Early Challenges

Nobody claims that living in a different culture is a piece of cake but more often than not, the biggest challenges come from the smallest things. The big things are the ones that you can expect and prepare for, but the little things come from what you wish you'd known beforehand, what just gets under your skin for no apparent reason, and what you'll just have to get used to.

As I mentioned in my first post, when I arrived in Chile it was winter. Now, I knew that it wouldn't be really warm when I first got there in July but I was so far from prepared for the eternal chill of a Chilean winter it wasn't even funny. In total, I packed two long sleeve shirts and two sweaters and my warmest shoes were tennis shoes. It wasn't long before the freezing house, the foggy, damp days, and the brutal process of showering got to me. It was never the actual temperature that was that harsh, but rather the dampness that stayed in clothes, bath towels (with no dryer) and bodies. Of course the fact that I had just gotten there and was feeling slightly jarred by all the newness made the cold downright depressing. My host ladies lent me gloves and a jacket until I found one that fit me at the mall but in the beginning I spent a lot of hours under my electric blanket. It wasn't for a few weeks that they really understood how cold I was and put a little space heater in my room. Things started looking up from there but in general, a word to the wise: beware the Chilean chill and plan ahead.

Another major challenge I faced in the beginning was adjusting to all the cigarette smoke that you inevitably breathe in Chile. Smoking is still very fashionable to Chileans and really, non-smokers are the minority. I struggled with this as someone who has never been around much secondhand smoke and never smoked personally. That is one of those things that in the end I just had to get used to although the smell made me sick in the beginning. I resented that my hosts smoked inside even though I asked for a non-smoking house and that coming home from a club smelling like an ashtray was normal and basically unavoidable. I still don't care for smoke but I definitely did get used to it. I bought incense for in my room and as the weather got warmer instinctively left clothes hanging in the open window to air out from the night before. Whether or not something bothers you, sometimes there's nothing you can do but take time to get used to it.

One thing that constantly challenged me and made me think was the very fact that I stayed in a house that was kept, essentially, by a butler who cooked, cleaned, gardened, served food on trays and answered to a bell. It wasn't easy to digest; he wasn't exactly doing it by choice but rather from lack of options in life. The idea of being served on a tray in bed was so foreign to me and it just made me uncomfortable so I quickly assured him that if I wanted tea or anything else, I could walk down 15 stairs to make it myself just as well as I could do my own laundry. Besides him, there was a woman who came in once a week to clean. Since that felt equally unnecessary to me, more often than not I'd make sure that everything in my room was right where it needed to be right before she came on Thursday mornings. All in all, I don't know if I ever came to terms with the whole notion of being served. I spent hours in the kitchen with Armando and he became one of my favorite companions. Finally, after me saying a million times that he didn't need to wait on me I think he started to believe me.

Of course there were many little things along the way but these three challenges are a few of the things that I dealt with the most in the beginning...

University Information

In Chile I attended la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV) as a full time student on the direct exchange program between PUCV and Hamline.

On the first day of orientation, a few days after I arrived in Chile, one of my hosts took me to the school and showed me how to take a micro (public bus) from Viña into Valpo where the majority of the University buildings were. The two cities are located side by side at a similar distance as St. Paul and Minneapolis and are connected mainly by one highway that curves along the bay and offers a spectacular view. After the 20 minute or so ride that would soon be so familiar to me, I got there and signed in amidst a bustling bunch of other exchange students, some more at ease than others, and most obviously grateful to just be in the same room as other people speaking their first language. "Rebecca J Golden, Groupo Q" said the sign on the wall so I found my respective table, received my letter sticker, and began the hilarious process of group introductions with all of the other wide-eyed Estadounidenses in my group. There are a wide array of opinions that exchange students have of their own kind. At one end of the continuum are those who would prefer to be the only non-chilean in Chile while at the other end, some cling to their fellow international students from day one. These sorts of attitudes are clear from first introductions and they play a large role in the formation of mini social groups. Personally, I think I fell somewhere in the middle, leaning to the side of wanting to make as many Chilean friends as possible and limiting the time I spent with exchange students. I thought that would be a good idea a. to help my spanish and b. because that was the best way for making the most of the experience, right? Well, to each their own but by the end I realized that the friendships that I formed with Americans and Europeans in Chile were equally important as the ones formed with Chileans. Everyone has something to teach you so my advice to future exchange students would be to keep an open mind and try to make as many friends as possible from both categories.

So after introductions everyone was herded into an auditorium where we were told in carefully dictated Spanish how welcome we were, that we just had to relax, who this and that was from the Oficina de Intercambios, and ultimately that this is among the most wonderful, formative and important times of life. It was funny to sit there though, looking around the room, realizing that those other 57 students -from 15 different countries- were sitting in a similar position, if not the same exact boat that I was. I wondered what exactly I, along with all of those other students, was doing there? What would it mean to everyone in the end? Why is studying abroad somehow worth the sacrifice and uncertainty of leaving one's comfort zone? At that point I still really didn't understand the answers to those questions but with so many people on the same track I thought we must be on to something...

Next we sat around with our group leader, a Chilean student, who talked about what the orientation week would look like. Following that was a reception in the courtyard where the students mingled and drank juice and coffee and ate little crustless avocado sandwiches before yet again being herded, more or less as one giant organism, outside where we watched some performers do a handful of traditional Chilean dances. It was during that reception that I first really saw proof that many of the other students's Spanish was just as broken as mine. From the beginning, using Spanish was a huge concern of mine and it was re-assuring to see that there were students of all levels there and that in relation to the others, I wasn't as much of a beginner as I had thought I was.

During the last part of that first orientation session we all took a language placement test that determined which Spanish class we'd take through the study abroad program as well as what level of other courses would probably be doable according to proficiency with the language. Those types of tests are funny: certain questions are completely affirming and make you feel all sure of yourself and your mad subjunctive, past perfect, or whatever else skills. Other questions do nothing more than prove that you do not indeed have a photographic memory. Its like you can remember the exact page in your textbook or day that you learned it but just can't quite jog your memory enough to see exactly what page 210 (the one with the picture of the man windsurfing, or playing a guitar, or painting a mural) said about imperfect subjunctive sentences. Re-assured or not from seeing that all of the students had different levels of capability with the language, I walked out of that room feeling like, given the chance, the bent paper clip on the floor just might speak better spanish than I could.

For the remainder of orientation week, we got tours of the university, which sprawls out with buildings in both cities. We also registered for classes under the supervision of Chilean students and study abroad office people who made sure that the classes we chose were manageable and that the schedules we wanted were physically possible (i.e. not having two classes 10 minutes apart on opposite sides of the city). All in all orientation was helpful and useful for establishing a few initial connections with people.

During the semester I ended up taking 16 credits that transferred back to Hamline. I took 20th Century Latin American History, The Construction of Collective Memory, Globalization and Chilean Society, Traditional Dances of Chile, General Literature, and Advanced Written and Spoken Spanish.

In general I found taking classes all in Spanish to be challenging but mostly in a positive way. The course material itself was not that difficult but doing it in a second language threw a different twist into it. The hardest course that I took was the literature one where the professor expected the one other exchange student in it and me to work just as proficiently as her Chilean students. Beyond the challenge of language, the initial weeks of scheduling and trying to find and start classes were frustrating because academic organization is a little different there than it is in the US. It isn't uncommon in Chile for a professor to just not show up or for a class to get canceled at the beginning of the semester without notice. Even though it was frustrating for awhile, I really had little choice but to go with the flow and in the end everything worked out.

Arrival in Chile

My experience in Chile started on July 23rd, 2009. I left Minnesota with mixed feelings of apprehension, nervousness, and sadness but also extreme excitement. I traveled alone, nearly opposite of lightly, and with much on my mind. Still everything went smoothly and I arrived in Santiago after just about a half of a day of flying (my flight had two legs separated by a lay-over in Texas).

I landed in Santiago a little after 7am, where the temperature was 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It took only a few minutes to find my bags and get through immigration despite my awkward Spanish. As soon as you leave the customs area you get bombarded by a pack of insistent taxi drivers who don't believe you when you say you have a ride. In addition to them, I was greeted by an older gentleman in a brown suede jacket, tidy looking tie, and scarf with neatly combed white hair and round glasses; he worked for PUCV and had a sign with four names on it, one of them mine.

The trip to Valparaíso/Viña del mar took around an hour and a half. Two other American girls in the exchange program rode with me. Our chauffeur talked a lot about Chile and this and that as drove by it. I picked up most of what he was saying but was so tired that a lot went right through my ears without really reaching my brain. He talked mostly about fruit and the origin of street names. In Viña, the other two girls got dropped off first in big apartment buildings, just a handful of blocks from each other. My host house was a little bit further away in a quieter area with more houses than apartments and shops. We got to my house, which was surrounded by a tall cement wall and were enthusiastically greeted by one of my hosts, Cecilia, who heartily welcomed me and took me inside. She gave me a tour and introduced me to the family "help" - the cook and really, the life blood of the house, Armando, a man in his late 50's who had been with the family for over 20 years.

After I carried my ridiculously heavy suitcases up to my room and got my bearings a little, Cecilia took me on a drive in her little white car all around Valpo. It was really nice, she showed me where to catch the micros (buses) to get to school, the big ocean port, the financial district, the congress, some old buildings, some quaint little streets, etc. From the very beginning I was struck by these cities. Viña and Valpo are so picturesque. The buildings are all colorful and each one has its own distinct character. The streets wind about somewhat illogically in certain parts of the city, especially in Valpo and are, in a lot of cases perched up on steep hills giving the whole area a much more three-dimensional feeling than elsewhere. On my first day there I was already reporting home about how charming and almost poetic I found it.

After our drive, we came home for lunch and Cecilia introduced me to her sister, Veronica, my other host. Cecelia was in her mid fifties and worked as an accountant or broker or something (I never actually understood). Veronica was in her late 50's and spent most of her time restoring antiques to be sold in her friend's shop downtown. Neither of them were married so with Armando it was just the four of us. From the beginning everyone was very welcoming to me, willing to answer questions and help me get situated. On my second day the three of us took a drive down to Reñaca, the next town down the coast- a major tourist hub during the summer months.

By Chilean standards the house I stayed in was nice and relatively large. The house was clean and nicely furnished. There were antiques and random pieces of art everywhere and a little yard with some really beautiful flowers and a small in-ground pool. Being on the coast, Viña was warmer than the 30 degrees into which I arrived in Santiago but it was definitely cold and the house had no central heat which made it feel very chilled for the first 2 months that I was there. My own bedroom had a little desk and a TV in it. The desk proved exceedingly useful as nobody spent much time in the common areas of the house except for lunch but the TV got demoted to the closet for taking up too much room and never being used. Unlike some of the other exchange students, I had access to a relatively stable wi-fi connection at my house which proved to be extremely convenient especially for homework, entertainment during the cold early days, and generally connecting with home via facebook, email, and late night skype sessions when everyone else in the house was sleeping.

During my first few days in Chile I did very little. It was cold outside and I didn't have any friends there yet. I got there almost a week before orientation so I had nothing I needed to go to in the first place. I was itching to get out and "experience Chile" but at the same time having a few days to learn my house a little and sort of ease into everything was probably a constructive, healthy way to begin. The first few days somewhere new can feel like being hit by a truck. You're tired from traveling, from trying to think in a different language, and just generally from the consumption of all things new. Being so excited for so long about the trip, I never took the time to stop and think about how hard it is, especially at first, to be thousands of miles away from the people who love you most, especially in the beginning before you feel much love in your new surroundings. I didn't actually get depressed but it was certainly more taxing than I had previously thought and I had some definite low moments. I just kept reminding myself how badly I had wanted it all and that it was only a matter of time before Chile started to feel like a new home. That along with encouragement from Minnesota really got me through the first few days.