Half way through my semester abroad in Valparaíso, Chile, I experienced an important turning point in my journey. My host mother sat me down and asked if I was happy with my living situation. I never felt completely comfortable living with my host parents during the first two months in Chile but I could not pinpoint the issue. My host mother helped me realize that I had been coming across as aloof. I knew I had been very reserved in the beginning as I became accustomed to the new culture. I realized that I had put up invisible walls and did not communicate enough with my host family. The issue was how to become accustomed to living at home with a family while going to university. I was very familiar with coming and going as I pleased at university in the U.S without having to answer to anyone. Even though I lost some independence that I had in the States, I gained two caring host parents.
After that moment, I interacted more with my host family which boosted my happiness and comfort. I know that my timidity is a part of who I am and awkward silences are sometimes unavoidable. At first I was upset that I may have wasted the first two months of my study abroad journey. Then I realized that it was an incredible learning experience. Since then I have been living by this quote: “Optimist: someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s more like a cha-cha”.
My constant struggle with the language Castellano (Chilean Spanish) closely ties with this. I would be so concerned about what to talk about in Spanish with my host family during meals that I would sit silently with thoughts whirling around in my head. I learned to just talk and not worry so much about making grammatical errors. Some days were easier than others and I could tell that my Spanish improved when I decided to just let things be.
I also had an internal struggle with English. I would feel guilty for conversing in English with my friends instead of practicing Spanish. I would then silently fight with myself instead of interact with my friends. I put so much pressure on myself to reach a high level of fluency in Spanish while abroad. I realized that I would not magically become fluent and I needed to make peace with this. Every day I spoke Spanish, as well as English occasionally with friends.
My Spanish improved tremendously over the five months which was often difficult to see. It is most important to view the improvement from when I arrived to when I returned to the United States rather than compare myself to others or wish that I were closer to fluency. So many people told me as I left the States that I would come back fluent in Spanish. I returned improved and more confident which is more important to me than the end goal. The journey is more important than the destination.
Rhiannon Williams is a student at Oregon State University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler on the Chilean Universities Program, Valparaiso, in 2014.