Chile Up Close as a Teen
A One-Year Exchange
Last year I lived in Chile for
half a year as an exchange student with the American
Field Service (AFS). Compared to most visitors, I
didn't travel much. I lived with a Chilean family and
had the responsibilities of any Chilean teenager. I went
to school every day, in uniform. I had good days and
bad days and days that I didn't understand.
Chuquicamata, my host community,
is a mining camp high in the Atacama desert. Tourists
come to see the mine, but no one stays longer than a
day. There is no discotheque, no shopping center, no
anthropological museum or beach. Driveways must be watered
daily to keep the dust down.
When I arrived in "Chuqui," I
was scared. It was so different from the temperate, urban
middle-class America I was accustomed to. There were
stray dogs on the streets, and a constant cloud of brick-colored
dust came from the mine. There was no downtown, few smoothly
paved streets, and little to do for entertainment. The
people worked extremely hard. Students were worried about
escaping to college in Antofagasta, Santiago, or some
wetter place down south. Rain was a rare phenomenon;
earthquakes and windstorms were frequent.
I had studied Spanish 2 1/2 years
and was always one of the best students in my class.
But in my first week in Chile I was barely able to communicate
and desperate for one person to whom I could explain
my shock. I couldn't speak the thoughts in my headand
there were so many.
Most exchange students experience
this. Culture shock reveals itself in everything from
increased aggression toward the people to lack of appetite
or weight gain and depression. Being an exchange student
requires suspending all judgments. At the same time,
it is part of the learning process to become aware of
what one does assume. Being an exchange student is not
As time passed, everything changed.
I began to forget words in English and to dream in Spanish
and crave Chilean food. I got used to not depending on
costly things for fun. Fun in Chuquicamata was being
with people. The stray dogs didn't seem so strange anymore.
The American sitcoms that came in on cable really did
I began to identify myself less
and less as a gringaI wasn't like the tourists
that passed though the downtown, loaded with lots of
special gear. I was more a member of "tercero B," my
class at school, or at least a gringa who also knew a
little something about being Chilean.
I took math, physics, chemistry,
biology, two history classes, Spanish, art, and philosophyfor
which I received a half a credit in global studies. Somehow
my high school couldn't figure out a way to relate my
experience to its curriculum.
But the sacrifices were nothing compared
to the gain. I learned how to accept as well as to succeed
in another culture. I now know the world is my community
and have a much deeper understanding of both myself and