In this post, CAPA Alumna Claire Shrader talks about how the humbling experience of living in a country with a different language and culture will force you to rise to challenges you never though possible and help you better face challenges when you return home.
I recently found some notes from a lecture we had on cultural assimilation at the beginning of my semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This particular quote is referring to learning another language and interacting with native speakers, when it says: “It’s like we’re learning to dance and we’re stepping on each other.”
It made me laugh then, and it still does now, because not only did I literally step on people’s feet in my tango class in Buenos Aires, but I also have the language experience to back it up: I always said “Lo siento,” which directly translates into “I’m sorry.” I said it when someone’s head hurt, when they had a bad day, when the bus didn’t arrive on time, when they had to explain a word I didn’t know for the fifteenth time, when they had to show me where the bus stop is, and for a million other circumstances. And every time I said it, I always got a strong reaction: WHY do you always ask for forgiveness like it’s your fault?! Leave it alone! Stop feeling so guilty all the time! It just happened!
I simply wanted to express how sorry I was that they had xyz unfortunate event happen to them.
They just wanted to make sure I know that I don’t need to take on the guilt for everything that goes wrong in the world. But I ended up feeling like an idiot because of the passionate way they responded (which is just the normal tone of voice here).
They ended up annoyed just because I’m not using the right phrase in Spanish. We’re stepping on each other’s feet.
I remember the week in tango when I mastered the first “paso” of tango—an eight-step sequence that forms the base for every other part of tango. I almost couldn’t even finish it because I was so excited once I realized that I had it, no toes injured or anything. Poco a poco, I learned how to not step on poor Alfredo’s feet. It took a few months, and many Tuesday afternoons dancing around Fundación Tango, but eventually I got there.
That’s how it is studying abroad. You will most definitely step on people’s feet, you won’t know all the slang, and you may end up using a word that, though totally appropriate in Spain, means something completely different in Argentina. You’ll probably get lost a few times and have to ask for help multiple times a day. There will be misunderstandings and moments of confusion.
The feeling you get when you master the commute to your university, or when you successfully navigate a presentation at your internship, or even just a conversation on the bus, makes you feel like you’re soaring. And suddenly, all of the confusing moments are totally more than worth it, because you just mastered the tango steps. You just ordered your own meal. You just taught a child how to do a yoga move in Spanish. You just spoke up in class.
Those moments where you overcome and rise to meet the challenges of living in a cross-cultural setting will change the ways you respond to challenges at home. They will make you a more dynamic person, and you will gain so much empathy for the immigrants and sojourners in our own nation.
And maybe, while you’re at it, you’ll learn a few tango steps, too.
Claire Shrader was an official CAPA blogger for spring 2018, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Pre-Occupational Therapy major at Mississippi College, she is studied abroad in Buenos Aires, and has continued to share her post-study abroad reflections on the CAPA Blog.