By: Annabelle Jyen Ruan Tan (SMysSH18 to France)

It all started when I was 14, when I knew that I wanted to study abroad… and then I found AFS. I have vivid memories of when I got my first email from my French host family; I was sitting on my study desk home alone, unable to believe that my dream was finally coming true, screaming and jumping alone, and then picking up the phone to call my parents to scream the good news to them.

France really is everything they say it is: berets, baguettes, fashion central, and of course, French! I remember the surreal feeling when I finally got to see the Eiffel tower for the first with my very own eyes. It really did feel like a dream come true. I was placed in a little seaside town of Auray in Bretagne. My host family was a religious Catholic family, but I had no problems getting along with them. They accepted me with wide arms, and I really felt like a part of the family from the very start.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for my high school. It was really difficult to adapt and integrate with the French teens. I have to admit that I wasn’t crazy about high school, but I don’t regret going through it. I learn so much more about myself, and how much my friends and family back at home mean to me at that moment. I learnt to be grateful for them.

France being on the other side of the world from home, I had to adapt to their culture, food, language, weather as well as the people. I must say that the people here are friendly, but I really missed the touch of warmth and kindness that we find in Malaysians. Nevertheless, I managed to adapt and got used to my little town eventually. It was also thanks to the constant support of AFS France as well as some of the other exchange students that were placed in the same town or in neighboring towns.

Fast forward to May, I remember telling my host mother that I was not ready to go home in two months. I might be having a hard time in school, but I really wanted to explore and discover more of this city apart from the grassy plains and chilly weather. It all happened really quickly; it started off by my family saying that I could stay until the expiration of my visa and ended up with them proposing to me the idea of staying another school year to take the French high school diploma program. Despite all the difficulties I had throughout high school, the fact that this made me one step closer to achieving my dreams of studying in a French university made me say yes right away. At that moment, all I could think about was how lucky and grateful I was for everything that had happened to me so far.

I’m so glad I decided to take the leap of faith to extend my stay here in France. I got to spend the summer getting to know my host family as well as their extended family, going on island trips. It was absolutely amazing; I got the opportunity to meet so many new people and learn so much more about life in France outside of high school.

I also spent the summer catching up on the French syllabus and improving my French so that I could be prepared for the new school year. I changed classes and I’m getting the hang of school life. I was also very worried about being one of the last in classes due to the fact that it was a completely new syllabus, but I surprisingly managed to achieve some decent results, and I’m really proud of that.

I knew that a crazy adventure awaited me, but never would I have imagined this outcome for me. I have learnt so much throughout my (still ongoing!) exchange experience, even some things I never thought I would’ve learnt. I know so much more about myself now, and I gained so many good qualities as well as international friends. To know for a fact that a year ago I was just a normal Malaysian city girl with big dreams and now I have friends all over the world, I speak a new language, I have a new family, a new culture, a new place to call home. The biggest lesson I learnt throughout my stay here is how proud I am to be Malaysian.

All this would not have been possible without the support of my family and friends, the AFS community, and a lot of luck. I still find myself waking up some days giving myself the occasional pinch to make myself believe that this is happening. I really am the luckiest girl on earth; being able to live my dream and achieve my goals. The AFS effect is a real thing; the exchange experience never stops. And for me, it is in a literal form, and I only have everyone to thank!