In the days leading up to my flight to Chile, I was full of nerves. Nerves were pulling me in to every which direction, to the point where I just didn’t know how to feel. This uncertainty was keeping me up at night scrolling through the web just trying to find something, that would tell me what to expect in Chile. Although I was receiving pre-departure newsletters, I was desperate for more. These newsletters helped me with the things I needed to get in order like Visa, cell-phone abroad and plane tickets. Not so much about the city, what it looks like, pop culture references, and more soft knowledge. I was desperate to get some sense about what my life in Santiago would look like. All the blogs, videos and podcasts I was ingesting were given me some idea of what to expect. Yet, the reality is that I was hearing stories of a tourist Chile. Not accounts of what it is like to live here, to be enrolled in university, surrounded by Spanish or how to navigate the enormous city.
I let my nerves get the best of me, and they led me astray. I should have turned that uncertainty into excitement, eagerness, and willingness to embrace the ‘new-ness’ of the upcoming experience. Throughout orientation we were told to be mindful that we were not acting as tourists, but as observers. Those words have stuck with me since. The greatest difference between a tourist and an observe is that tourists are visiting for short periods of time and not looking to learn or be changed. While observers are like sponges soaking in their surroundings, silent wallflowers.
Whenever I get into a new situation or confused how things work I stop, watch what others are doing and copy. Or if I am feeling particularly confident, I’ll ask for help. The hours I spent watching videos and pouring through blogs were meaningless. Not only was it advice from and for tourists, which I am not; the best thing I could have learned was to adapt, be flexible and to welcome the unknown. Learning to be malleable and versatile has proven to be invaluable these past few weeks.
A more productive use of my late night nerves would have been to catch up with Chilean culture. Whether that be listening to the Top 50 songs, or recent movies or finding a popular television series. While these don’t paint a picture of what your life will look like, they are great conversation starters; locals are impressed when you know some about the culture. It’s also a great way to get introduced into your new surroundings before you are completely surrounded by unknown.
What I wanted to achieve with my abroad experience is to fully understand another culture. Which is a hard task to do in such a short span of time, but takes the ability to turn myself into a sponge. Meaning, I need to be ready to soak up all that is around me in a moment; not prepare days in advance with something else. Moreover, I’ve learned to actively interact with the places, spaces and communities I’ve encountered in Santiago because after all, I came to learn more than observe.
Beatrice Cabrera is a Sociology and Legal Studies major at Bowdoin College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Chilean Universities Program in Santiago, Chile in spring 2019. She served as an International Correspondent through the First Generation Scholarship program.