By Steven Schmidt
Chile isn’t really the most “Latin” country in Latin America. Before I arrived, I had no idea that people here consider themselves separate from the rest of the continent at the end of the world: a little more timid, a little less outgoing than their counterparts across the Andes in Argentina or Brazil.
That’s just one example of how my experience here has been different from what I had expected.
When we talk or think about study abroad, we tend to focus on what we know we’ll find in a certain country or city while glossing over the unpredictable but routine details. I remember walking to the Center for Global Engagement (CGE) near the beginning of my sophomore year to collect a series of laminated brochures featuring students in states of near ecstasy as they Eat, Pray, Love-d their way through their respective destinations.
While I was a little fuzzy on the details, I was almost certain that “going abroad” would automatically be some sort of transcendental experience, probably with Machu Picchu tossed in there somewhere.
In a way, abroad programs sell themselves on big experiences.
I think that a lot of us are drawn to the part of studying abroad that is windsurfing, pictures in front of monuments older than our own country, and meeting other people from around the world.
But while they’re less attractive, the more formative experiences can be working on a group project in class, or buying your school supplies, or maybe just trying to open a bank account.
What I hadn’t expected was that my favorite memories in Chile ﾗ just like what I love about home or Kenyon ﾗ have been an accumulation of everyday experiences with people around me. In a sense, I think that people, myself included, can fall into the trap of using travel and studying abroad as a kind of status symbol that marks what they have done and seen, and lose track of what actually makes them happy.
When our experience turns out not to be a constant adrenaline rush from running around the continent with a cadre of new best friends (which we subsequently document for others), we almost feel like we’re doing something wrong.
In general, I’ve been surprised how much my life abroad mirrors what I’m accustomed to doing at home.
I don’t want to suggest that cultural differences don’t exist. There are aspects of Chile that aren’t pretty. The metro station that I take to school exits onto a large plaza. During lunch, the square is full of construction workers lounging, talking and eating. About every three seconds or so a worker whistles out a long piropo, or catcall, directed at different women passing through. Sometimes the workers applaud, sometimes they whistle, but it’s almost always accompanied by some kind of sexual comment.
There are aspects of Chile that I deeply admire. Many students here are concerned with what they perceive to be an unequal education system.
Every so often, students hold serious marches around the city that usually end in violent encounters between an unspecified group of encapuchados, named for the hoods they wear, and the police.
A friend of mine ran into such a protest on her way to class. There was a looping video, she told me, of a police officer requesting that protestors “please direct Molotov cocktails at the armored water cannons, not at the personnel vehicles.”
Earlier in the year, several groups of students seized schools around the city and refused to leave for weeks. I can’t even begin to imagine a similar scenario at any school, secondary or otherwise, in the United States. The amount of social awareness coupled with the actions students our age take to further their cause is inspiring.
Before I left for Santiago, I only knew that I would be living with a couple and their two dogs. I had vague plans to leave a congested, polluted (but still beautiful) city to travel around Chile whenever I could.
I couldn’t have said with any conviction that my favorite part of being abroad would be talking with my host parents and classmates and other day-to-day experiences.
Going abroad isn’t necessarily what you expect it to be ﾗ and I think that’s usually a good thing.