Study Abroad and Volunteering in Chile
Learning Acceptance of New Ideas
“No,” I said firmly, but with
a smile, “No.” My Chilean host mother responded
with complete silencio, followed by the most crushing
look of disappointment as she retracted my plate full of cooked
octopus and onions from the place mat in front of me. My
stubbornness was sucking the life from the room and in my first
week of life in Concepcion,
Chile, that was not the effect I had hoped to have. In
a futile attempt to smooth things over I gently added in my broken
Spanish, “I’m sorry but I don’t eat the fish
with the eight legs.” She gave me a look of reproach
and said quietly, “Why are you such a frog in un pozo?” Baffled
at first, I skimmed my Spanish/English dictionary to discover
that un pozo means "a well." Shamefully, I
realized that what she had meant was that I was being close-minded,
that it was as if I were a tiny frog, trapped and unable to see
further than the walls of my mental “well.”
After that scolding, I decided against the persistent warnings of my wary stomach and reclaimed my plate. As lunch continued, I made myself a quiet resolution through the labored mastication of that miserably chewy, sponge-like, tentacled flesh. From then on out I knew that no matter what events awaited me in my time in Chile, I did not want to be the frog in the well. Caution is one thing, but what is travel if not the chance to be completely immersed in a different way of life, even if that immersion includes the consumption of things we had never even considered food prior to seeing them on our plates?
The good thing is that the choice to study abroad already proves that most of us are trying to jump out of our wells. We want to see what else is out there and we want to experience it first-hand, not solely through magazines and Travel Channel specials. The unilateral world view that plagues so many Americans is slowly broadening. Now, we do not want to read primary sources; we want to be them.
But once that decision has been made we are left wondering—what is it should I do next to prepare? The answer to that is simple—research. Find out about your new home country’s foods and customs. Learn about their history and their national holidays. All of this has plenty of practical applications. Perhaps if I had known all about all of unique creations that the coastal-dwelling Chileans concoct with fish, I would not have been so vague when I told my host family that I liked seafood.
After my arrival, I was quick to realize that life in Chile is not much different than life in the United States. People did not stop living when I got there and they have kept on living since I have left. Aside from a few idiosyncrasies like lighting a pilot each time I wanted to shower, throwing used toilet paper in the garbage bin aside the toilet because of the poor plumbing system, seeing stray dogs everywhere, and the fact that everyone was speaking Spanish around me—my life proceeded as well. I still woke up every morning, went to class, learned dirty words and funny idioms from my Chilean friends, ate empanadas, went out dancing, and even watched Papi Ricki and other Chilean television shows with my host family. All that was necessary was a willingness to adapt and to become involved in the lives of the people around me so I could be a part of how they live.
Travel became central to the experience. Nearly every weekend I would travel with other students from the program to different parts of Chile and neighboring Argentina. We visited fjords, glacier lakes, sleepy beach towns, lunar landscapes and vibrant cities like Santiago, Valparaiso, Buenos Aires and Mendoza. Other weekends I stayed in Concepción and did things with my Chilean family and friends. We went to the local rodeo, had a big Sunday lunches with all of the extended family and spent time playing paddleball on the beach.
Wherever the situation, whatever the landscape—the key is to be open to exploring. I never would have thought prior to my arrival in Chile that I would climb an active volcano or visit the bottom of the American continent and swim in the frigid Strait of Magellan. But now it is impossible to imagine not having done it.
As the program came to a close, I decided that I was neither satisfied with my level of fluency in Spanish nor my all-too-short three months of adventure. I needed more. I set up a leave of absence with my home university, checked web postings for English teaching jobs, sent resumes to multiple institutions, and waited for responses throughout the summer. As it was next to impossible to find teaching jobs over the summer because it was vacation time, I did not start getting response emails and interview requests until nearly the end. Once the employers began contacting me it became apparent that one of the most essential pieces to selecting a work place is to visit the site and make sure that the terms of your employment are clear. Not only was it beneficial because I could see what I might be getting into, but also because the chance of getting hired increases greatly if you are already present and knocking at potential employers’ doors.
I eventually settled in Vina
del Mar, Chile with a six-month volunteer preschool teacher
position. The job provided for room and partial board
but no monetary compensation. When funds began to run
low and I searched for alternate sources of income and put
an advertisement for English classes in the local Sunday paper.
Much to my astonishment my phone rang constantly for next
two weeks. A simple and easy trip to the local newspaper
office granted me steady classes for the next five months. I
was even contracted to translate a love letter for a Chilean
man who had become enamored with an American woman whom he
had met over his summer holidays. At first I declined,
worried that I would not be able to effectively translate
his Spanish, but after his persistent reassurance I gave in,
realizing that it was still the willingness to try that is
the most important in all of this.
Even more astonishing was the life at the Preschool that tried me in things I had never dreamed of. I was teaching cartwheels and Ballet, ceramics and painting, and reading and writing to Chilean kids aged 2-6 in an English-immersion setting four days a week. That experience provided me with the day I realized that I had finally internalized my own credo of avoiding the "frog in the well" syndrome. As Africa was the topic of the month in the science room, I was asked by the head teacher to incorporate some of its culture into my gym classes. So after a little Internet research and some informational videos I pumped up the volume and taught them everything I knew about Afro-Brazilian dance. While my moves were novice at best, the experience taught me that if I can get a group of 3 year olds to shake their bodies in unison to tribal dance music, I can do just about anything.
When you boil it down, studying and working abroad are about trying different things and molding your world view to incorporate the beliefs of others. Making funny language mistakes, eating interesting food, and possibly getting the chance to swim in the Strait of Magellan or translate Chilean love letters are just part of the bargain. We were meant to adapt; the truth is that leaving home is the hardest part of it all.