Last year, around Christmas time, I spent three weeks in Guanajuato, Mexico. I stayed with the family of a close friend of mine who lives there. Fer and I met my senior year of high school, when my family decided to host a foreign exchange student for the academic year. We shared a room, and despite her annoyance at how much messier I am than she, we formed a tight sisterly bond. We often spent late nights discussing everything from drama at school to our feelings on social issues.
One memory that particularly stands out is going to get coffee before school. On Mondays, the gas station Kwik Trip had a promotion for $1 coffees of any size. They had a latte machine, so it was pretty high standards in terms of gas station beverages. Every week without fail we got up early for our cheap lattes. The one time we overslept we just shrugged and decided it was worth being late to school. Coffee was a very important part of our lives that year.
Most of our more adventurous days came about when we spent time with another exchange student at the school, Julia, who is from Germany. She shared our love of coffee, but was always less content to just chill at the same cafe near our houses. She’d rather go find a new hipster coffee shop or explore downtown. Julia was a good addition to our friend group because she dragged Fer and I outside of our comfort zone and was a lot of fun to spend time with. I was heartbroken when both of them went back home at the end of the year.
I was so excited to see Fer again when I booked my winter flight to Guanajuato the following year, and visiting a new country and practicing my intermediate level Spanish was a huge bonus. After struggling to adapt to my first semester in college, I very desperately needed something to lift my spirits. When I arrived at the airport we sprinted to go hug each other. I actually arrived the night of my 19th birthday, so Fer’s parents took me out for tacos first thing. Real, delicious, authentic tacos. I can no longer eat Taco Bell after that.
It was an amazing experience. I met amazing people and saw beautiful sights. Some days Fer and I just sat on her couch watching Grey’s Anatomy because we were tired. Other days we went to the mall for froyo and went out at night. We did a few tourist things as well, including visiting the state’s capital city and taking a bus tour. We also got lots of delicious coffee, full of nostalgia for our lattes from when we lived together in high school.
Spending time in Mexico was so much better with my friend than it would have been as a tourist. I was immersed in the language and culture, hanging out with a close friend. It gave me a better understanding and appreciation of Mexico than staying in a hotel and taking tours. I celebrated Christmas and New Years with Fer’s family, holidays that were similar to what I was used to with some unique twists. The sweet bread we ate had a little plastic baby “Jesus” in it. Tradition says that whoever gets a piece of bread with Jesus will have a baby soon, but most modern families treat it more as a fun game than an actual omen. It reminded me of throwing flower bouquets at weddings to see who will get married next.
It wasn’t all fun and games. I also had some difficult learning experiences that acted as a catalyst for changing the way I see the world. Everyone is biased under the surface. We all have subconscious prejudices which alter our perception of other people. This comes from toxic influences in our lives and is often manifested in subtle ways. I certainly have never been a diehard racist who purposely mistreats people based on their skin color, but little biases have slipped in over the years. Whether it was feeling less comfortable in a group of black people, or proudly insisting that I didn’t see color, there have been thought processes and nasty beliefs I’ve had to overcome during my life. There are still things I need to work on. I do try to be analytical about what I learn from some of the deeper conversations I have with people.
I will be perfectly honest; as a white person, I don’t often think about my race. I am privileged in that I don’t have to, especially having grown up in predominately white areas. So the first time I felt like a minority opened my eyes to a whole different world. In Mexico, there are people of various races and skin colors, but I definitely stood out. One of my new friends lovingly nicknamed me “la vampira,” or the vampire, referring to my very pale skin. (This fit especially well when they learned how easily I get sunburns.) I began to gain an understanding of what it’s like to have curious eyes on you based on how you look. The language barrier greatly exacerbated my sense of otherness. I spoke much more poorly than I’d realized in Spanish classes, and my comprehension of an accent I wasn’t used to was very limited. It’s difficult to explain just how difficult it is to learn a new language until you’ve studied it for years, earning top grades, and then realized that you absolute drown in an immersion experience. My friend Fer could translate if necessary, but we tried to avoid that both so I could learn and so I wouldn’t come off as an entitled tourist expecting the whole world to cater to my English. The only person other than Fer who I felt like I could communicate well with was her baby cousin, because he only communicated through gestures and noises anyway.
I was genuinely surprised at the level of isolation I felt immersed in a new culture and language, even surrounded by friendly people. The surprise probably speaks to my naivety to some degree, but the culture shock was very real. I wasn’t visiting an area with high levels of tourism, so towards the end of my stay when I finally saw someone from the US, I felt an odd sense of comfort wash over me. I had not realized how starved I was for my home culture.
Of course, this was a fun vacation experience where I enjoyed just about every day there, so I can’t imagine what it would be like to immigrate to a new country and experience all of the hardships that would come with that. My study abroad experience was closer, but still a long ways off.
My four months studying in Santiago, Chile, were vibrant, rewarding, and often difficult. One of the greatest lessons I learned was what it is like to live in a country different than the one I grew up in. The culture was still familiar, both because there are similarities between the cultures and because I’ve spent awhile studying Spanish and Hispanic cultures. However, there were some definite differences, especially outside of the capital city.
Living in Chile had its share of struggles. Navigating public transportation for the first time (after coming from a much smaller area) was even more daunting in another language. I should mention that my sense of direction is so bad that even with mountains to the east of the (logically laid out) city I couldn’t find my way around until the last month. I once took a bus to the beach to meet up with friends and spent five hours wandering around, trying to follow their directions. Some of my friends half-joke that it’s a miracle that I’m still alive with my laid back attitude and lack of observational skills. At least i can say that my misadventures in Chile have improved these skills somewhat.
My first week in Santiago, I became incredibly ill and had to go to the doctor. Actually explaining to a medical practitioner what was wrong wasn’t too hard to accomplish, but setting up the appointment was almost impossible. I had no idea what they were asking me to do, and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t accepting my passport as valid ID at that location. I eventually had to ask someone who worked at my university to come with me to help. I can’t imagine what I’d have done if I had had no resources in the country. The loneliness of being separated from my friends, my family, and my incredible boyfriend was almost unbearable at times. Still, I had the comfort of knowing that my situation was temporary and that I would return to the people, places, and life I’d left behind. Someone immigrating to a new country, especially as a refugee of poverty or violence, doesn’t have that same comfort. They have no choice but to suck it up and make a new life. I would not have had that strength in Santiago had I known my homesickness would never end. I have so much respect for immigrants for everything they go through during their transition to a new country.
Being in Chile wound up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have so many fond memories and life skills I couldn’t have gained anywhere else. My ability to speak, write, and comprehend Spanish have soared to a place where I feel confident in communicating in most situations. My sense of direction increased after repeatedly getting lost because I didn’t have mobile data abroad, and thus could not use Google Maps to find places. My sense of independence and self-confidence is so much stronger than it was previously, and I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity I had to live in Santiago.