I remember when I first truly realized my culture and I were not the center of the world. Sure, sure, it’s something we as Kenyon students know to be true. But I’m talking about the first time I actually felt it.
I was walking down Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires about a week or so after my orientation ended, and I, the fledgling Argentine, was finally on my own.
I was trying to buy a local burner phone, and some of my U.S. friends mentioned they’d had good luck on this particular street. After an hour of meandering, I found the suggested shop. It was a dinky little thing tucked in an arcade, but it looked legitimate enough for me.
Upon entering, I was immediately greeted by two Argentine men. I asked the older of the two about a phone, and my Spanish, in all honesty, came out shaky and garbled because I was so nervous. The older man gave me a confused look and then muttered something to his friend about the gringa. We spent about five minutes trying to understand one another before I gave up and left.
I immediately joined two of my program friends in a café, lamenting how the shop owners couldn’t understand me. I considered myself a globally aware individual before heading to Argentina, a Kenyon-trained, politically correct citizen of the world. I study anthropology on the Hill, along with modern languages, so I spend the majority of my time on campus discussing culture and ethnocentrism.
Despite my academic preparation for cultural exchange, my first instinct was to fault the other party instead of acknowledging the fact that my Spanish (and my confidence) were subpar. Those men had no obligation to understand my North American accent and, though I wished for a moment they had spoken at least an ounce of English, they sure as hell had no obligation to.
I’m not ashamed to admit this mistake because, whether we like to talk about it or not, I think it’s a problem a lot of students my age face the first time they go abroad. Discussing a certain mindset is vastly different from trying to use a new one, and it took me a few more moments of quiet frustration and futile attempts at communication to realize that nobody was obligated to make my study-abroad experience easier. My happiness and my success depended on me, and I had to constantly remind myself I was no longer in a country where my culture and my language were dominant.
Once I realized this — actually realized this for myself and didn’t just read and memorize it from a textbook — everything got a little easier. I bought my phone, made some Argentine friends and truly began to enjoy myself abroad.
I don’t remember why I chose to study in Argentina. I don’t think I had a concrete reason, but now, I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.