Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Addie Asbridge. Currently living in Seattle, Addie is somewhere between the bright-eyed days of being fresh out of college and the throws of her mid-twenties’ ennui. She continues to jump between the non-profit and corporate worlds, blissfully unsure of where she will land next.
Despite the limited number of stamps in my passport, I have had the privilege to live and study abroad twice. The first time as a participant in Lakeside’s Global Service Learning (GSL) trip to Morocco in the summer of 2007, and the second as a semester abroad student in Buenos Aires during the spring semester of my junior year of college, 2012.
While the Morocco trip certainly informed my decision to study outside the US in college, neither stint abroad has impacted my life in a tangible, direct way… not yet at least. I did not change my major to International Relations or seek internships in the State Department as a result of my time overseas. I have yet to fill out my application for the Peace Corps, and while I desire to experience many parts of the world in my life, my wanderlust is currently sated by traversing the borders of my own country.
My taste for tagine has all but dissipated, perhaps never to return, and I do not henna my hair or drink mate. (While I am determined to appropriate the Argentine customary greeting of ‘el beso,’ it will likely take years before this gesture is widely adopted in the US.)
Living abroad did not change my habits or career path. Rather, the effects have been more implicit and subtle but ultimately longer lasting. Above all, living abroad gave me empathy. That is, my experiences in Morocco and then Argentina solidified in me a deeper respect and empathy for anyone who is able to pick up and make a life in another country, especially one in which they don’t speak the majority language. This empathy became especially developed in Buenos Aires, where the length of the stay allowed us a taste of everyday life–from going to the grocery store or to a pub after class, my life there could have resembled that of a college student anywhere.
While living abroad can be a very rewarding and fun experience, for me it was often embarrassing, frustrating, and sometimes uneasy — even, or perhaps especially, during the simple day-to-day routine. In moments where I wanted nothing more than to blend in, I became acutely aware of my own foreignness. I’m sure this self-consciousness was the ‘tell’ to the men on the street who would holler “hey, beautiful” (though I did receive the occasional “fräulein”) or the waiters who would hand me the english menu before I even spoke a word. Most people I interacted with, from cashiers to professors to especially my homestay parents, were incredibly patient with my subpar language proficiency. Nevertheless, when someone would ask “que?” I would instantly berate myself for my lack of fluency, even if they had just misheard me. I could not help but cringe every time I stumbled over a phrase and often avoided speaking to strangers all together.
While I could wax-poetic on the Spanish Civil War or hold a coherent discussion of García Márquez in class, I didn’t have the vocabulary to play out simple scenarios, such as ordering the right cut of meat at the butcher. On one rare occasion that my host mother let me prepare dinner, I walked into her kitchen with 8 whole chicken breasts — nearly 2 pounds per person — because I had been too embarrassed to correct myself. Once, I didn’t realize that you had to get vegetables weighed in the back of the store, causing me to be laughed out of line by the man behind me at the cashier.
These struggles seem petty — and they were. I was living abroad as a student whose only responsibility was to get myself to class (not even on time as per the Argentine norm) and not do anything illegal. I didn’t need to worry about making it through a job interview or finding a place to live. I didn’t have a family to support. I even had considerable hand-holding navigating the visa process and never had the latent fear of being ‘sin documentos.’ My stay was temporary and as hard as things got, I was to return home to familiarity.
Eventually I chilled out. I didn’t feel so intense or embarrassed and I learned to cope, as you do with all life’s little challenges. You laugh at your blunders, you beg for forgiveness when you can’t count change quickly, you call yourself “yanqui” before anyone else can, you make your best effort and hope that people are patient and forgiving. And then, when you are back on your own turf, in your own comfort zone, you extend that same patience to others. You don’t roll your eyes at the man in the DMV who is having a hard time understanding the license process. You give ESL students enough time to collect their thoughts and interpret them. You smile. And you never assume that the ability to speak English is a metric of intelligence.