Culture shock is the really yucky part of the cultural immersion experience that happens to most people at some point. It’s the point during study abroad where a person may face information overload or begin feeling especially frustrated with adjusting to different aspects of a new culture such as a language barrier. With 29 more days remaining until the completion of my study abroad program, I think the best kind of advice I could ever give to any future students going on a language exchange program in the face of culture shock is to be patient with yourself when coping with stressors, don’t compare your journey to other students’ in your program, be strong, and don’t give up.
Being patient with yourself means understanding you are human and with that comes limitations when facing frustrations. I had this idea in my head that coming here I would soak up the Spanish language like a sponge and that I would leave here completely fluent. It’s my seventh month into my program in Costa Rica and I still have days where I wake up and I feel like I can’t express everything I want to say correctly. This started a cycle of me being hyper-critical of myself and with that, the language barrier seemed to widen between me and the culture here because I would be so focused on wanting to prevent an error or sounding foolish when I speak that I would sometimes lose the ability to communicate clearly altogether! As a learner of Spanish as a second language, I have to accept that my ability to communicate is not comparable to native speakers—but that’s completely okay because I came here to grow with a new language! Learning a new language is a challenge in and of itself, and with that comes inevitable mistakes! I have a professor who speaks English fluently, and he has even admitted that despite having several years of experience in another language, he also makes errors!
Not comparing yourself to your peers means accepting that you’re on your own unique journey and that adjusting to a new culture is different for everyone. The classroom setting where you learn a new language is a culture in and of itself, and this is a time where it’s important to focus on personal growth in the language. For the first time in my life, I am taking a full course load in another language which is something I never anticipated I would be doing in my life. That being said, I have had some intense moments of feeling overwhelmed with information, especially in my advanced Spanish grammar course. Sometimes I would also catch myself comparing my struggle to students who seem to so easily grasp a complicated subject when I’m needing to ask the professor to repeat the same thing several times. I think comparing myself exacerbated my sense of feeling overwhelmed because then I would start second guessing my own knowledge which definitely does not help me learn. If you ever feel yourself making a comparison to others during your time abroad, it helps to take a step back to acknowledge that everyone comes from different walks of life and thus handles situations differently. In my case, there are native speakers in some of my courses, and naturally their transition into our courses may have been different than mine as someone who is acquiring Spanish as a second language—therefore there is absolutely no good reason to make such an unjust comparison!
Being strong and not giving up means finding your strength with a support group and realizing that you can accomplish your goals with a positive outlook. Though my culture shock has bestowed moments of frustrations, and intense moments of homesickness, learning to develop an attitude of gratitude has allowed me to finish my year off strongly. I am really fortunate to have been blessed with a loving support system–my host mom, a really incredible best friend in my program, and my parents in the States whom I can call during times of distress. My host mom has been supportive by checking in on me, and just spending quality time with her has helped me so much. We actually just finished reading Charlotte’s Web together in Spanish. I read it aloud to her each week for the past few months, and I must say, even in Spanish this book makes my eyes water!
One of my best friends in the program has also been really emotionally supportive by volunteering with me at the Reforestation Center at our host university. We’ve been helping bundle trees in small bags with soil so that the university can reforest areas around Costa Rica. The professors and students who work at the center have also been so friendly and kind to us with enthusiasm to teach us about the different species they have in the greenhouse and around UNA (Universidad Nactional de Costa Rica).
And lastly, my parents at home have also been supportive of me when I’ve felt overwhelmed. While it’s important to be conscious of spending too much time Skyping with family because it may intensify homesickness, I think it’s important to keep in contact with family who can offer insight on your personal strengths, which my parents definitely do. They’ve given me so much encouragement to finish my year abroad strongly—which is exactly what I’m doing!
Also, when facing culture shock another powerful tool is to always take time to acknowledge the little things that are special about the culture you’re living in–like Costa Rican iced coffee!
This past week has been incredible. As much as I enjoy the classes at my study abroad program, College Year in Athens (CYA), and feeling at home in Pangrati, there’s nothing like being able to travel to other areas and experience the utterly unfamiliar. Last weekend myself and a friend of mine were able to go to Paris to visit another friend studying abroad there. It’s easy to think that a city so celebrated in film, books, and more could be over-hyped and as a result, disappointing in reality. However, Paris instead turned out to be one of the most amazing cities I have ever seen. The architecture on every street had something miraculous to offer; a truly beautiful city. As a suburban girl used to living closer to forests than cities, that’s saying quite a lot. Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower were far more incredible in person than I had ever imagined them to be. We were also able to see the Louvre Museum, and it was gigantic. In the four hours we stared incredulously at the art before us, we were only able to see a little over one of the four floors of artwork. To see the entire museum in a day would be absolutely impossible. The perfection of Parisian food rivaled the beauty of the city itself. Each and every dish I ordered over our three day stay–from French onion soup to macaroons, meat and cheese platters, and cheese fondue– was exceptional. In short, I’m already looking forward to the day I can return!
Once back in Athens, we were only home for one day of classes before CYA began our next school-wide trip to Thessaloniki, the area of northern Greece that was previously Macedon. The city is famous for its university, one of the best in Greece, and the students who make up 20% of the city population. As a port city, ships can be seen passing by day and night, and people are constantly gathered outside reading, playing music, and talking to friends. The atmosphere of Thessaloniki is far more young, vibrant, and calming than Athens thus far. I have to say I still love Athens just a little more; it’s home, and nothing beats home.
We’ve spent the past few days learning about the importance of how the town of Thessaloniki was planned and talking about the numerous Byzantine structures still standing sporadically throughout the town from the period of Roman Christian rule. The detail in many of the Christian churches constructed from that period has miraculously survived, and is still used in a modern sense. Between this learning experience in Thessaloniki, and my long weekend in Paris, the past week has undoubtedly made me realize the degree of appreciation I have for learning in an experiential manner, and solidified my gratitude for the way CYA runs our program.
I first fell into a steady relationship with running when I started college three years ago. I had taken up running very casually in high school when I befriended a German foreign exchange student who was concerned about America’s stark consumption of sugars. We engaged in combat with the sugars of our nightmares every day after school and then I went home and ate cookies. Now I run for my university’s college team and am hoping to do my first marathon within the next year. I still go home and eat cookies.
Anyone who runs has a very unique relationship with running. Running is very much like having a human companion because it occupies your mind quite a lot, but without the added benefits of sometimes making you dinner or bringing home a pizza. Instead you’re more ravishingly hungry. All of the time. hence the cookies. If you have a regular routine of running almost every day, missing a day because of something unexpected is like waking up and not drinking that expected cup of coffee.
I came to Chile accepting that I might not be able to run here as I do at my home. I told myself that it was just fine to take a break, however this mental preparation was not necessary. Here in Chile, I live impossibly close to the ocean, and I have the freedom to take an ocean-side run whenever I want to. The experience differs from my running in the States, where I grew accustomed to running on city bike trails and when at home with my parents, country back roads.
I didn’t know whether or not running was a popular activity here in Chile. From my observations, it’s not a strange hobby, but it is not nearly as common as it is in the United States. Below are some demographics about the average Chilean runner that I learned in a Chilean culture class.
- Of the Chileans that claim to habitually run, 47% belong to the upper class (known as ABC1 here).
- 3 out of every 10 runners are women.
- 70% of runners here are 21-40 years old while 1 out of 15 are between the age of 16-20. (I’ve noticed this a lot.)
During the summer season here, running is a bit like a game of frogger until you clear the populous beach areas. From any point in the city it is easy enough to find the ocean and run along side of it, where you’ll find many other athletes. However, summer also means loads of stroller-pushing, ice cream-eating beach-goers who like to lazily take up the entire side walk. There’s also solid stretches of vendors selling empanadas, fruit juice, alpaca socks, key chains, jewelry, precious rocks, and homemade sweets.
It makes for fantastic people watching and entertainment, but can also slow you down a bit while running. Here I am finding that it is good to be slowed though. Things should be done and performed for the feeling you get during and after, not solely to “get it done” as we tend to say in North America. Now that the season is changing to fall, the crowds are beginning to ease up as well.
My runs tend to be about an hour long and I run from central Vina del Mar to the Renaca area along the coast. If you like to run longer, there’s opportunity to keep on going and the longer you run, the better the view gets. This is my opinion because I prefer more nature and less urban running environments. I’ve also been doing a lot of trekking which is excellent on the legs too. I recently returned from a 6 day trek in the Torres del Paine National Park.
But if you enjoy outdoor exercise activities without the expense of a plane ticket, the area by Vina del Mar’s Playa Deportes (Sport Beach) has a lot of exercise equipment for the public. Think children’s playground design, but for adults. They also offer free zumba on the beach regularly during the summer, and weekends in the fall, and have beach volleyball as well. My university offers many free opportunities to join in
I have yet to tackle Valparaiso’s hillsides for any intense training, but it is definitely doable for any feeling up to the challenge.
Mustafa pushes the cows out of the cramped barn one by one and motions for the two of us to follow him. I scramble to collect my things among the laughter of the women in the family, amused my lack of organization. Fatima, seeing that we are missing herding sticks, shuffles over to the nearest tree, and brakes off some branches for us both and motions for us to catch up to her brother. Mustafa has already pushed the cows to the next road and gives us a look as if to say “You wanted to come and work with me, now come and work.”
The cows stumble a bit, weaving though the olive trees down the hill, to the highway. Amongst the nervous moo-ing of the cows, Mustafa signals for us to hold them back while we wait for a safe time to cross the highway. A bit frustrated with our lack of herding ability, and concerned that we are going to kill one of his cows, he scrunches up his face and jogs to the back of the herd and leads the cows across the highway without incident. Once on the other side, Mustafa looks at us and smiles exposing his large, unkept teeth and tells us “mashi mushkil” meaning “no problem” in Darija (Moroccan Arabic).
The endless blue sky is interrupted by strategically placed clouds. We walk on a dirt path, muddied by last night’s rain fall. On either side of the path there are thick grassy fields. The sound of cars and trucks rushing by on the highway are getting more and more faint, and the sound of birds, insects, and the methodic footsteps of the cows are getting more pronounced. Our path starts to intersect with a river, and we walk parallel to it. Mustafa motions for us look at the water. It’s ink black. He makes a drinking motion with his hands, and then shakes his head to say no. “Zaytun,” he says, meaning “olive” in Arabic. “Zaytun,” he says again, making sure we know what he is saying. Later we would learn that an olive factory upstream dumps their waste into the river, and farmers like Mustafa have to deal with the consequences. The cows start to cross the river where it is most narrow, perhaps 6 to 7 feet wide– a stride for a cow, several leaps for us. Mustafa, seeing our confusion, picks up a rock from the side of the river, plops it in the middle where we are supposed to cross, and gracefully hops across the water. We manage to cross, but with significantly less grace, making Mustafa chuckle a bit.
We walk for several more minutes, until we come upon a valley. Mustafa throws his stick down, and rushes over to the cows. He kneels down, and ties a rope around the two front feet of every cow, ensuring that they won’t be able to wander too far. He takes a seat on the ground, and motions for us to do the same. Mustafa pulls out his smart phone and quickly looks for something. His eyes open up, and a smile appears. A song comes on that is both calming and anxiety-producing. A marriage between slow elevator music and quick passed synthesizer. We ask him where the song from, and he responds “Algeria.” “Algeria?” we ask again, not sure if that’s what he meant to say. “Algeria,” he says one last time while leaning back and pulling his baseball cap over his eyes.
On the 30th of January, 2016, I spent the day at an Argentine ranch, more commonly known as an “estancia,” where I rode a horse name Coca-Cola, ate Argentinian style asado (barbecue), and met several intriguing Porteños, a term used to refer to people who grew up in a port city. Being that Buenos Aires is a port city, this term derived from the many Spanish and Italian immigrants that settled there during the turn of the 19th century. With this in mind, today it is frequently used to distinguish their identity from other Argentinians.
Typically, when one visits an estancia, one will find authentic gauchos (Argentinian cowboys). However, the Estancia La Porteña — one of the most historical estancias that exists in Argentina, located just outside the very small town San Antonio de Areco — accommodates tourist guests in hopes of educating the public of their very distinct culture. Thus, authentic gauchos do not exist here at the Estancia La Porteña. However, public opinion is divided on whether gauchos still exist today or not. The figure of the gaucho — like the American cowboy — is tied to a particular historical time and a very specific lifestyle. In this sense, gauchos disappeared by the end of the 19th century. A more liberal interpretation of the term gaucho would suggest that gaucho successors or descendants carry on some of the traditions in clothing and horsemanship, and a number of today’s farmhands could be considered the modern equivalent of the gaucho (except for those who work at tourist locations). Nevertheless, there is still much to be learned from visiting this historical site.
While visiting La Porteña, I realized that the gaucho is the main attraction where he displays his horsemanship, tends to the farm animals, plays his guitar, cooks asado, and entertains his guests. To complement the males’ tasks, most of the women cook inside, serve pastries and empanadas, offer beverages, and clean after their guests. After the daily chores have been completed, one woman may even lead a dance lesson after dinner to complete the experience.
The life led at such an estancia is indeed gorgeous. However, with every beautiful lifestyle, comes its respective hardship as well. Historically, gauchos were either creole or mestizo men. They traveled on horseback and lived off the land spending their free time skillfully playing the guitar or sipping matte. However, in 1846, when British farmers first implemented their invention of the fence in Argentina, farmers began to exercise their right to establish their private property. As a result of privatization, the independent and free-roaming lifestyle of the gaucho came to an end.
In addition, the gauchos who were often considered lazy and barbaric by higher classes, were also admired for their horsemanship and hunting skills. As a result, the oppressive Argentine oligarchy took advantage of their skills and issued an ultimatum for the gauchos: they could either work for the estancias of the upper-class or be immediately drafted into the Argentine military. This ultimatum marked the start of a strict interdependent relationship with its landowning class and the rest of Argentine society. The gauchos produced meat products for export and consumption on both a national and international level. In turn, the profits supported the gauchos and helped stabilize Argentina’s economy. However, the once free-roaming gauchos had little autonomy or voice over the direction of their vocational lives and they, along with other minority groups, only served as working-hands for various estancieros (estancia owners) — tending horses and cattle. Thus, like many underserved minorities, gauchos were forced into an oppressive class structure that ultimately served only the ruling classes of Argentina.
My visit to the Estancia La Porteña provoked me to reflect on my own family and how they were previously affiliated with gauchos of the working-class; but more importantly, how my grandmother escaped this lifestyle by her own wits. My great paternal grandfather, named Raymundo Batalla, was a gaucho in a province located near the northeast side of Argentina called Santiago del Estero. Raymundo fathered many children together with my great grandmother Feliza Avila; but sadly on September 18th, 1920, Feliza died while giving birth to my grandmother, Maria Batalla. Feliza’s death weighed heavily on Raymundo and as a means to cope with the trauma, he abandoned his newborn baby Maria and turned to alcohol.
As a result of Raymundo’s poor choice in coping mechanisms, Maria felt the repercussions that would eventually propel her to escape the negative environment she was dealt with. Before this would occur, Maria was raised by family members that were not her own. Although they loved her, nothing could replace her mother Feliza or substitute the role of her absentee father. Until she was fourteen years old, my grandmother Maria worked as a servant. She cooked, cleaned, and tended to the residents during the day, and at night she traveled back to the pueblito (small town) with her fellow laborers where she would rest and prepare for the following day.
Within her, Maria knew that she could not continue with this lifestyle. While others would have accepted the circumstances, she felt it only held her back from her true potential. She saw the big city as a place of great opportunity; and by remaining on the estancia, Buenos Aires would only be a fleeting image of the kind of life she dreamed for herself. Being that she was a minority, illiterate, and had no solid familial ties, Maria could only be upwardly mobile and had little to lose. In what seemed like fate, an opportunity to abandon this lifestyle finally arose when a guest she became acquainted with offered her a business card to work as a maid in the big city. Despite her illiteracy, and seeing this as the opportunity she had been searching for, she risked running away to the nearest train station. Upon arrival, she showed the conductor the business card that was handed to her, and with that she was granted a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, where new possibilities were waiting to unfold. Among those new opportunities that existed in the city life, was her new found relationship with my grandfather Francisco Penna who taught Maria how to read and write. With this she was able to break free from the illiteracy that ultimately held her back socially and intellectually; and thus Franciso will forever be seen as a gift to not only her and her life but the generations that followed thereafter.
Although my grandmother Maria would remain a housekeeper and later a garment worker in Buenos Aires, her life changing decision is still something to be commended. During the time she lived on the estancia it was all too apparent that she, as did most women of el campo (countryside), would marry a common laborer and bear the children that would only fuel a lifestyle that she no longer saw herself apart of. She was able to overcome the inevitable and take a chance on something she believed in. Even if she couldn’t achieve all that she sought after by moving to Buenos Aires, her generations to come would possess the tools to achieve everything that she was not offered as a young girl. Her sacrifice for the betterment of her future served as an example to my family that we are not defined by the confinements of our social class. Maria, will always be considered a saint to my family who can attest to what life entailed both at an estancia and in the big city. She bridges the two worlds and it is through her and my family’s recounting of her story and contribution to us that her memories stay alive. They add to many others’ personal stories of determination which only enhances Argentine history and culture.