It is that time again when the new friends who have been the first priority in my day-to-day life suddenly leave and become old friends, present only in my Facebook feed and perhaps e-mail or Skype. I’m still in Lima, but most of the people I spent the semester with are either back home in the US or onto new adventures and vacations in other countries. And of course, time spent alone is the perfect time to wrap up my study abroad experience and reflect on what happened.
It’s obviously hard to really explain how I’ve changed since August. As always, time flies, and I can barely register the fact that it’s 2014 now and I have three semesters left of my undergraduate degree, and that my time in Peru is coming to a close in under a week. Then, after a visit from my mom, sister, and aunt, it is onto an internship in Ecuador.
Sometimes I miss my friends and family a lot. But I have also hit that point where Lima is very real to me. The rhythms and noises and attitudes are familiar. I know how to cross the street, how much fruit should cost at the little carts and bodegas, how to take the bus and that ‘menu’ does not mean menu. My day-to-day basic Spanish comes naturally and is usually comprehended.
What I’ve realized is that more than career skills and improved Spanish, I was able to learn some important things about myself. Here are a few qualities that I think I’ve picked up or improved on while in Peru.
1. Flexibility. This attribute is absolutely necessary in Peru, and from what I hear the rest of Latin America. The best part is that if you learn to be flexible, people must be flexible with you, too. When I think about it, the lateness makes total sense. When things don’t work as efficiently as in the US, one can’t help but be a bit late to everything. A few examples of why lateness is inevitable here:
Buying things is more of a process—if you don’t have low enough bills, the cashier might tell you they just simply don’t have the change to give you. Another store.
Restaurants often don’t serve everyone’s plate at the same time, and speedy service is unusual. People take their time at restaurants, which is sometimes great and sometimes not if you’re in a hurry.
At some stores like pharmacies and bakeries there is a three-step process of telling the pharmacist what you want, paying for it at a different desk, and going back to pick it up from someone who has put it in a bag for you. Three people later you hopefully have what you had in mind.
Sometimes combis will just whiz by without stopping for your waving hand. The next one might not come for another fifteen minutes. What else can you do but watch traffic for a while?
One of my teachers was consistently a half hour late. Every class.
Two, confidence. I think this attribute stems from being placed in a mostly Spanish-speaking country as a native English speaker and hesitant Spanish learner. Kind the sink-or-swim idea. Being hesitant in asking for help will get you nowhere. All of my travels ended up being successful thanks to the locals who are always willing to point in the right direction.
I also had to learn to adjust to sticking out. In my life in the US, I am not used to attention. I don’t wear bright colors. I’m an average height. I look like any other college student. But here, I look foreign, I’m taller than the average woman, I wear slightly different clothes, and when I speak I instantly draw notice. It took a few weeks to learn to just ignore the extra attention. But even when I had learned to stare blankly ahead despite being able to see the looks out of the corner of my eye, I still felt different. At the university I’d look at all the people around me and notice all the almost identical Peruvian heads facing the front, black hair and darker skin. Even I started noticing how much blond hair stood out.
Besides confidence in my physical appearance, I’ve learned how to be confident in my abilities. I now feel capable of adjusting to many different situations. I know myself better, especially what is important to me and what I need in order to get through a difficult situation. Which brings me to my next point:
Three, patience. Patience especially with processes. The process of learning a language, the process of adjusting to a new culture, the process of learning about myself, and the process of knowledge. Everything is a process that we should be patient about.
In high school I thought I’d be fluent by the time I studied abroad. I was very wrong. Language fluency takes much more than just desire. It takes complete immersion and constant dedication. My Spanish certainly could have gotten better had I made it a priority to speak Spanish all the time and only spend time with Peruvian friends. However, along with adjusting to the culture and surviving in my classes, I needed some English in my life to stay sane and happy. The limits of my ability to express myself in Spanish made real friendships difficult. I have no regrets about being friends with Americans, as we had a wonderful group of adventurous and funny people from around the country. I also found myself still reading books and articles in English as a break from reading Spanish for class, and this I also would never regret. Being patient with myself helped me when I felt homesick or especially frustrated with a new problem. I realized that time was on my side if I would let it be, and I learned to just wait out the hard times and enjoy the good times, knowing that one or the other would come back eventually.
And finally, I learned a little bit what being an American is. Being outside my culture for an extended amount of time made me able to have more of an analytical view. I now know what Americans are known for—being friendly (maybe a little too much), loud, and sociable. Obama is popular here, mostly because of the color of his skin. But the best aspect I’ve learned to be critical of is American’s constant need to be productive and desire to have the world function in the favor of getting things done. In reality, one cannot always be productive. One shouldn’t always be productive. Getting frustrated and impatient with unchangeable circumstances simply just increases stress. I think I’ve improved on the qualities of being more easygoing and forgiving of people and things. Like I said above, everything is a process.
On February 1st I will be flying in to Quito, Ecuador, to do an 8-week program along with an online class so I can count it as an internship. I am very excited to learn about a new culture and get some career experience too! Stay tuned…