Before I get into this post, I have to give a little bit of a backstory. Five years ago, I suffered a brain injury (I got 2 concussions within about five minutes). It made a lot of things harder for a long time – walking by myself, talking, reading, writing, etc. I’m mostly all better now (thank you Mom and Dad and doctors), but whenever I get really tired or really stressed out or really anxious, my brain can have a lot harder time operating (when this happens, I say that my brain “crashes”). When that happens, I can have difficulty thinking, or I can lose my balance really easily, or sometimes I’ll slur my words. This can be rather difficult to explain to people, because, thank the lord, I’m pretty much back to normal and these instances are few and far in between, so people don’t really understand what I’m talking about when I explain it to them. I’m also a really proud person and don’t like to tell people about it because I don’t want them to judge me or think I’m faking it, and I’m not good at asking for help, so that does NOT help in the slightest – I’m working on it.
So back to the story. When I got to Vina, I was introduced to my host mom, Anita. She took me and my bags up to her apartment, and she started explaining the apartment and all of the appliances and my living situation. Anita doesn’t understand any English, so all communication with her happens in Spanish. When I first got here, my Spanish was pretty good, but there was definitely room for improvement. As she explained everything, I started to panic internally. I was so scared that I was going to misunderstand her or not understand her at all, and then my ability to speak Spanish was apparently super rusty at that point in time. I was tired, I was stressed, I was anxious, and I was totally out of my element. I thought that I was going to be elated when I first got there; I thought that I was immediately going to click with my host mom, be able to understand everything that she was saying, be able to speak back with her and not stumble too badly when I was speaking in Spanish. I didn’t think I was going to miss home, miss my family, miss my boyfriend at all – I thought I was going to be taken up with all of these new things and absolutely love it. I had been waiting for this experience for YEARS, and I had convinced myself that I was going to be awesome at studying abroad and integrating into a new culture.
And then all of a sudden, I was abroad, and it was nothing like I thought it would be. Then Anita explains something to me that she thinks is very important and keeps explaining it to me multiple times. I think, I THINK that she’s saying that I can’t flush any toilet paper down the toilet because if I do, the pipes will burst and it’ll be a big huge mess. I THINK that she’s telling me to throw any toilet paper that I use into a garbage can. But I’m not positive. And then thoughts started going around in my head: “oh my god, what if I forget and accidentally put something down the toilet and then the worst happens”, “oh my god, what if I make a huge, expensive mess”, and then “Oh my god, what if I’m misunderstanding her and then I throw my toilet paper in the trash can and then she cleans the trash can out and is so confused as to why I put toilet paper with unmentionables in the trash can and then has to have a really awkward conversation with me about putting that stuff down the toilet”……. and then the worst happened. I started to crash. Then I started freaking out even more, because I needed to be able to speak and make sense in another language, and I had to keep my balance, and Anita didn’t know anything about my head – I didn’t want her to think I was crazy or faking anything by suddenly having these symptoms. I finally managed to get to my room and lay down and call people from home so that I could speak English, and then rest. I slept for hours. When I woke up, the crash was over, I was back to normal, but I was still wary. This experience was not what I thought it was going to be at all, and it was less than 12 hours in. I had had this whole idea in my head of what studying abroad was going to be like, and it was so frustrating to me that I wasn’t living up to my expectations of myself.
Those first few days were really isolating. I didn’t realize how much of a barrier that language was. It’s very isolating to not be able to speak the same language as someone. You lose so much of your personality, and while, thank goodness, I was able to speak a decent amount of Spanish, it was still very hard to operate constantly in Spanish. I hadn’t yet met anyone who could speak English (orientation hadn’t started yet). Eventually orientation started, I loosened up a lot, made friends, and my Spanish started to flow a lot more easily. Things got easier, and I developed a rhythm. The other exchange student who lived with Anita came back from traveling, and we became friends. Things became so much better.
I took away two big things from this whole ordeal: 1) I need to loosen up and be able to go with the flow a little more. 2) Communication is really important – about your past, about what you’re thinking/dealing with, about language differences. And especially about where you have to put your dirty toilet paper.