the native speakers, and I had assimilated into the family as well as their lifestyle. My host family was the best I could ever ask for, patiently explaining things to me when I did not understand, taking me with them on family vacations, and teaching me about the Spanish culture. Most of all, I appreciated the connections I had made that summer.I will never regret my taking five months after SPM to travel to Europe.
Not only was it an enriching experience that gave me a global perspective, it also gave me an edge in my application to Cornell University, where I am currently a senior in the School of Industrial and Labour Relations. Next semester, I will be doing a credit Internship with the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, focusing on the elimination of child labour in developing countries.
In a way, my journey to Europe turned out to be more meaningful than I ever imagined. It gave me a new direction and helped me decide on a future career that I would be passionate about. Above all else, it allowed me to build wonderful and lasting relationships with people that I would otherwise never have known, in Europa, Europa.
Sara Ooi is currently studying Industrial and Labour Relations at Cornell University, one of the eight Ivy League universities in the US. Her experiences and adventures abroad helped her gain acceptance and admission into Cornell. When she is not studying, she finds joy in figure-skating, speaking French and Spanish with her friends, and salsa dancing as much as she can.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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