“What am I doing here? Really, why am I here? What’s the purpose?!” I’m screaming in my high-tech headphones, but no one is answering me.
“Why?” Still silence.
Now I’m kind of crying. Because I know it; I’ve always known it.
There’s nobody on the other side of the line, no special base, no secret boss, no mission. Just me — a seventeen-year-old girl, alone, thousands of miles away from home.
I knew it; I always have.
But at the beginning, at least at the beginning, it was easier to pretend that it wasn’t true. It was easier to think that I was going on a secret mission.
Yes, a secret mission for the Italian government to save the world, a really important and delicate mission. That’s why they chose me, because I was brave, intelligent and crazy enough to do it.
And I really felt important when I went on that plane in Rome, after saying goodbye to all my friends and family members. I felt like I was really going to live a fantastic new life as a secret agent, the life of someone else.
And for the first few days it kind of worked. I actually felt important. I was meeting lots of other people like me from all over the world, who had lots of different backgrounds and stories to tell. It was really cool. And then in my new family, everyone was interested in me, everyone wanted to speak with me, everyone’s attention was on me. I was doing great! I mean, I was finally important. I was finally living the life of an important and famous spy.
Then I remembered. I had a mission: to be a perfect American girl like everyone else. Easy. I just had to hide, follow the crowd, and not make people focus their attention on me. Yes, with this strategy, no one will ever discover me!
So I started listening and watching everything around me really carefully without asking too many questions. I wanted people to avoid focusing on me. And then I repeated everything they did, to be exactly like them. I was totally undercover!
And so what’s the problem? The problem is that it worked. It worked even too well. I became invisible, as a perfect spy should be. Nobody sees me entering the class, nobody waves or nods at me, nobody cares. Nobody even knows that I’m here, that I exist. And when somebody tries to start a conversation with me, he ends up talking very quickly in English about something that I don’t understand. He eventually gets bored when I don’t reply and walks away to find someone else to talk to.
“Good job! Mission accomplished!” I hear in my headphones.
I suddenly smile… “Great, I did it! I did it! I’m like everyone else now!” But then the smile goes away because there’s something wrong. There has to be something wrong. Because I can’t be like everyone else — I’m not like everyone else.
I’m an exchange student from Italy.
And so I ask, “Why am I here? What I am doing here if I don’t have a secret mission?”
There’s no one on the other side of the line. None. No secret mission.
It’s just me. Just me.
And in that moment, when I was lying on my new bed, in my new room, on the other side of the world, crying, I understood.
I finally admitted to myself what the truth was: there’s no mission. I’m not a secret agent. I’m just me, like I’ve always been. I can’t change that, even if I go to another planet. I’ll always be me with my problems, with my defects, with my good and bad things. Just me. Always me.
And so I understood that the very mission here is not being like everyone else, but it’s being yourself even when you are in places that you don’t know, with people who you have never seen before, speaking a language that it’s not yours.
And so I was doing everything wrong.
What I have to do is not to hide. I have to reveal myself. I have to be open with people, to talk to them, to let them get to know me, while I’m trying to get to know them. I have to get involved and participate in the community exactly as I did when I was home. Because since I’m here, I have the honor and the right to represent my country and to participate in the life of this new one.
So in the end, there is a mission. But it’s much harder than I thought. It’s not a mission to became someone else, to live someone else’s life for a year. It’s a mission to challenge myself, to go against my limits and my fears without help — no family, no friends, just me. That’s probably the hardest mission ever.
And I don’t know if I’ll win or lose. I just know that no one will ever say that I haven’t tried.