You arrive in a foreign country. Your program directors teach you that you have to tip the baggers at the grocery store, the Spanish you have spent twelve years learning in preparation for this trip shares little resemblance to what you will hear on the street if your ears are even fast enough to isolate the rapidly spoken syllables that have already started to blur together, and you cannot throw your toilet paper in the toilet but in the provided trash receptacle so you don’t clog up the pipes for the whole university. So many changes so quickly after leaving the safety of the home you have had for years and finally feel that you have found a place in, only to be transplanted into what feels like a different world. While you quickly find that you may love this new world even more than the only home you have ever known, it is inevitable that you will yearn for the familiar in times of stress, uncertainty or even anger.
When Homesickness Hits
My first experience with homesickness (after the initial jolt of not understanding a word out of my host brother’s mouth as he explained, what I assumed to be, the current qualities and the entire history of the Chilean national football team, and realizing no amount of Spanish class could have prepared me for this) came the night before the first exam I took in my Chilean classes. About a month into my semester, my Social Psychology class was holding its first exam, and I suddenly realized that I had not understood a single word my professor had spoken in any of the three-hour lectures I had attended. Of course, I saved studying for the day before the exam. In a sheer act of rebellion of Chilean culture and everything my time abroad stood for, a friend and I spent the entire day studying at (probably the nicest) Starbucks in the center of Santiago. We wanted to soak in the free wifi, loud patrons and overpriced drinks that reminded us so much of home.
Sometimes You Just Need the Familiar
As the day wore on and I slowly began to soak in some of the information, we continued our rejection of our host country and found cheap Chinese food for lunch and, subsequently, American cuisine for dinner. Saying that locating a place to get nachos and buffalo wings like those at the restaurants that peppered my hometown was trying would be an understatement. In a city of eight million people, there seemed to be three possibly American restaurants, only one of which served nachos. The nachos I received slightly resembled those I could make on my own in my college dining hall but successfully satisfied my craving for the familiar.
My second and final foray into the world of American food abroad came about two-thirds of the way into the semester when we all remembered that would have to go home at some point, and this dream semester would come to an end. To ease us into the transition, we decided to make apple crumble, a variation on possibly the most American food in existence. We went to the only grocer within walking distance armed with our screenshotted list of ingredients. Because we had limited transportation options, we knew that our local market couldn’t sell all the necessary ingredients for such an American dish. Little did we know that they carried only three out of the seven required ingredients: apples, butter and lemon. We used uncooked oatmeal for oats, sugar mixed with molasses for brown sugar, repurposed some bread flour from my host family and used their cinnamon to round out the recipe. The pan my family had almost fit the specifications, so we prepared our ingredients as best we could while laughing all the while about how janky the whole dish was. After hoping we chose the correct Celsius temperature for the crumble, we waited for our hodgepodge of an American classic to cook. In the end, the insult to our national cuisine tasted surprisingly like the real deal and successfully helped us slip into an American mindset for one of the few times in those three months in Chile.
Those two adventures attempting to recreate a foreign environment in a place so filled with its own culture, life and traditions made me appreciate the immersive experience I was living. The total infiltration of Chilean culture into my every activity was exactly what I loved so much about my time there. Attempting to recreate my home in a foreign place taught me that when you are in a place, be there. Be present and allow your new surroundings to take over. You never know what little detail about your new life could escape you while you try to hold onto the familiar. Just jump.
Becca Butler was a Psychology major at Hamilton College and studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Program program in Santiago, Chile in Fall 2015. She served as an alumni ambassador for IFSA.