How My Experiences with Chilean Culture Changed Me
Unpacking My Amazing Experience
I’ve thought and reflected on my time studying abroad since returning from Valparaiso, Chile My experience was nothing but learning, experiencing, and understanding — IFSA provided me with so many opportunities to grow as an individual and also with the local community, which is something that I will carry with me for a really long time. IFSA did an amazing job creating alone time for study abroad students to experience culture on their own, whether it was with their host families or at school or at their internships. They also provided sufficient support and excursions to experience as a program.
A Trip to Southern Chile
One of my very favorite weekends abroad was when IFSA took us to the south of Chile to live with the Mapuche societies for a weekend and learn about their lifestyles. Not only did we get to learn about what they did on a daily basis, what they ate, and what they believed in, we got to live with them, and experience that firsthand. We learned many different aspects of their lives ranging from the sports they play, to the modern conflict they face with the rest of Chile.
We played Palin for about an hour, which was so much fun. Palin is a stick and ball game that originated in southern Chile, but has a ritual celebration to it as well. Something interesting I learned about this game is that they play it for many different reasons, one important one being to settle differences in tribes, therefore mending communal relationships.
One of the major reasons we went to the Mapuche tribes though was to learn about their relationship with the rest of Chile, and how separate they are from the rest of the country. This was primarily brought out by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Listening to elder Mapuche members talk about how their lives were affected by the period of military dictatorship was an experience that I wouldn’t have experienced anywhere else. You can learn about history in a class, but it does not compare to listening to stories firsthand.
My program provided the kindest Mapuche families that were so open to share their lives with us. My temporary host mother cooked me her favorite meal and showed me how she grew all her food. I worked in her garden and with her animals all day until it was time for her to prepare the meal. She even took me to her favorite hike nearby and told me all about her family, her childhood and her beliefs growing up. How better to learn about indigenous inhabitants then to live with them? I still cannot get over the fact that I was able to experience something like that. This is just one small part of my time abroad that has allowed me to reflect so positively.
Uncomfortable Feelings at First are Okay
I genuinely think that I owe my incredible abroad experience to my host family though. They went out of their way to make me not only feel so welcome and so comfortable, but also so included in their family. This was an aspect of Chilean culture that I was definitely not expecting. My first day abroad was one of the scariest moments I’ve felt in a while. Imagine living with a family that speaks a language that you don’t really know. And all you want to do is go back to your warm house back at home in the U.S. and feel comfortable again and talk in a language that you took for granted. Honestly, I hated it. I really had to think for the first month before I said things like “I am going out with my friends” or “this class today was super hard”.
The language barrier was quite difficult to overcome, but trust me when I say everything is going to be worth it. It became a huge process: thinking of what I wanted to say, in English, then trying to figure out how to say that in Spanish or even if I had the correct vocabulary to say it. But being forced into situations like this was single-handedly the reason why I grew so much abroad and why I eventually got to feel so comfortable around my host family and around local Chileans. I was put far outside my comfort zone for a very long time. This is something that no one really enjoys while it is happening, but something that people never regret doing afterwards.
Lean on Your Host Family for Support
Because of this, I got to go on daily excursions with my host family, and not just sit there and listen to their conversations, but also contribute to them as well. They took me to beach towns nearby, they took me out to dinner to their favorite places, I went to school events with my host sister, and I went to family barbeques. They made me feel like I was a part of the family, as if it was expected for me to come with them everywhere. I finally understand the lingo, I began to understand the dynamics South American families and I now understand why it was so important to be put outside of my comfort zone. It was so that I could feel confident talking and contributing to conversations without hesitation. This was one of my main goals for studying abroad, and I was able to accomplish it.
Katie McDonald is a Math and Spanish student at Georgetown University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Program in Valparaíso, Chile in Fall 2018.