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Old Gold & Black

Old Gold & Black

Challenging the Old Truth

Challenging+the+Old+Truth

Don’t just “be yourself”

In early elementary school, before students are ever subjected to the A-F grading scale, they seek E’s for “exceeded standard” and S’s for “satisfactory” on categories like “gets along well with others” or “works well on group assignments.” These assessments are left in the dust when fourth and fifth graders begin composing 5-paragraph essays in cursive. What happens then when college begins and students are graded both academically and socially? Study abroad tests this to the extreme. 

 

It’s not always easy to make friends, especially when tired, in a new environment, employing a second language.  “Be yourself!” they encourage. “The right friends will like you for who you are,” parents and friends back home insist. As someone who couldn’t be more grateful for the friends at Wofford, I found it impossibly hard to imagine making friends like them with whom I’d spend the next year of my life—even harder to form relationships that could last the way I envision my friendships back home will.  

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Joan Didion—a writer of whom I speak often—once suggested in an essay that “[w]e are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” yet is more commonly quoted as lamenting, “I’ve already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” I admit that I fantasized about all the ways I would change on my year-long journey abroad. I dreamed of gracefully picking up French and Italian, comfortably adapting to the fashion statements of each city, becoming an avid runner and skateboarding around Valparaíso like a true porteña, as the port-dwellers call themselves. I was prepared to smoothly transition into a cosmopolitan version of myself, slowly and gracefully losing touch with who I was before I left the States; simultaneously, I thought I could heed Didion’s first piece of social critique and sustain such “nodding terms” with my old self.   

 

I imagined how these successes would help me make friends throughout the year.  I thought if I could adapt to any scene—not by being fake but not exactly entirely “being myself” – I could guarantee to foster a relationship anywhere. Be it in a desert hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, a café in Santiago, the surf school I frequent on the weekends about an hour up the coast, the boulevards of Paris, or a museum in Rome, I intended to earn straight E’s in “gets along well with others” and “makes friends easily” all year long.   

 

Adaptability—great. Open-mindedness—also important. But true to self? How does that stand in the specific case of study abroad, when one is constantly changing, meeting new people, adapting to new cultures, and embracing differences with an open mind?  

 

On merit of being half my my-self and half my new-self, I happily share that I have formed friendships with Americans and Chileans that I intend to sustain once I say goodbye come December. However, I have tried to imagine my “abroad friends” in an American context or visiting me at Wofford. The circumstances in which we grew close pertain so specifically to the mishaps of living in a country where the popular lingo often confuses us, where the public transportation system frequently leaves us waiting at micro stops with empanadas in hand debating the best empanada stands and where cups of drip coffee are the most thoughtful gift you can bring a friend who otherwise swore off it to avoid another mug of instant coffee. We’ve shared so much together, and they’ve also contributed to my personal growth and change.   

 

While in Mendoza for a weekend, I ended up spending most of the time in parks and vineyards exploring the issue of consent and bipartisan politics with my closest girl friend I have here.  Most Tuesdays and Thursdays a group of us meet at the rocks along the water to watch the sunset; as the summer approaches, we’ve gained more hours of daylight to spend our afternoons exchanging ideas and memories. We’ve talked about everything from immigration and racism in both Chile and America, body-image, vegan brownie recipes, our favorite artists, the best podcasts, local politics in Michigan and the best diners in Massachusetts.  

 

On the occasional weekend, our host moms have held at-home workshops to learn their best recipes for hummus and falafel, we’ve celebrated birthdays together with pisco sours and Chilean sweets, they’ve cheered me on as paddled to the outside swell to attempt to surf the biggest waves I’ve ever ridden. If I had committed to being myself the whole time, I feel I would have limited my learning and experiences; by intentionally not being myself, I got to strive towards my best self with inspiration from new friends.  

 

I’m glad I planned on changing before I got on the plane to come here. I think it allowed me to fully embrace all the ways new friends and family could influence me for the better. I don’t feel like I’ve lost touch with who I was, either. In a complicated way that I believe only study abroad can provide and by choosing not to “be myself,” I’ve shaped a version of my best self—and even lived “my best life” at times. For the friends I knew before I arrived in Chile and for those I made along the way and have yet to meet, I hope “they would not find me changed from [her] they knew—/Only more sure of all I thought was true” (“Into My Own”, Robert Frost).

Caption: Santiago artist Mikele Orroño and I at an Italian eatery in Valparaíso. She came to the city to deliver the collage I purchased for my research project, so we shared lunch. While I met her in a formal setting, we have since become close friends who stay in touch on a weekly basis.   

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