Two years ago, I sat on the plane to Paraguay, the heart of South America, for my Intercultural Exchange with AFS. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous, but I had moved around to many different countries with my family my entire life, and I was convinced my 2 years of high school Spanish was at least enough to keep a conversation going. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Landing at the airport, I remember going through customs and immigration and the man asking me “Hablas español?”.
Very self-assured, I responded that yes, I do speak Spanish. The man threw a bunch of questions at me and I soon realized I had made a huge mistake. It was a groundbreaking discovery: people in real life don’t talk how they do on the listening CDs in language classes, where you have to fill in the blanks in your workbook. People in real life speak at a normal speed, they don’t excessively articulate every word and they definitely don’t have a pause and rewind button so you can repeat their sentence 5 times. My perplexed look blew my cover and the kind man immediately changed to English. I guess I wasn’t the first overconfident foreigner that he had encountered.
Living in a new country where you don’t speak the language is a struggle. Everyone spoke to me in Spanish, my host family, my classmates at the university, the waiters at the restaurant. Sign language only got me so far, and often lead to misunderstandings. At parties strangers would approach me to start a conversation but that was quickly shut down as they realized I couldn’t say much more than my name, my age, and where I’m from. When I was with my new group of friends they would try to accommodate, talking slowly to me and using gestures, but I never got the jokes, and would often find myself so discouraged I’d simply stop trying. There is a unique kind of loneliness associated with being the only one in a room who can’t speak a language. People had so much to say to me, and I had so much to say to them, but talking to me was effectively talking to a wall.
My host sister, Maia, spoke English very well and was studying translation, but rarely granted me the chance to speak to her in English. “Como vas a aprender si hablamos en ingles?” She had a point, how was I going to learn Spanish if we spoke English to each other? But I was frustrated. If someone ever tells you learning a language is an easy process, they’re lying. Some days I’d wake up not wanting to speak to anyone, simply too emotionally exhausted to try. The days I did wake up confident, and this more often than not led to some awkward misunderstandings.
I remember my host mum had sent me to Stock, the local supermarket, a few weeks into my exchange to buy 500 grams of cheese. Now, this seems like a pretty basic task, right? Now try it in a language you barely know, in a country you’ve been in for less than a month, with names of cheese you’ve never learnt. Looking through the glass counter at all my options, I panicked. Not wanting to keep the people in the line behind me waiting, I pointed at the queso sandwich, because surely, I can’t go wrong with sandwich cheese? and stammered
“Quinientos kilos de queso sandwich por favor.”
I let out a sigh of relief. I guess my textbook Spanish was useful after all. The man behind the counter looked at me with a mix of confusion and sheer astonishment. Assuming he had simply not understood me because of my broken accent, I repeated my order:
“Quinientos kilos de queso sandwich por favor.”
The woman next in line, clearly enjoying the unusual situation by the way she was giggling, said
“Quinientos kilos o quinientos gramos?”
After a few seconds it clicked. I had ordered 500 kilograms of cheese, rather than just 500 grams. After correcting myself I quickly took the cheese and walked home. Thankfully that was over. At least that’s what I thought. After proudly handing over the cheese to my host mum she laughed
“Para que compraste queso sandwich, mi hija?”
Wrong cheese, of course.
Despite all the failures, which really sucked at the time but now make for some great stories, I slowly started to pick up words. After a month or two I could more or less understand what was being said in a conversation. I distinctly remember the moment I realized I was actually making progress when I was sitting in the kitchen eating my chipa, a traditional baked cheese roll, a popular snack in Paraguay, and could actually understand what was being said on TV. All that effort and frustration, which had for so long seemed to be in vain, finally paid off.
It took me a few more months and plenty more mistakes to get the hang of it, but I learnt a few valuable lessons about language during my time in Paraguay. I noticed how many people around me appreciated when I spoke to them in their own language. Not only could they finally communicate with me beyond small talk, they saw how much I valued their language and their culture. It gave me the chance to deepen myself into their traditions as I could teach them about mine, as cultural exchange is nearly impossible when language acts as a barrier. I no longer felt alone in a crowd, and I could laugh along and express myself in ways I couldn’t before. Perhaps most importantly, I actually understood what I was singing when I was out with friends at a karaoke bar.
So, here’s a big thank you to my host sister, because she was right, you can’t learn a language unless you get past the frustration and failures and put yourself into situations where you have no other choice BUT to speak it. Thanks to her and all my friends in Paraguay, next time I land in Asuncion, I can walk up to the man at customs and confidently say that yes, this time I do speak Spanish.
- Pauline Bekkers '21
A balmy Ramadan night in Jakarta, Indonesia, the city flickers with dimly lit warungs, or eateries, staying open until late. Two friends and I loiter at a warung and take turns poking at the small cut-up pieces of toasted chocolate bread – sure, not my classic cheesy pizza extravaganza, but still decent. They were friends from high school, we had spent a year apart, a year of many firsts, things had changed, but we still were teasing Lars about the taxi driver that swindled him into paying an extra Rp. 100,000 (approx. 6 USD).
Growing up all my life in Jakarta, but originally from Argentina, my experiences were very unique to me. Naturally, however, when you are 15,217 kilometers from the rest of your family in a different country, an innate desire to build a likeminded community around you stems within you in order to find comfort in the unfamiliar.
To the average Indonesian I was the “bule” (a Javanese word for albino), or when questioned further I then was, “Maradona,” and later, “Messi.” I normalized feeling absolutely foreign and out of place because at the same time I could feel at home hanging out with friends who felt the same way. This is how I felt like I belonged.
Graduation, college, new lives, new people, and new experiences: it’s time to get ready for the “best four years of your life” (Rachelle, BedBath&Beyond ™ Sales Associate, 2017).
But what happens when you leave all that you’ve known, and yet it’s still not home? Your friends and their families move back to other countries for good, your close group of friends are scattered in universities in different time zones. In Indonesia you still need a visa, in Argentina you are called the Indonesian, and in an American college who knows what you are.
The high school group chat struggles to stay afloat in your “Most Recent” and drowns under a list of new names, maintaining your streaks becomes a futile side hustle, but a photo on your camera roll from senior year spring break still tugs at your heart, flips your stomach, and floods you with nostalgia.
I’ve struggled with my understanding of home for a while now. Many students, international students alike, have a home or place of origin where they can travel back to see their friends, family, and feel like they belong. When I came to Pomona I grieved, and still do, at the fact that I did not have a physical home. I have a strong affinity to Indonesia and Argentina, but I will never feel like I truly belong in either. I desperately clung onto my dear group of high school friends, because apart from my family, they gave me my sense of home and belonging – but it’s difficult to hinge your sense of home on a person, especially when they too are in a state of change and transition.
I will never have a physical home, but all I can do is feel at home with the feelings that I’ve once associated a sense of belonging with. Home is laughing with a friend to the point that you start wheezing, humidity and pollution tangling my hair on the back of an ojek, cold papaya cut into cubes, reciting TechN9ne’s “Dysfunctional,” pappardelle on Sundays, the sound of torrential tropical rain, Bless Rp. 50,000 smoothies, an alarm waking me up at 5:15am, and listening to “Sunset Lover.”
Home was also right then – crouched around a bench in a roti bakar street eatery with two friends laughing over the same things and hearing the same blaring noise of traffic echo into the night.
- Marina Peñéñory '21
ISMP community members will be posting blogs and other media regularly!