The Harsh Reality of Being an Idiot Abroad

It has come to the point in my study abroad experience where finals are approaching, break-throughs are being made, and everything seems inspiring; The most bittersweet part is that the end of my program is less than a month away, nagging in the back of my mind. I’ve been trying to soak up every detail of the city that I can with my eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs, desperately clinging to what it feels like in the present moment. I don’t want to forget a single thing. Pictures help, but nothing will fully be able to recreate this experience the way I’m living it in this very second.


The 2016 presidential election somehow managed to worm its way into my every thought, despite the fact that I was living on the other side of the world. I started to question my thinking, “metacognitioning” why exactly I was stuck thinking about a decision being made in what might as well have been an alternate reality at this point. I was living and studying in another country, but my mind snuck back home sometimes.


Living in Chile has given me a dramatic new perspective on my role in this world. This is a time in which I have the unique opportunity to live and learn from another culture peacefully and with few diplomatic systems standing in the way of this cultural exchange. I applied for a student visa and in response, Chile granted me permission to learn from them in exchange for me abiding to their country’s rules. This is especially important in that the knowledge that I have acquired here is irreplaceable. In addition, the setting that allows me to study Spanish in all forms has awarded me many compliments. I feel myself making more and more connections every day that I reach out to someone in their native language. Communication is so important and this experience has pushed me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one.


Somehow Santiago de Chile has made me less American and more Chilean. I am not completely one or the other, but rather instead I feel like some other country-less entity looking desperately to share and learn with others. There are many ways to do this, but a great example of an experience related to making connections occurred today.


It was a typical November day in Santiago which means that the sun was out, hinting at the beautiful summer that was only a matter of months away. The streets were hot and the grass was dry in reaction to the changing of the seasons. Spring.


It was hot and nothing seemed more appetizing in the moment compared to a cup of chocolate ice cream. I roamed the streets for a while looking for somewhere promising and ended up walking into a store much like a supermarket I had seen back in Seattle. My eyes narrowed in on a cup of ice cream in an advertisement that promised multiple textures of the stupid candy. Being American, I walked straight up to the counter and inquired about the dessert. However, I tried to enunciate my Spanish clearly in order to figure out exactly: What did it taste like?


Her response took me off guard. She completely turned away from me and said something to her coworker loudly enough for me to hear. It took me a while to piece together what she was saying, but in a few moments I roughly translated what she said to, “I hate when they just walk up here and start talking at me.” My heart felt like it skipped a beat. Without even realising it I had exercised a stereotype of American consumers that she held to be true and I was caught red-handed. I did indeed walk up and directly inquire about the dessert before saying hello or anything. This seemed typical to me, but that was coming from my experience living in Washington and California; it seemed harmless enough to get straight down to business.


I remember saying something about the dessert again, really pining for what I had come for in the first place, but she returned my inquisitions with a hateful stare. I had dug myself into a deeper hole. Before I left I asked her if she had anything that she could sell to me and she just shrugged and shook her head no. I had really done it this time. I had successfully had a conversation, or rather an interaction, with a native-Spanish speaker, but it all might as well have been for nothing because I had broken the cultural norms that this young Chilean woman was accustomed to. I didn’t know any better, of course, but by cutting straight to the chase I avoided the opportunity to ask this woman how her day was going. It must have not been going well, given that she refused my service simply for being an idiot abroad.


With the hindsight that I have now I am finally able to come to a logical conclusion. If I really want to meet people and have them accept me, then I have to change a part of my routine in order to invite them into my life. I need to be mindful and change my perspective from time to time because sometimes we just get caught in our own silent routine. I remember feeling quite depressed after this interaction, but now I feel like I have the tools to be a better student abroad.


Later that same day the heat was just not letting up. I had to make the inevitable decision to interact with another Chilean after just being refused service by someone earlier. I was so scared that I would offend someone again, but alas I walked up to an older woman with her cart selling fruit and simply said “Hola, como estai?”


The woman returned my greeting and seemed ready to start with the transaction. I went on about how hot it was and she agreed that she had noticed too. Her fruit stand was a handmade cart with an umbrella shading her and the cooler filled with fresh fruit that she had brought. I paid for a cup of fruit and then got ready to leave. She asked me if I wanted cream, but she ended her sentence with “o no?” insinuating that it was optional. I asked her in Spanish if it was yogurt or milk because the bottle said “yogurt” on it in English. She said no, that it was more like a sweet creamy topping that she can drizzle over the cup of fruit. I asked her if she liked it; to be honest, I was very curious about it. She laughed and said of course.


Needless to say, I ended up leaving with a delicious snack before my next class feeling good about what I had said. I entered this woman’s life, made sure that she was doing well, and then I contributed to her business. She gave me an important cultural experience, practice with my Spanish, and also a new spin on a snack that I would have otherwise continued eating the same old way.


Being a student abroad can be so rewarding, but only if you are willing to roll with the punches sometimes. It reminds me of how Americans are reacting to the election of Donald Trump with revolts in cities across the nation, but most disturbingly for me, in two cities that I hold dear: Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco, California. Some news articles tell me the worst stories like the tech industry’s plan to secede California in response to the election of a president, exposing the need for a “serious national dialogue” around “rampant sexism, racism and hate that Trump campaign has exposed.”


Words matter a lot in this day and age and it’s about time we started using them wisely. We should spread thoughts of positive change and strive for unity, but that all starts with simple communication. It will be interesting to see how everything plays out after such a massive statement was made by the American people this election season. I can’t wait to return to my home country to express my opinions, but I am also having an amazing experience abroad that I couldn’t be more thankful for.