When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester in Costa Rica as part of a study-abroad program. The program was designed for us to be immersed in the Spanish language and Costa Rican culture. Each of us lived with a Costa Rican family, who were on strict orders to speak only Spanish with us and not, for example, to try to work on their own English. Classes were in Spanish, papers and tests were in Spanish, and we traveled around the country and the region to learn about it firsthand.
I have many memories of the five months I spent in this small but gorgeous country: traveling to the Pacific Ocean where we all got extremely sunburned thanks to the closer proximity to the equator; hiking in the jungle with monkeys chattering overhead; attending a Palm Sunday parade through the center of town with floats and a full brass band; having the freshest tropical fruit of my life; and so on.
But more than any one memory, what sticks with me about my study-abroad experience — what I hope I never quite forget — is the uncomfortable feeling of being a foreigner and not a fluent speaker of the language.
This is something that surprised me — it caught me off guard, really. I had studied Spanish in both high school and college, five years total by that point, and I’m fairly good with languages. So while I knew I would hone my skills, I didn’t expect to feel really, well, childish in how I could express myself.
It turns out that knowing enough Spanish to get by — to ask for directions, order food, even have a basic chat with someone — isn’t the same as being able to really communicate.
There were so many times when I wanted to tell my host family something about my day, or about myself, and the words in my head wouldn’t come out right in Spanish. They were always considerate, but I felt like they couldn’t know the real “me” because I wasn’t fluent. I felt constricted by not knowing the nuances I was looking for, and at times I just kept quiet because that was easier.
It was really challenging not being able to share myself fully with others because of the language and culture barrier. We’re all made to connect and develop relationships, so I guess it’s not surprising that this need hit me hard.
This experience gave me a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to be an immigrant. What it feels like to be a stranger, an outsider. To not feel fully yourself because you can’t fully communicate. I started to understand why newcomers to the U.S. seek out people from their own countries and gravitate to ethnic neighborhoods for a generation or two. It was comforting (albeit technically against the rules) to talk in English with my fellow American students, and the best half hour all week was my call home to my parents.
And all of this was coming from someone who had formally studied the language for years, wasn’t anxious over money concerns or my next meal, had a comfortable place to stay and so on. I wasn’t a refugee with a traumatic past but a privileged college student on an optional study trip.
I finally understood, at least a little, how uncomfortable it is to be an outsider. How deep that feeling travels into the psyche, and how much knowing the language well plays a big role in feeling like myself. How deeply we need to connect with others beyond basic pleasantries and feel a sense of belonging.
Fluent in empathy
As my Spanish improved, and as I spent more time in Costa Rica, my comfort level grew. I started to feel like I was connecting with my host family, which was so rewarding. After a short trip home at the end of the semester, I went back to Central America to spend the summer at a Franciscan mission in Honduras. By that point, I felt like I could be myself — I knew who I was — in Spanish. How wonderful it was to develop friendships with Hondurans, to feel a part of their world.
My time abroad was a big factor in deciding to do a year of service work in Denver after college, working primarily with Mexican immigrants and their children. I had the chance to teach an English as a Second Language class to recent arrivals, and I had so much empathy for them and respect for their resilience and enthusiasm. (For the record, English is a far harder language to learn than Spanish!)
Living someplace different for a while — where people don’t speak like you, look like you, or think like you — opens new things in the human heart. The discomfort it causes for a time is well worth the greater awareness of our need for community and connection, and the greater empathy toward “the other” in our midst.