I first met Beth on a train platform in Taipei. I was eighteen and she had just turned seventeen and we each knew we were meeting “the other American” in the large group of exchange students from around the world who would be spending the next year there, living in the homes of strangers we were to call our parents. We’d each just recently arrived, and I was nervous that she wouldn’t like me and nervous I’d be recognized for the imposter that I was in equal measure.
An imposter is what I felt like: I coasted through school with ease, and the parts that weren’t easy, I relied on my social ties with my smarter or more studious peers to pull me through. Frequently lamented in progress reports and report cards was my inability to apply myself; a fair criticism. Between the stress of my home life, my after school and weekend job, and my desperate need to be liked by my peers, I took relief where I could get relief, at school, by doing the bare minimum that would get me the grade that would avoid repercussions at home. I did thoroughly apply myself to one area: telling authority figures what they wanted to hear, and I used that skill to carry me almost seven thousand miles away, to this train platform, with assurances that I was eager to learn the language, embrace the culture, and be an ambassador of sorts for the United States. I wanted to do those things well but what I really wanted was what the Rotary leaders had promised over and over again: the best year of my life. I wanted it and I was interested in any country that was willing to take me in and let me have it. At that time, we were required to buy an open-ended airline ticket, a ticket where your arrival date is set but your departure could be any date within a year of purchase, the better to be wielded by the program managers as a “behave or we’ll send you home” cudgel.