When I imagined my study abroad experience, I pictured myself having thought-provoking discussions with my host family, studying in my favorite local café, and exploring the beauty of South America on the weekends. While I still imagine those things for myself, my first week in Chile taught me that I will have to wait a while for those musings to become reality.
My current experience is quite antithetical to my lofty visions. At mealtime conversations, I usually only catch on to about 70% of what is being said. When I contribute something, I almost always end up laughing at myself for making an elementary Spanish error. The only shop I’ve frequented in my neighborhood is the pharmacy, where I mistakenly bought shampoo instead of conditioner and topped up my cell phone with $2 instead of $20. I’ve hardly explored Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, the neighboring city where I live, so I haven’t even thought about venturing beyond the regional limits yet.
Starting afresh in a new city on a new continent speaking a language I have yet to master is like returning to childhood. I’m learning social norms, making grammatical mistakes, and need help with simple tasks like catching the correct bus. I even rely upon my host mom for rides and meals. After two years of college, paying my own bills, cooking my own meals, and living quite independently, the return to the cradle is quite jolting.
Although I often feel like a 5 year-old here, it’s given me a new appreciation for small victories. When I took the bus alone for the first time, I was proud of myself for paying with the correct bill and getting off at the right stop. I taught my host mom’s granddaughter the card game “Speed” entirely in Spanish. At lunch yesterday, I understood everything my host mom and sister were talking about and even participated heavily in the conversation. Before this experience, I never would have considered taking pride in catching a bus, teaching an easy card game, or talking. In Chile, baby steps are room for celebration.
As fumbling as I am here, I am so thrilled with my decision to study abroad in South America. I know I will learn so much and grow vastly as an individual. Already I’m learning to adapt and be patient with myself. Besides, with the beach only a five-minute walk from my house, how could I be anything but happy?