The Terremoto that did(n’t) Happen

August 22, 2019

Today’s blog post comes to us from University of Arkansas at Little Rock student & #APIabroad Fall 2019 blogger Christopher Davis! He’s studying abroad with us in Valparaíso, Chile. In addition to writing about his study abroad experience in English, he’s also publishing posts for us in Spanish and Portuguese, so be sure to check back for more!

Oh my poor poor readers. Yes, it is time for you to read my take on the Omg-this-trip-changed-my-entire-outlook-on-what-is-normal Culture Shock Blog Entry.
And I’m sorry.

Don’t get me wrong! I wish that in this time as I wait (and wait) for the semester to start, I had gleaned something fresh from the rolling cerros of Valparaiso to deliver to the unforgiving(ly petty) keyboard deities that rule the internet, but…well…no. Not yet! However, I think (i.e. hope really hard) this little spin on what I have learned will add value to those of you wanting to take that leap of faith and study abroad.

So I present to you my surprise to being surprised by the Chilean culture. Yes. My shock at my culture shock.

For some context, this is my first time ever going out of the country. Leading up to this moment I have always, always, always heard about this “culture shock”.  Even in the pre-departure orientation at my university, a whole segment of the meeting was devoted to talking about counseling services for reverse culture shock when we return. This was serious! Dire!

But I never had any idea of what culture shock would feel like, and not knowing inspired skepticism and excitement.

On one hand, the idea of being violently surprised by living in a different culture seemed silly. Are people really that different from us? Are we so trapped in our own microcosms of reality that someone else’s normal would really be all that…“shocking”?

On the other hand, I also remembered the stories my mom would tell me about when she studied abroad in Austria. How when she returned she even had trouble speaking English again (at least if my interpretation/memory of the account is correct). THAT is the kind of experience I wanted. A lot–especially because one dream of mine is to speak Spanish fluently. If that’s what culture shock was, I was ready to be embraced by the culture, consumed and transformed.

Valparaíso, Chile

In hindsight, that expectation is part of what set me up for the surprise.

To illustrate this point, an anecdote of my trip to Chile is useful. When I was in the Little Rock and Atlanta airports on my way to Chile, I wanted to savor every moment.  I wanted to be wowed when I looked back on everything years later by every vivid memory. So I tried to take everything in between and during flights (and I’m still trying to do that now), focusing on what should be the overwhelming thought that I would be in a new country for 5.5 months! A completely. different. country.

Yet, as I was arriving in Chile…I felt…un-overwhelmed? There I was on the plane eating my honey yogurt and looking out the window of a Mad Dog Delta at 7:30-ish am, feeling in no way transformed from when I woke up two hours earlier.  My first few days in Chile? The same feeling. And that surprised me! But you know what was more surprising? The fact that I was surprised in the first place!

I think one reason I wasn’t wowed by my arrival experience is because I had an exaggerated and…very specific idea of how Chile would be different. I mean I expected it would be different. Spanish would be everywhere. Probably some English. And, it being part of Latin America, there would *obviously* a strong culture of dance. I was “ready” to be “inundated”.

But nothing really felt all that different (at first).

I didn’t feel different. The good thing is that the disillusionment made me set aside my aforementioned expectations and settle in to really living here. Not constantly in wait for some spectacle, but just…living.

In “just living” I started trying to look around and observe the lifestyle of those around me. Looking at what the Chileans in my neighborhood experienced as “normal”.  And that’s when I started to actually see the differences between Chilean and American culture. I realized that this world built of micros (/meekrows/ n. — small buses driven vey very fast) darting in and out of a labyrinth of buildings, right next to a shoreline, with a Spanish looked down upon even by the people speaking it, I would never have made up. I never could have anticipated this kind of lifestyle. I felt…wait for it…shock. Again!

Photo taken in the hills of Valparaíso, Chile.

Not the “wake up in a cold sweat” shock, but still a mild sense of surprise at a lifestyle so distinct from my own. But what was so shocking about this culture shock is the fact that I was shocked at all. Obviously Chile is different from the United States. I should know that. The fact that there is difference shouldn’t surprise me, but it did. And in realizing my surprise, I also realized I had to set aside a whole set of subconscious expectations that I was using to shield myself from the shock that I would experience.

In setting those expectations aside, I realized how ignorant of the existence of the Chilean culture that I was.

And to even go a step further, I realized how unfamiliar using Spanish was to me. Not that I hadn’t studied it for a long time, but the use of it as a constant means of expressing myself, my personality, to other people or to even cast my own thoughts in was just strange.  Spanish with its unique set of tone shifts in conversation didn’t just flow out of my mouth. When talking to native speakers, I realized that, at a certain level, I would have this moment of “preparing” to talk to “the foreigners” – which contributed to a good bit of the anxiety I would feel before even opening my mouth.

Now as sobering (and embarrassing) as being shocked at my culture shock, it is relieving and exciting. On one hand, I’m relieved because whatever mild disappointment I felt when “just settling in” to Chile is dispelled! There will be plenty of ways for me to be wrapped up in the culture and to learn.

But I said there would be value for those wanting to take that leap of faith into study abroad.  I can see now, as some of you very well may in your own experience, that prior to the trip I had some semblance of security in my knowledge of both Spanish and the “Latin American Culture”.  In the States, my knowledge made me feel intelligent and special among my peers. The most internally rocking experience was then to confront the extent of my ignorance on my trip in the ways discussed above.

You may experience the same thing, so some advice that I, in my very finite wisdom, can offer would be as follows:

Chilean mountains

One, you do not have to feel embarrassed by being taken off guard.

I know for myself it seemed like surprise is a concession of ignorance on two counts: (1) simply not knowing; and (2) being so “closed minded” about the obvious diversity of the world that you are taken off guard by another group’s experience.  Masking surprise then becomes a means to seem open minded, wise, in control, and above the need to learn.

But being in the vulnerable place of realizing you do not know, and letting yourself fully experience surprise is not bad. It’s uncomfortable. It may shift your perception of self. But it is not bad, and it shouldn’t turn into something bad. In the midst of an academic world that, at least from my perspective, can inadvertently encourage performed wisdom–let me give you permission to see the full extent of your ignorance. Seeing your ignorance should help you see your knowledge as it is, rather than what you think it ought to be, which brings me to my second piece of advice:

When you are surprised, realize that feeling is because of your preconceived notions.

First acknowledge them, and then set them aside.  Remember, ignorance shouldn’t turn into something bad: not a hurried attempt to hide it; or a polemic against yourself; but a chance to ask questions about the things that spark questions in you. Now “setting aside” preconceived notions can even be easier said than done, but one method that at least helped me is to see the culture around you for what it is.  Will it be as wild and crazy and a b s o l u t e l y overwhelming as your expectations? it may or may not be. What is important is to learn it is not necessary to construct the culture into anything more exotic. Take the culture as a whole and as it stands before you.

Which brings me to my final piece of advice: Observe the culture.

It is likely that you won’t even be able to see your notions, let alone set them aside, if you are not attentive to the experiences you are having in the first place. Observation doesn’t have to be a daily regimen of hardcore analytical breakdowns, but do take the time to see how people behave towards you and each other. 

One way you might do this is thinking in terms of letting other people show you who they are in place of showing yourself. Listen to their music without suggestions of your own, listen to conversations and engage and ask questions about the theme at hand rather than starting a tangential discussion on something the topic reminds you of that you are already familiar with.  You will get the chance for people to see who you are, don’t worry, but what I have to tell myself is that there is no need to fall back on showing myself off when I feel out of place.

Thank you for reading!  Aside from the academic goals, I did want to be able to learn about a new people, but of course there has to be this hugeeee plot twist of learning more about myself  in the process (that’s such a common Disney movie trope that I’m now I’m embarrassed that I forgot it). I am excited to share what I learn in my stay here.


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