Journey to the Corner of the Earth: Arriving in Santiago, Chile
I honestly felt like an astronaut as I boarded that international flight heading from Atlanta to Santiago. I’m not talking about a contemporary astronaut going on a trip to the moon. I felt more like I was in some kind of time dilation science fiction story where the interstellar space traveler is about to leave Earth for a long journey, traveling faster than the speed of light, only to return (if they return at all) having aged much slower than those they lived behind. The world and people they once knew? Gone…
Okay, this kind of science fiction mentality might seem crazy, but I genuinely felt like my study abroad experience would fundamentally not only change me as an individual, but the United States would be a very different place to me when I return. I made sure to really spend time and appreciate my life in the U.S. before studying broad.
Many other students studying abroad are already well into their programs, having left the United States in early January. The schedule of the Chilean universities is the opposite of that of the American academic system. With an extra month and a half before my program start date, I tried to take advantage of all the free time. I traveled quite a bit in January and February, visiting friends and family from Amherst to Boston to Washington, I worked for my parents, and I even fit in a short internship in January. It was by far the longest winter break I’ve ever had!
Fast forward to my time sitting on the plane, about to land in Santiago. I pulled out my phone to take a quick photo of the mountainous landscape below me from my plane window. “Santiago, Chile. I’m finally here,” I thought to myself. I had arrived in my new home for the next five months. While it’s winter at Amherst College, it’s summertime here in Santiago. I would be lying if I didn’t confess that I had been slightly jealous once my friends begun to post study abroad photos from Europe (meanwhile, I anxiously counted down the days for Chile. However, last week, as I stepped out of the airport into a bright South American summer day, I realized the wait was well worth it.
Any potential cultural shock in Santiago was delayed for students in my program since we spent nearly four full days in a hotel in Santiago for an orientation that was quite reminiscent of that designed for Amherst College’s incoming new students. Like “Camp Amherst,” as Amherst’s orientation is fondly known, IFSA-Butler’s “Camp Gringo” (as North Americans are affectionately called here) was also complete with free pens and bags from my study abroad program. Jokes aside, I honestly found the orientation the program planned before we would meet our host families very helpful. I had plenty of time to talk with other students from all around the country about their life in the United States and their goals for study abroad.
Each day of orientation, I felt less alone in my anxiousness about studying so far away from home. The first day the other program students and I decided to speak exclusively in Spanish to prepare ourselves for full lingual immersion in Chilean society after the orientation. It was nice to practice speaking with American students at a similar level of Spanish who I could relate to, before fully immersing myself with my Chilean family.
As I write this from ten stories above the streets of Santiago in my host family’s apartment, it feels strange to be thinking and writing again in English. I haven’t had a full conversation in English for almost a week now. However, I can sense that my conversational skills have improved dramatically due to this unending use of Spanish over a couple weeks. After five months of studying and living in Chile, I know I’ll eventually be quite proficient in the language. All my classes will be in Spanish, so I’m excited to not just improve conversationally in Spanish, but also academically as well.
At Amherst, every week, I would attend my two Spanish classes per week, have a conversation with a Spanish-speaking friend, and maybe attend a Spanish Department event. It was a part of my college experience but my Spanish-speaking side only had to manifest at certain times. However, living in Santiago is quite different. There are no breaks from speaking Spanish in Chile. My second-language will be my only language and the one I’ll have to use in order to survive and thrive. I can’t fallback on English if I get stuck on a word or phrase. Spanish isn’t optional or infrequent any more like it was as a Spanish-speaker at Amherst, it’s a necessity now that I’m living in a huge South American city where only a small portion of the native-born population opts to study and speak English.
I’ve settled in pretty well with my host family. They are a kind, older couple who appreciate having conversations with all of the international students that they host. I’ve discussed a variety of topics with “Chia” (short for Cecilia) and “Pato”* (short for Patricio), from common Chilean phrases to the politics of indigenous self-determination in Chile. My host parents are also quite interested in American culture. I was surprised by how much American music they listened to around the house and how captivated they were by the nominations and winners for the Oscars. American influence not only affects the economic and political life of Chile, but also seems to enter the cultural and domestic sphere of Chilean citizens. I didn’t realize how knowledgeable and engaged Chileans were regarding American culture.
Thinking back to the number of times I had to explain to fellow Americans where Chile was on a map before coming here, I feel somewhat embarrassed for my home country. Why is it that Chileans know so much about our culture and history, but many Americans have trouble pinpointing Chile’s general geographic location? Moreover, Chileans seem to be aware of American ignorance toward their country. I told my Pato how some of my extended family members thought studying abroad in Chile would be quite dangerous compared to Europe, but he was hardly surprised by their lack of knowledge about everyday life in Santiago. Americans seem to have an overstated sense of the danger of Latin American cities thanks to consistently perpetuated stereotypes and exaggerations about drugs and violence.
Although I didn’t touch on identity abroad too much with this first blog post, I do intend to comment extensively on the theme in my future reflections. Once I get more settled in to life in Santiago and start taking classes with Chilean students, I think I’ll have quite a few thoughts to share about cross-cultural differences regarding race, gender, sexuality, and nationality for an international student in Santiago.
Anyway, that’s it for now! Hasta luego! (See you later!)
*For those that don’t know, Pato, the nickname of my host father, translate to “Duck” in English!