The Reentry

March 2, 2020
Christopher Davis in Atacama Chile

Today’s blog post comes to us from API alumni and University of Arkansas at Little Rock student Christopher Davis. He recently returned from a study abroad program with us in Valparaiso, Chile.

Hey readers! Time for the sequel to my Omg-this-trip-changed-my-entire-outlook-on-what-is-normal Culture Shock Blog Entry! It’s nice to come full circle and comment on my experience coming back.

As I approached the end of my stay in Chile, I was excited to see how the United States would look different when I came back.

Would I notice myself having become more independent, would Spanish accidentally fall out of my mouth like the quintessential #bilingual student? I was eager to see how Chile had changed me!!

I liked being in a different country. I liked feeling a bit more at liberty to go out and explore, and I liked the connections I made with the people I met, and I didn’t want my time abroad to leave me unmarked. I was looking forward to culture shock because from my reckoning that would vindicate how deeply I engaged with the culture and how much my experience impacted me.

Well the time came, December 13th, when I was escorted to the airport to begin my trip back to the United States. It’s in the airport that I felt the first waves of my reverse culture shock (kind of).  As I was asking people for help with finding my airline, in Spanish, I encountering one woman whose face kind of shrunk back when I asked her a question. She told me, in English, that she didn’t speak Spanish.

This was the first time in months that I wasn’t in a purely Spanish-speaking environment–it’s the moment it really sunk in that I was leaving.  I tried to cling on to Chile as much as I could. I looked for any excuse to use Spanish and made every effort to signal to Spanish speakers that I was still a part of them.  My reasoning was that if I could hold on to even some social solidarity, if I could distinguish myself from the foreigners through language I could slow down the feeling of being ejected out of Chile so quickly.

In a stroke of luck (if luck is the right word) I ended up finding a very good reason to speak Spanish with one of the airline attendants. My bag was overweight by a full 20 kilograms.  In the rushed process of trying to redistribute my weight to other bags, I spoke with the attendants at the airport primarily in Spanish (which felt like an especial accomplishment since one woman tending a kiosk initially spoke to me in English).

All of this was resolved in the end. In all honesty I half hoped that my overweight bag might be some providence from God to keep me in Chile for a little bit longer.  Not so lucky.

As I made my way to my gate, I resumed my search for trying to “connect” other Spanish speakers, nudging a wee bit closer to people I heard speaking Spanish to show I could understand, or maybe position myself to be engaged, all while not actually jumping into conversations that didn’t involve me. It was a weird tension to navigate. 

I boarded the plane and began the long…long…trip to the United States.

When I finally arrived back in my state, I felt dissatisfied.  I missed Valparaiso-the beach, los cerros, the friends, the college, and in one fell swoop, all of it was gone.

So how did I respond to this missing? I acted like an expat in my own city, particularly by looking for opportunities to use Spanish in any way that I could.  On one hand I was genuinely excited to apply my Spanish skills, but I was also fearful of losing my new-found skills in the language (and, by association, losing the influence Chile had on me).  I started to listen to more music in Spanish actively and looked for ways to speak Spanish–to anyone both especially friends in the States and that I had left in Valparaiso (or who had gone back to their respective countries)–to still feel “in” the Latin community. I wanted to make my life in the states feel less familiar, but, just like when I f irst arrived in Chile, everything felt too close. 

That’s not to say that I didn’t notice some differences. My state felt slower (such is the south) and more structured.  On the drive back home from the airport I saw a handful of new construction projects that made me feel just slightly alienated from the landscape, it was less like what I remembered of my state.  As I got back into my routine and reconnected with old friends, I noticed that many looked …older. These changes made it seem just a little less like “coming back home.” but not in the way I really wanted.

Even trying to find a place in the Latin community I had to realize may not be all I had made it out to be.

An opportunity arose for me to test my Spanish at church.  My church has a bilingual Campus to serve members of the community who speak Spanish and so, naturally, we have gotten more people who do Speak Spanish. In December, I had signed up to sing in the choir for two Christmas Services. As I stood with the choir, waiting to take the stage, I heard a group of people speaking…..something. I only caught syllables but the inflection, the pace…it sounded like Spanish. It was Spanish!

I introduced myself to the people speaking Spanish–they were from Bolivia. In the moment, it felt like a knot in my stomach came undone: I had the chance to feel right back in the Chilean swing of things. In my mind, I could signal to the other Americans there that i was different enough to be distinguished from them, and to the Bolivians that I was similar enough (lingually) to be accepted by them. I wanted to be a part of the group, and so I would try to stay close to them and engage myself in their conversations. 

As the excitement wore down, I was left feeling awkward. They didn’t seem necessarily happy that I was talking to them. Still hospitable, they gave me confused glances and uncomfortable smiles and as an acknowledgement to the things that I said..Maybe I’m reading too much into body language–they did just meet me after all–but my discomfort did at least lead me to consider that speaking Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country does not  have the social meaning as speaking Spanish in an English-speaking country.

Here, the Bolivians felt comfortable with each other precisely because of a common language, culture, and background. Sharing one of these things, language, was not an invitation to speak Spanish with them.  Maybe, instead, I was actually intruding. That thought left me feeling embarrassed: my attempt to become “one” with the Latin people around me started to take on a tone that’s a lot more boisterous than what I intended.  Seeking out connectivity wouldn’t be just like it was in Chile.

Therein lies my culture shock: not a host of cultural idiosyncrasies that I would apply out of context.

Like “forgetting” English or new Chilean mannerisms, I found myself adjusting the very preconceived notions of how I would live my life returning to the United States. It was more subtle. More like refining the lessons that I learned while abroad–not simply using them as an absolute critique on my lifestyle here. My continued use of Spanish was neither marked by involuntary relapses to Spanish nor an automatic “solidarity” with the Latin community.  I still feared I would lose my Spanish, losing something that made me feel special and still connected to Chile. I expressed this fear to a friend back in Chile who was moving out the guest home that I had stayed in, she simply said, “no piérdelo, entonces” (then, don’t lose it).

No piérdelo, entonces

The simplicity of this statement is what struck me and encouraged me. There was a choice in whether my Spanish continued to develop. She wasn’t hung up over losing her Spanish: she was confident in her ability to regularly apply it, and to do so in appropriate social circumstances. Retaining Spanish wasn’t a Herculean fight against some predetermined English encroachment.

That simple change in perspective took away a lot of pressure because it recentered me around something I already knew: Spanish isn’t elusive–it’s communication.  Therefore, my drive for using Spanish should not be reduced to a last ditch effort towards retaining some Je ne sai quois that I feel Chile gave me. The more that I was stressed about performing Spanish rather than using it, I noticed I would stumble. When I focused less on how my comprehension in Spanish sounds or looks, II communicated more smoothly because my goal shifted.

I realized I didn’t need to look for opportunities to show my Spanish knowledge, like I had with Bolivians at church. I already had Chilean friends,: there was no reason to force myself into relationship on lingual terms.  Not only do I have friends but now I have even greater access to and a greater ability to comprehend to all sorts of entertainment and informative media. I have the tools I need to retain my practice–I can slip into that world of Spanish whenever I want. I don’t have to fight for it or use it to cling to my time abroad. 

In all of this readjusting, the biggest thing I’ve taken away is that I didn’t have to force my culture shock experience to look or feel a certain way.  The biggest impact I have noticed is a desire to engage affairs specifically relating to Chile and to Latin America more through the lens of Spanish in particular.  Instead of leaving me something “spectacularly permanent” to store in the attic of my mind, my reverse culture shock has helped me more fully embrace my feelings that I didn’t learn enough and go back in whatever ways I can. Thanks for reading!


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