Jumping between two languages, two cultures, and two worlds in the blink of an eye left me feeling a little disoriented as I returned to my “home” country. I spent the first 19 years of my life in Michigan, so nothing about it should have been very shocking after my 8 month expat life in Chile and Argentina. But it was. Everything is so.. ordered! Wifi works here?! I can flush toilet paper? People obey traffic laws! So much English. So little chaos.
My initial days back in the United States made me realize that my life in South America always kept me in a very stimulating environment. Between social protests and strikes, having to think more than I usually would to communicate in Spanish, and constantly going to new places and meeting new people, there really never was a dull moment. Buses didn’t really run on schedules and people drove like maniacs. Students showed up to class when they felt like it and teachers didn’t assign very much homework. The majority of people fell into a go-with-the-flow rhythm of life that is very similar to the laid back Pacific ocean tides on the Chilean coast. “Don’t worry! It will be fine. Tranquilo.”
Getting from point A to B was always a monumental success during my travels. Without a car or reliable information about public transportation, there was always a figure it out as you go type of intrigue to going anywhere at all. We’d just show up at the bus station and search for the cheapest fare to whatever city we wanted. Occasionally we would arrive there with no accommodation plans and just see what we could find. Leaving the door open for opportunity. This was a transition that I noticed in myself early on in my months abroad- being able to be okay with a “We’ll just see how it goes” approach to traveling and life in general for that matter. I previously took great pride in having the best possible color coded Excel sheet itinerary for travelling. I thought that somehow it would really help me “make the most” out of a trip. Looking back on my travels this year, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I learned to just take things one day at a time and leave the planner behind. Sure, it was helpful that I was really on top of it when it came to visa paper work and having copies of my documents, but I started to have the most fun once I let go of trying to schedule things. In mid July, I was traveling with Evan from Buenos Aires to Cordoba with a stop in Rosario. Both our first and second bus broke down, including the time when all of the windows in the upper level of our bus shattered. We made it to Cordoba eventually and were able to just laugh about how absolutely heinous that road trip was.
There’s a quote that says something along the lines of “We are the sum of our experiences.” Being back at the same school in the same town in the same house I was a year ago brings back a lot of old memories about what I did last year, how my schedule used to be, and the priorities I had. But the difference is that I’m not the same as I was back then. I’ve lived on glaciers at the end of the Earth, became an “adopted” Chilean daughter, learned an excessive amount of Chilean and Argentinean slang, gone rock climbing and snowboarding on both sides of the Andes, interacted with a Mapuche indigenous community, made friends that don’t speak English, spent a week living on a gaucho farm, visited one of the most isolated islands on the planet, and learned through first hand conversations about the dark and violent history of Chile and all of Latin America. These experiences, to name a few, most definitely shape who I am. Living as part of a Chilean family, I grew accustomed greeting everyone with a kiss on the right cheek. Here in the U.S., I think I’d probably scare people if I greeted them that way, but it was one of the first things I noticed as I got settled into life here. I wanted to give everyone the warm welcome that people gave me in South America, but that’s just not how things work here.
Things haven’t been as easy as I thought they’d be in terms of re-adjusting to life in rural Michigan. Before I left, I’d say that I was hyper-involved on campus. I pushed myself beyond my limit because I could; there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I was leaving at Christmas no matter what, so I think I got a little carried away and took on a lot of responsibilities within the different organizations I was involved in. Even though it was overwhelming, I was always in the know about what events were happening and what people were up to. After being away for so long, I definitely became out of the loop. Ever since returning to campus, I’ve felt like I’m one step behind everyone else. The other thing that has been hard is that people ask how my trip was, and I really just don’t know what to say or where to begin. The best thing I’ve come up with to describe it would be unexplainable. I don’t know how to accurately convey what it was like to endure a Patagonian storm in a tent, or how it feels to be the only foreigner in a class with all Chileans. I don’t have the words to paint a picture of how riding a micro in Valparaiso is absolutely terrifying but normal at the same time. The frustration all comes down to not fully being able to express myself so that the other person understands, which is how I felt early on in South America when my Spanish was a huge limiting factor in my daily conversations. The last thing that has been hard is that I constantly notice how things are different between my two “homes”. I can’t stop thinking about and comparing life in the States and life in Chile & Argentina. I know that there are things I learned while I was abroad- like genuinely greeting people and letting go of stressing over schedules- that I really want to integrate into my everyday life and not just forget about now that I’m back in Michigan. I want all of those experiences to continue to shape my life, but it’s difficult.
Even though it’s been quite the roller coaster, it’s a ride I would do again in a heartbeat. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to go abroad, for the people who encouraged me to do it, and that I somehow managed to make it work between semesters of biomedical engineering. I’m no longer living on the Chilean coast or up in the Andes, but I am back in the pretty cool place that is Houghton, Michigan. I’ve got rocks to climb, trails to run, plenty of projects and problems to work on, and some great friends to adventure with. With a fresh perspective on life, I’m excited to keep learning, growing, and I guess I’ll just have to see where my path takes me.