I believe the most significant learning experience I had abroad was connecting to the people around me. I had the wonderful opportunity to uproot myself from one culture and start over in another. This was the main struggle I experienced in my new surroundings abroad in Queretaro, Mexico. The best way I learned to re-accommodate myself in my new surroundings was to open up and reach out to the people around me. This was something entirely new for me because I never had to stand on my own and represent so many things in another culture.
I ended up relying on my host family in order to learn a lot about my surroundings. I asked them about the way of life in Queretaro and many other questions concerning their daily routines and tasks that were most important to them. I had a unique opportunity that most of my fellow study abroad group members did not: I spoke Spanish fluently because my parents were from Mexico. In this way, I was able to connect with my host family and host country better. I came to Mexico with preconceived notions on what it meant to be Mexican. And with my own knowledge and form of Spanish (Spanglish), I decided to test out what I knew against what they knew. My host brothers taught me about their school. My host mom corrected my Spanglish. And my host grandma sat with me every morning and talked to me about Mexico’s history, her past, the news and more.
At the same time, it was great to spend time with the group of Oregonians who were also going through similar experiences. It really helped to build better relationships among us. As I began building these relationships with my core group of people that I saw every day (my host family and my fellow study abroad friends), I also began to reach out to strangers. I would talk to neighbors; get to know them and what they believed. I would befriend store owners, cab drivers, bus drivers, clowns, and passer-bys. Since there was so much to learn about the city, the culture and the history, it seemed fairly easy to get into a conversation with strangers that simply started with: “Which bus can I take to go to…?” In this way I made new friends and spent time getting to know more about the city.
During the time I stayed in Queretaro, I was even given the rare and wonderful opportunity to visit family members I hadn’t seen since I was three years old. I saved a bit of money and ventured off to the nearby state of Morelia to visit them. It was such an incredible feeling to visit for three days the hometown of my parents and have their brothers and sisters claim me as if I were their own daughter. Once again, I learned so much by just walking around with family and getting to know all of my cousins and family friends. That was definitely the most meaningful experience for me throughout the trip because at that moment, I knew that I was part of a bigger culture and a bigger picture than who I believed I was in the United States. And the fact that I was able to stand up on my own, take a chance and venture off into the unknown helped me realize that I am strong and not ever really completely ‘on my own’. I’ve learned that if you have an earnest interest in learning and needing help, there will definitely be people there that will lend a hand and help you simply with the stories that they tell or with a plateful of food to give to you. All you have to do is reach out into the unknown and allow yourself to do things you never thought you’d do. As writer Neale Donald Walsch says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
– Brandy Aguilar, Spanish Language and Mexican Culture in Queretaro