Sunday, August 10, 2008

An Unexpected Transformation

**This is an essay that I wrote for the Student Diplomat Essay Contest back in Nov. 2007 about my study abroad experience. I didn't win, but I'm really proud of this piece of writing and thus would like to share it.**

I wanted to shed every aspect of being a gringa the moment I arrived in Chile. Had you asked me what being a gringa meant, I probably could not have replied with a clear idea because I had never really given any thought as to what being American meant to me. All I knew at that point in my life was that I wanted to step outside my box and put 110% into becoming Chilean. The results of my energy spent trying to change from a gringa to a chilena would not end as I had expected. Instead of experiencing a complete identity change, I would evolve into a chilenguita.

Before I had even left, I had researched the Chilean culture. I knew the slang words like cachái and po. I did not pack one t-shirt with graphics or sayings in English, because I did not want to stand out in any way, shape, or form. But even so when I first arrived, it was apparent that I was not from Chile. Using the micros (the public transportation), figuring out where to buy something as simple as chapstick or remembering to bring enough change to use a restroom were all concepts not natural to an American. Going to the grocery store for the first time was more than an adventure. I went to the cold section to find milk and eggs. Neither were there. The milk was boxed and hardly recognizable. The eggs were located next to the spaghetti. I didn’t buy either item as I was too perplexed at not finding them in the cold section. Buying fruits and vegetables requires weighing and pricing your items before going to the check-out line—which is something I only figured out as I was being yelled at while in the check-out line.

I tried my best to learn what I could as fast as possible. I spent the majority of the evenings during the first month or so in Chile with my host family: staying at home and playing board games, attending family functions, or running errands with my host mom. I often observed how people behaved in public, noted the things that were “different” and learned to change my behavior and think like a Chilean. It was somewhere around the five month mark that I stopped feeling like a gringa trying to be Chilean and just felt like a chilena. I finally had settled into classes and was able to understand what I was taught; however, it wasn’t my classes that made me feel Chilean, it was my life outside of the classroom. The bond that I built within the community was strong. I watched the local news and knew the Chilean celebrities. I was hooked on the Chilean version of "Married with Children", a show that I once had thought was a silly remake. As I became more familiar with the Chilean lifestyle, the show ceased to be a cheesy knock-off and became a culturally astute satire that mimics Chilean society. It was the small things in the daily routine that made an impression on my life. For the 21 years before I went to Chile, I hated hot tea. I now feel like my day is incomplete without a steaming mug of Ceylon tea and an once (afternoon snack) of toast with sliced avocado. With every day that passed, I felt my roots growing deeper in the Chilean culture.

Returning to the United States after living abroad for over a year has been one of the most challenging things I have ever had to do. Just when I had truly become comfortable in the new life I was leading, I was pulled away and thrown back into the shell of what I used to be—a shell which no longer fits. In the weeks that led up to my departure to the U.S., I was faced with the reality that I didn’t know who I would be when I got back home. Would I just go back to being the old Tyffanie? Would I not resemble her at all? How would I balance the two? The thought of having to lead a double-life was not appealing, but I had no other means with which to try and deal with the fact that I wasn’t just the old Tyffanie anymore.

My worries were alleviated a mere month before I came home on July 4, 2007. I received an email from the U.S. Embassy a few weeks before the 4th of July, inviting me (and all U.S. citizens) to a flag-raising ceremony that was to be held on the Embassy grounds. It was a warm wintery Wednesday morning and I decided to attend the event. When else would I get to celebrate our Independence Day at the Embassy in another country? I have hopes of one day working at the U.S. Embassy in Chile, so I figured that perhaps I would also have the opportunity to meet the Ambassador while I was there. I was quite surprised at the turnout and grandeur of the event. Starbucks was providing free coffee and snacks, a local private school choir was onsite to perform, there were several military officers in attendance and easily around 100 Americans were gathered to celebrate.

There was a patriotic spirit in the air that I have never felt so strongly before—not at a baseball game, not on a previous 4th of July celebration, never. There was just something different about all of us Americans, gathered around a flagpole on the other side of the world, sipping on Starbucks coffee and eagerly awaiting the event to begin. It began with the children’s choir and the raising of the U.S. flag by the U.S. Marine Detachment Color Guard. We stood and watched as the men serving our country marched from the embassy doors to the flagpole, attached the symbol of our country and raised it up while we sang The Star Spangled Banner. That very moment sent shivers down my spine and brought tears to my eyes. I finally realized that I had missed being American and that it was something just as important to me as being Chilean. Instead of trying to be one or the other, at last I could just let the two mix.

Today, instead of seeing myself as purely American, I see myself as the best of both cultures. Chile is still a huge part of my life and the lessons that I learned while living there have changed me forever. They aren’t things that I can just turn on or off, depending on which country I am located in; they are permanent changes that have increased my awareness and changed my perspective of my role as a U.S. citizen. I have been blessed with the opportunity to bring back a new set of experiences and redefine what it means to be American. I have been able to cross the lines and emulsify two very different worlds. On one hand, I am living the typical college life, full of extracurricular activities, group projects, tests, deadlines, etc. However, I also volunteer as a translator and interpreter for a local non-profit, the Emergency Family Assistance Association, which typically deals with the large—and mostly unseen by college students—latino immigrant community in Boulder. This, along with my experience in Chile, has undoubtedly helped me connect to my American heritage, which contains stories of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Spain. I now see myself as a part of many cultures that all intertwine in one way or another and make up the world we live in today.


Maeskizzle said...

How you felt about going to the embassy for the 4th of July, was similar to how I felt when I stumbled upon Kyle's blog, ohmygod, another gringa living-not studying abroad-but living in Chile. This was like after 4 years of making friends with mostly just Chileans because the foreign friends I did make came and left so quickly. I totally relate. I felt like I got a part of my identity back.

Disclaimer—La Chilengüita is a blog created upon my personal experiences and which expresses my personal opinion that in no way represents the views my employer, family or friends.