Choosing to study abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico two years ago was an easy decision for me. I was minoring in Spanish and knew that living in a Spanish-speaking country for five weeks would greatly improve my language comprehension skills as well as push me out of my comfort zone, which it did. I was also very aware of the fact that I was going to be a visitor in a host country and that I would need to respect cultural customs and behavior patterns. Of course, it was inevitable that I would experience minor bouts of culture shock. For example, brushing my teeth with a bottle of water and putting my toilet paper in the trash can instead of flushing it down the toilet took some getting used to, but none of these examples kept me from getting the most out of my time in Mexico.
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in any study abroad program is through a homestay, which is what my university offered. I lived with a host family along with two other girls from my program, as well as with a few other students from various American universities. I was expecting a somewhat communal experience with the students in my home. Before moving into my home, I imagined we would be sharing stories of our time in Mexico over breakfast and engaging in thoughtful exchange in Spanish. However, after my first breakfast with some of the other students in our host home, I soon realized my peers had other priorities for their study abroad experience. Below are just a few examples to illustrate what I mean.
First, one of my fellow housemates left early from breakfast every morning to go to Starbucks before school. I couldn’t understand why she chose to do this since our host family provided homemade coffee upon our request.
A few weeks later, two new students began their homestay with us, and during our first breakfast,I began speaking to them in Spanish, since that’s what our host family asked us to do. As soon as I said, “!Hola!,” I was met with confusion. “Do you speak English?” they asked me. “Yes,” I responded. “Okay, good,” they answered back. I didn’t know whether or not I should continue speaking in Spanish, or carry on our stunted conversation in English, despite my host family’s request that we try speaking in the native language. I decided to finish my breakfast in silence.
Finally, I was asked to communicate to the housekeeper that one of these girls wasn’t feeling well, and that she only wanted to eat fruit for breakfast. Despite feeling as though I was their personal interpreter, and rather than reminding them that the purpose of staying with a host family was so that they could practice their Spanish, I kept my thoughts to myself and did what they asked. Ultimately, I did this because I wanted to make them feel comfortable.
After having had time to reflect on my whole experience I realize now how these collective experiences made me feel as though my study abroad expectations were so different from that of my peers.
There’s a certain sense of comfort many American students carry with them on their study abroad exchange. Whether it’s getting coffee at a familiar location, or speaking in English as much as possible, many students fail to acclimate into the culture they’re studying in, and to fully embrace the challenges that come with living in a new country, communicating in a new language, and abiding by an entirely different set of cultural norms. Studying abroad allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and try my best to live like a local. I loved curiously exploring a country that I had never visited before, and would advise those who are planning on studying abroad to do so as well. If you let yourself experience all your host country has to offer, whether it’s the local cuisine, language, etc. you’ll be thoroughly surprised at how much more you’ll get out of your program than if you stay closed off in a bubble as an average American tourist. Oaxaca gave me some of the greatest memories I can think of in recent years and I think that was due in large part to my perspective as a inquisitive student.