Being abroad wasn’t going to change my life. My month in Santiago, Chile was going to be contained in a neat little bento box of experiences—exciting? Check. Required abroad lessons learned? Check. Expanded concept of the world? Check. But it would not change me. I refused to return as the stateside student with shining eyes and the words “life-changing” bubbling out of my mouth. And I didn’t … for the most part.
What did change was this crazy, all-encompassing awareness of myself at every moment of every day. Not in an annoying “‘Wow, Mags you are growing so much!’ way” — but the way that terrible insecurity made me feel every inch of my discomfort and myself.
This determination not to change and the anxieties that followed made questions run rapid-fire through my mind, always.
“Is this Instagram I’m posting appropriate or obnoxious for a study abroad student?” “Do I really look THAT white?” (The answer is always yes.) “Why do they eat hot dogs with avocado?”
Worse still, these fears reverberated through my head at twice the volume because my basic Spanish was in no way sophisticated enough to communicate. The verbs I used most while I struggled to speak Spanish were “tener” and “querer,” “I have” and “I want.” The daily insecurities gave me this desire to pin myself on a map. In a literal sense, I always wanted to know where I was in that strange place, but there was also a figurative desire to orient myself. “I have” and “I want” were often the easiest ways to identify myself in that moment.
Witnessing the second largest wealth gap in the world, I felt split between two experiences—something I was painfully aware of—and my desire for indemnity was even stronger. My homestay was in a fairly middle class neighborhood, my university in one of the nicest parts of the city, and my service placement, a homeless men’s shelter, in one of the poorest areas of Santiago.
One night after service on my journey home through social classes on the metro man sat next to me and grabbed my hand. My nerves were already frayed from working all afternoon.
Despite me shrinking away he began to stroke it and coo things like “lolita” and “chiqitita.” I pushed away from him to get off at my stop but he grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. My weak Spanish betrayed me once again—he either said “You should have fear” or “You shouldn’t have fear.”
In Spanish, tener—I have—is also used to express certain states of being. “I am cold/afraid” literally translate to “I have cold” or “I have fear.” Being and having became one and the same in moments like this on the metro. In that moment, I was the small, scared white girl who only had fear and a want to be somewhere far, far away from where she was at that moment.
Both of my poor translations were so comically not soothing, and I walked to my Chilean home in tears. I then had about 20 minutes get myself dolled up for a fancy birthday dinner at a wine bar. In that moment, I wanted one experience or the other. The distance of an hour on the metro to bridge the bars and museums from the poverty was not enough to ease myself between the two worlds. Most days I had whiplash.
Studying abroad turned me inside out; it opened me to the world in a way that hurt so incredibly much that I couldn’t help but cry almost every night for the first two weeks.
But those days passed. The first time a Chilean man yelled “gringa!” (white girl!) at me from across the street and I did not turn red was huge victory. Things like one of my fellow classmates being able to finally get money out of ATMs that were previously not working were enough to make me throw my arms up and genuinely shout with joy. I fell in love with certain slices of the city and the funny Chilean colloquialisms.
Despite the fact that I was seeing things I had never seen before and I will, perhaps, never see again, my level of awareness did not decrease and I did not stop having and wanting.
Time passed, and living in Chile turned into loving Chile and then leaving Chile. I am now painfully aware that I clutch my bag a little too tight on BC’s campus and that every once and awhile a Spanish word will slip out of my mouth. I have become one of those students who was changed because of abroad. It’s not something I ever wanted, but it is something I will always have.
Featured Image by Maggie Powers / Heights Editor