Gringa Goes Abroad📍Santiago, Chile

Nicki Klar

Seated awkwardly in the middle of the
sidewalk on Erasmus, the notorious all-day party spot lining the block just outside my university, I made a comment to some friends I’d made minutes prior.
“Que bacán” I said, which meant “How cool” in
Chilean speak. I continued to comment on how I could feel the metro just underneath us. In that moment, shrieks of laughter and excitement began to erupt, students retrieving phones from backpacks to document the commotion. There was no metro beneath our bottoms, but rather the seismic vibrations of a mini earthquake or un “temblor.” Despite being from California, I’d never experienced this natural phenomenon. The Chileans seemed pretty used to it. Not even seconds after, my new friends were showing me all kinds of memes about the recent tremor on Instagram (since being here I’ve gone deep down the Chilean meme hole which reliably
consists of three words; wea, weón, weonado). But in a little over three months living in Santiago, a tiny
tremor is hardly the most unexpected thing that’s shaken my ground.

Every day there’s something new about the city of Santiago which requires a pause, from the cultural-reset of the completo (hotdog, but if you say that to any Chilean they will fight you fiercely), full-blown four piece bands within metro wagons, to the mythical magic of a piscola (which I actually strongly dislike). Every moment there’s a lesson, a new word, a new turn of phrase that I can literally feel rewiring my brain. From navigating a new language to exchanging cultural ideas and traditions with friends, I mean to emphasize that the way I think feels different here – the me I’ve known all my life is strange again. Studying abroad forces you to get to know yourself in a way you may have never known before.

One of the things that has lent me comfort and reassurance throughout this experience has been my host mom Ximena, a woman who kind of reminds me of my mom if Cyn was ten years younger, spoke twice as fast, and could make a mean pastel de choclo (a traditional Chilean supper dish). Ximena is actually the second host parent I’ve had. Between me and my first host mother was what the Chileans would call some “mala onda,” meaning we just didn’t get along that well. I’m studying abroad through the Middlebury Program in Chile, and the program directors made the process of changing houses super easy and stress-free – Ximena and I have been like soul sisters since the day I moved in. Her apartment is in the center of the beautiful and lively neighborhood Ñuñoa, the perfect place for going out for drinks with friends on the weekends (I’m always craving a michelada) and even on weekdays when I don’t have too much work.

Speaking of my workload here in Santiago, I’ve heard a lot of Wes students say this and I’d have to agree;
studying abroad has given me a brand new appreciation for the unique learning environment Wesleyan
provides. Though my campus in Santiago is beautiful and I’m taking some super interesting classes (like
Mobility and Human Migration and Chilean Poetry), the seminar style intimacy of classes at Wes is
something Universidad Alberto Hurtado simply cannot match. Here, almost every class is completely
lecture-based. Apart from the format of the classes, another big challenge for me has been doing all of
my schoolwork completely in Spanish – from essays to presentations to working with students on group
projects. Inevitably, there are words and phrases I miss in class or in student discussions, which at times
can honestly make me feel a little stupid. But the Chilean accent and idioms are hard! And the incredible
upside to this immersive experience is that I can truly feel myself becoming fluent in a second language,
something I never imagined myself capable of. And if I’m being honest, maybe this is part of the reason
why my motivation for formal school has been so low; it’s hard to prioritize completing homework
assignments when there is so much to learn outside of the classroom.

I’d say one of the best decisions I made for my study abroad experience was choosing to apply
for an internship with the help of the Middlebury Program directors. For a little over a month now I
have been interning at El Museo de La Memoria y Derechos Humanos, a museum dedicated to
visibilizing the human rights abuses committed by the Chilean state during the military
dictatorship of Pinochet (1973-1990). The museum focuses on educating the public on
these human rights abuses while sharing the stories of those killed, tortured, or disappeared, stimulating dialogue and reflection on the importance of tolerance and mutual respect to ensure these abuses do not repeat. This past Saturday and Sunday, I had the immense privilege of welcoming Macka Mack and Riet Delsing to the museum to give a talk on their activism during the military dictatorship through their feminist-socialist magazine, “Furia.” Working closely with esteemed feminist-theorist Julieta Kirkwood, these women formed the magazine collective as a response to the subjugation and violence against women perpetrated by the state and normalized by society. Interning at the museum has not only educated me on such a significant period in Chile’s history, but also exposed me to the inner day-to-day workings of an important cultural landmark. I am excited to learn more from this professional experience as my semester comes to a close.

While I still have another month of my semester and have decided to stay in Chile a while longer to
pursue a nonfiction writing project through the Sonnenblick Prize, the past three months have given me
ample time to reflect on some of my take-aways thus far. To anyone who’s about to study abroad in
Chile or in another country where English isn’t the first language, get comfortable with discomfort.
Sometimes you will feel lost and out of place, but that’s kind of the point! Studying abroad is about
figuring out the kind of person you are when faced with these unfamiliar situations. It’s about being able
to laugh it off when you make an embarrassing mistake in a language you are trying to learn. It’s about
being open and interested in others when they share a different perspective. It’s about learning to trust
yourself and your intuition while embracing new experiences. I’m not sure there’s anything that can
really prepare you for this kind of experience, so anticipate moments where you struggle and feel
unsteady. Your ground may shake a little, but the tremors always pass.