A Word to the Wise
The following is a heartfelt letter I wrote to the incoming IFSA students to Costa Rica. It is a summation of how I handled culture shock. It feels very personal putting this on an open blog forum such as this, but I feel my advice can apply to any study abroad experience.
You guys arrive tomorrow, I´m so excited for you! My own arrival was so surreal, I remember it now more like a dream than like something that actually happened. Although you guys have probably been pummeled by advice through emails from IFSA, friends, family, what you´ve read in guidebooks, I have my own to impart. Please take time out of your busy packing and emotional preparation to hear me out.
I came to Costa Rica with a suitcase, shoulder bag, and a backpack filled with all the things I thought I would need for an entire year. I actually congratulated myself. I was pretty proud of having packed so lightly. Anything I forgot I could buy in Costa Rica. What couldn´t be bought could be done without. I arrived in Liberia and lived out of my suitcase for a week. It didn´t take long for me to realize, however, that I had packed too much.
My suitcase was full of toiletries and clothes, books, and small trinkets from home. It wouldn´t have weighed so much, except I packed it to the brim with expectations. I can tell you from experience, they weigh more than you can imagine.
All of the witty guidebooks and alluring shots of beach panoramas pasted together an image of Costa Rica that I was only too happy to see. Scarlett Macaws and Leatherback sea turtles patiently awaited us eager exchange students. Billowing smoke rolled off active volcanoes. Everything was verdant and clean, everything was postcard quality. I read about the ticos as if they were another species. The more I knew about them the more readily I could accept their culture, I told myself.
No matter how many times you read about culture shock you will still never be prepared to experience it. I knew about tico time. I read how close tico families are and how kids never move out. I actually laughed with incredulity about houses not having real addresses. I knew the facts. I didn´t know the reality or how to handle it.
After a month of lugging around my suitcase I was too exhausted to drag it further. It was just too heavy. The only thing I could do was throw things out. I was drowning in stress and my expectations, already thoroughly butchered, were a ball and chain pulling me down. Culture shock is a sneaky predator. She wields frustration and doubt, but her greatest trick is expectation. Inevitably it is a trap from which we must all untangle ourselves. I have been living in Costa Rica for six months and even now my sandbag of expectation is still leaking, riddled with tiny holes. I can´t wait until it is empty.
Costa Rica is a marvelous place. It is more charming than I could ever have imagined and its beauty is breathtaking. It didn´t fill my National Geographic derived expectations. Rather, it crumpled them up and gave me something better. I´m in love with a country where exotic parrots fly over parks pockmarked with debris and potholes. I´m charmed by a people that say ´thank you´ to mean ´no´ and hug you upon first introduction. Quaint, raw, devastatingly beautiful, and thoroughly refreshing can hardly begin to describe this country.
I cannot ask you to not pack your expectations. That would be impossible. Instead, I ask you to pack one additional item- patience. Patience for another custom, patience for a new experience, for your ability to cope, but most of all patience for yourself. It takes time, tears, and all the patience in the world to adapt yourself. I assure you though, it is worth it.
On that note, I wish you un buen viaje and that you travel safely. I can´t wait to meet you in Monteverde!