My experience in America as an exchange student

Jen Tran

Coming to the United States as an exchange student, I had a unique opportunity to live and exchange my culture with Americans over the course of a year. To become a part of my host family and school community in a foreign country, I knew that establishing good relationships here is very important. There were a few things I did that helped me accomplish this goal and I would like to share my experience with other international students.

1. Bring some gifts from your home country

Before my flight to America, I went to Hanoi Old Quarter to look for some gifts such as Vietnamese keychains, bamboo dragonflies (a Vietnamese handmade toy that can balance on anything!), Vietnamese silky scarves and ties (for my American family and teachers), Vietnamese coffee and “ô mai”,… Everyone did not expect Vietnamese gifts from me and they were all fascinated. The more unique your gifts are, the more Americans are impressed and curious about you. This is a way I brought my culture to America and at the same time, showed my willingness to make friends here. Some of the gifts I gave to my American teachers and band members at the end of the school year to show my gratitude for their help and support.

2. Involve in as many activities as you can

I have mentioned this in one of my previous posts. Americans like people who make contribution to the society. Volunteering to do housework, joining in some clubs or volunteering in community service activities gained me a lot of friends as well as knowledge of American culture. It is fun to do and good to do. Americans are always impressed by enthusiastic and active people.

3. Cooking

Food and cooking cuisines are the best representation of a culture. Hence, I tried to gather as many Vietnamese vegetables and fruits in Asian market as I could to create some traditional Vietnamese dishes (Below is the picture of me making the traditional Vietnamese Spring Roll!) I also brought some ingredients from my home country to give the dishes the most authentic flavor. My host family really enjoyed my cooking and they were glad that I was making effort to share my culture with them through Vietnamese cuisines. Food makes the best connection! Even if you are not good at cooking and you don’t live with an American family, you can still try cooking for your American friends and introduced them to some other food products from your home country that you can find in international markets. Remember, it is the effort that counts!

4. Talk about the culture differences

There are tons of differences between America and my home country in education system, history perspective, lifestyles, customs, laws,… Most Americans did not know much about my home country at the present time as they still thought of Vietnam as a poor and war country so what I share about my country really surprised them. What I learned about Americans’ perspective of the Vietnam War flabbergasted me and changed the way I think of it. There are good and bad things but sharing the differences and asking questions gained me more knowledge and new perspective.

There are certainly more ways to impress and exchange your culture with Americans and these are just some from my own experience. Show your uniqueness and accept the differences will help you get the most out of your staying in America.

Jen Tran – Social Media Assistant

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Reverse culture shock and homesickness


Coming back home after one year studying in the US, I experienced a lot of confusing emotions and different culture differences that were once normal to me. The moment I left Indianapolis airport, I did not expect everything at home to be so strange and unfamiliar to me despite the fact that I had spent most of my life living there.

After three long flights, I eventually arrived at Hanoi airport and the first thing that hit me was the familiar humid and polluted air. It made me miss the cool and fresh atmosphere in Indiana crazily. The language that people speaking to me sounded like a foreign language that I could not comprehend. Everything back home seemed too small to me as in America, mostly everything is huge. I was not prepared at all.

1. Traffic

It is crazy. I was genuinely scared of joining the traffic in Hanoi. The street is always crowded and there are cars, motorcycles, motorbikes, motorcycles carrying enormous goods, constant honking, etc. Many people also do not follow the traffic rules and would only focus on getting everyone else out of their way. This is so much different from my experience of living in a suburb area of Indiana where traffic is a lot less intense and people would patiently let others pass them even without any traffic light. It took me a month to eventually ride my bike on the street again which was not a big deal to me before then.

2. Thank-you and Sorry culture

One of the first things I noticed when I first arrived in America is thank-you and sorry culture. People say thank you as often as they apologize for very small actions of themselves or others, even among family members. I thought that was a really cool etiquette to bring more pleasures that I should apply to my daily life in Vietnam and make it a new custom here. Not so easy. The first few days I was home, I thanked my Mom so often for small things such as getting me a shampoo or making me a drink that she was a little frustrated. She told me that I sounded like a polite guest and that this is not suitable in Vietnamese culture as it makes people feel more distant. I was only trying to show my appreciation for little things! It apparently did not work well.

3. Materialism vs. catching up

An Indonesian student named IIham mentioned this culture difference in his story of going back home. You can read his story here…/reverse-culture-shock-is-a-lone…/. As for me, I did really feel the same way. Because two of my suitcases were literally stuffed and many things are expensive, I did not think about buying gifts for my family and relatives (I myself did not spend much money in America because I knew my parents already tried so hard to afford my exchange program). However, I was excited to tell everyone about my American adventure. But besides my immediate family and best friend who actually caught up with all of my activities in America on Facebook, there was barely anyone who truly cared about my study abroad experience. After a year away from home, all I have to maintain a conversation with people here is what I experienced in America and when they do not show their interest in my stories, I felt isolated or as IIham would describe his feeling, disconnected. This prevented me from socializing with others for the first few months because I felt like no one would understand me.

4. Less intense life

I had gotten used to the fast-paced life of Americans who would try to cram everything in their schedules and get things done as quickly and as much as possible. Vietnamese people do not have that sense of saving time. They are more relaxed and do more family-related activities. For the first few months back home, I still had the fear of time flying very quickly and I needed to do a lot of things to not regret wasting time. Anything that kept me busy would make me happy. My parents told me that I was overworking while I myself still feel like I am not doing as much as I did in America.

5. Reverse homesickness

As an exchange student, I had a unique opportunity to live with an American family and over the course of a year, I became very close to the family members who now genuinely consider me a part of their family. Just after a few flights, I was back in Vietnam and half way across the world from my host family. That hit me so hard. The experience reminded me of the day I left my Vietnamese family to go to America and I did not expect to feel so lost again in my home country. Even though I was happy to be home again, a part of me still always connects with my second home in Indiana.

6. A lot of emotions

There are tons of confusing emotions that I went through: disconnected, depressed, morose, confused, bored, and even angry at myself. Not to mention that I would fall asleep at 4 pm and be up by 10 pm. It took me more time to readjust to coming back home than to going to America. However, an experience like this makes me stronger and more independent. I know that there will be time in the future I will have to adjust to very different environments, people or cultures like this and I will need to find my way to balance.

If you are about to or are going through the same experience, don’t try to hold back your frustration or depression. Find someone to talk to and keep busy. As for me, I talked to my American friends and constantly kept contact with my host family and updated them on my life back home. It is very difficult, yes, but remember to embrace the whole journey and grow.

Jen Tran – Social Media Assistant

Learn more about Greenhandshake.

American eating and food habits


American burger

Living with an American family for a year gave me insight into their everyday life customs, especially American eating and food habits.

Because of their fast-paced and full-of-activities lives, Americans usually race quickly through daytime meals. Lunchtime is usually limited to a half hour or an hour. In public places, people also try to eat fast because there are other people waiting to be served so they can go back to work on time. Sometimes, people would have “brunch” which is the combination of breakfast and lunch late in the morning. Dinner is usually the only leisurely and family time. However, the way Americans prepare meals is mainly time-saving. From my observation, my host family would buy food for the whole week from groceries stores and cook very simple dishes in large amounts to eat in a few days. This is completely opposite to how my Vietnamese family would prepare our meals. Americans also frequent restaurants when they are too busy to come up with meal plans.

Because I come from a culture whose cuisine generally is full of spices and ingredients, I find American food rather bland. The main course in American meals is usually meat, fowl, or fish with large serving size and rarely more than one of these is served in the same meal. Vegetables are usually salads, very rare and not various, which was a problem to a person from a tropical-weather country like me. A wide range of low-fat, low-carb, sugar-free or no-fat food is offered at groceries stores as Americans are increasingly aware of their weight. The way some food products are processed here can cause digestive problems for international students (I was so sad to find out myself allergic to American dairy products, especially cheese). It took me quite a long time to adapt to the food here and when I did, I had gained 15 pounds! (my American friends still believed that I was tiny while my Vietnamese friends were shocked looking at my pictures on Facebook! Be aware of your diet here!)

In restaurants, a variety of drinks is offered such as coffee, tea, soft drinks, fruit juices,… In England, it is considered weird to have iced tea but in America, it is very popular in summer and usually good, served either sweetened or unsweetened. Coffee is a popular drink at all hours in America and varies in quality. Tap water is safe everywhere but you can request a bottle of water in restaurant if you prefer better taste. And try to stay away from unhealthy soft drinks! (Seriously!)

Table etiquette is important. To avoid bad impression, you should:

* Chew with your mouth closed and don’t talk with your mouth full.
* Give the food to the person next to you to pass the dish around the table; don’t reach across someone else’s plate.
* Use a fork, unless you are eating a finger food.
* Place a napkin on your lap after being seated.
* Don’t pick your teeth at the table.
* Say thank you to the host/server.
* Never insult the food. You can appreciate the time, effort and cost involved with making a meal.
* Keep your elbows off the table.

Last but not least, when you gain about 10 – 15 pounds, you know you have become an American! Have a good experience!

Jen Tran – Social Media Assistant


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Researching American universities and useful tools


The whole excruciating searching and applying process for American universities are overwhelming. There are tons of information out there on the universities’ website that you will have to go through and sometimes you just do not know where the hell to start. My friend, I was there and to be honest, I initially hated that. However, that discomfort turned into interest by the time I knew what steps I needed to take in researching university and what tools I could use to make this process less intimidating. I really hope that by sharing my experience here, I can help you save more time and energy in your search of the right university.

STEP 1: Determine your major and financial affordability

Choosing a MAJOR that you want to study in college requires consideration of your ability, interest and a future career that you can have out of it. However, do not worry about making the right/perfect choice right now because there is no such thing. The reality is many students change their major billions times during their four years in college! So don’t sweat it.

Understanding your FINANCIAL AFFORDABILITY is paramount. Knowing how much your parents can afford to pay for your college will practically narrow your choices down and put less financial burden on your family. Make sure to discuss this matter with your parents. There are ridiculously expensive schools out there and there are still several wonderful schools with more affordable tuition. And let me tell you this: American community colleges are wonderful and might save you thousands of dollars for the same quality education. So don’t look over community colleges. Consider all to find the best!

STEP 2: Look for schools that have high ranking IN THE MAJOR you choose

The overall ranking of a school is based on many criteria. A school that ranks number one in The Princeton Review is not necessarily a perfect school for you. There are 10 wonderful websites for you to find out most information of a school (link below). Look for the school that has the best study environment, best resources and extensive opportunities for the major you choose. However, remember that the accurate information is ALWAYS on a school’s website and provided by its admission counselors.

STEP 3: Consider financial aid/scholarships

Again, without money, you are not going anywhere. Most scholarship information can be found on a school’s website with specific criteria and amounts. Do contact the admission counselor to find out a school’s financial policy and your eligibility. They will assist you in any way they can.

STEP 4: Compare and narrow down

If you have already had a list of, let say, 25 schools that you are interested in, you should probably narrow down your choices. Why? Because to my belief, focusing your time and energy on perfecting your application to each school will gain you higher chance of admission. Having too many schools to apply only costs you more money and exhausts you. To make comparisons, I especially recommend This is a great website for you to make a list of schools you like, compare them based on several criteria and read students’ reviews. It also accurately evaluates your chance of being admitted to a school based on your provided information and other students’ report of their admission.

STEP 5: Make a chart of important information
Use Microsoft Excel to list important information such as application deadline, tuition, scholarships, questions you have for admission counselors, etc. Keep everything organized and contact the admission counselors constantly for any information you need.

STEP 6: Start preparing the basic application documents
Start your personal essays, take SAT and TOEFL tests, write CV, ask for recommendation letters,… These are definitely necessary documents for your application so start early. Do not wait for the deadline. The sooner you apply the higher chance of admission and scholarships.

I hope that these steps are helpful in your search of the right university. Good luck with your application!

Jen Tran – Social Media Assistant


Learn more about Greenhandshake.