Stop Panicking: A Gringa in Chile

Mucho Gusto! My name is Lindsay, and normally I’d introduce myself as an Elementary/Bilingual Education and Spanish Student from Southern Connecticut State University. However, this semester, I’ve traveled all the way to the remarkable city of Valparaíso, Chile to study at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso.

I am most definitely a crier. I cry when I’m angry or hurt; when I’m touched by an act of kindness; when my contacts irritate my eyes. But when I said goodbye to my family and boyfriend in the airport, I didn’t cry or feel sad. I felt nervous about getting through airport security by myself, but not about leaving everything I know behind to be swallowed-up by an entirely new culture.

I wasn’t anxious until I finally boarded the plane at 1:30 in the morning, after a five-hour delay. I managed to find my seat, and began scouring for an overhead compartment to store my mint green carry-on. I struggled to understand the instructions the flight attendant described to me in Spanish.  I finally burst out, “I don’t speak Spanish!”

I sat down in my tiny blue airplane seat and began to shake in panic. Thus began my immersion into the Spanish culture and language. Announcements were delivered in Spanish, the flight attendants attempted to speak to me in Spanish, and the emergency warnings scattered along the plane might as well have been written in Sanskrit. Due to the language barrier, during the first few days of my stay in Chile I was in a constant state of panic and confusion.

I feel that this frightening experience of being completely immersed in a language you don’t know, is something you can not truly understand until you have experienced it. It is something so different than anything I have ever felt before.

I felt inadequate every time I couldn’t remember a word and became frustrated with myself when I couldn’t follow a conversation. I pressured myself to suddenly gain the ability to understand the entire Spanish language, as if I thought that learning an entire language in one day was a possible feat.

I panicked every time someone spoke Spanish to me until I finally expressed my concerns another student. She consoled me and calmed all my fears by explaining to me, “We’re all in the same boat. Everything will come in time.” I honestly think that is some of the best advice for any study abroad student. If you tend to be an anxious, intellectually competitive stickler like I can be, this is the time to let go and stop competing.

You will adjust in your own time. There will be a time where you can finally understand. That time will come, but now is the time to let go and just roll with the waves. Do not pressure yourself to know everything at once because no matter what, at the end of this marvelous and terrifying journey you will have flourished and grown into a stronger, more intelligent, adaptable, and independent person. Let this fact be your hope and have an open mind during this remarkable adventure.

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