Saying goodbye to Costa Rica wasn’t easy. Even after a month in Gringolandia, it feels like I still have one foot still there. Maybe I just forgot to bring my foot with me. The last few days there were surreal. Packing, kicking back one last time with all my Ticos, and arranging all my travel affairs occupied me so that I didn’t truly have to face the fact that my flight was coming. Being in a plane for eight hours seemed like a dream. It didn’t hit me that I was back in the States for good until I woke up in my own bed in Missouri with my parents downstairs eating breakfast and my almost two year old nephew rampaging around like a freight train.
Before leaving, IFSA provided a returning culture shock seminar. The speaker did a great job of explaining the many aspects and changes that we would experience: the strangeness of English everywhere, taking on responsibilities again (such as feeding ourselves and cleaning our own bathrooms), and looking at American culture with a different perspective. However, knowing about culture shock, as I had already learned when I experienced it the first time in coming to Costa Rica, doesn’t make it any less jarring. The first couple of days back, I couldn’t stop talking about my experience. Luckily, my family is patient and listened. Talking about it isn’t the same. No matter how hard I try to explain, they will never understand exactly what I mean when I talk about asking directions from six different people to find one bus stop, how the most important international affair was the first football game against Uruguay in the World Cup, or how warm it is to meet a stranger with a hug and a kiss.
The easiest, and slightly disappointing, method of coping with the awkward jarring effect is completely separating my life in Costa Rica and my former and current life in the USA. It almost feels like someone clipped a small section of film roll out of a movie and reinserted a section from a different movie. Only the freshly inserted section was a foreign film and didn’t have subtitles. Now that I’m back to the original section of the film, I can resettle quickly and move on from the strange foreign part. In some ways, it is scary how effective this method is; already there are some days where I only think about Costa Rica once or twice. I don’t often actively think about my study abroad experience. Rather, there is a constant, buried ache, slight but consistent in the back of my mind. Occasionally I get sudden, sharp reminders of tico friends. Some days are worse than others. Rather than wasting time longing to go back, it would be better to invest this transition in reflecting upon what I have learned. A year abroad has taught me so many things about Spanish, a global perspective, culture, social diversity, and myself.
I dove into another culture with an open mind and a vocabulary limited to introductions and the weather. Slowly but surely, and many times forcibly, I acquired a broader vocabulary, learned advanced grammar, and developed, if not eloquence, at least tact in conversation. I have written more essays in Spanish than I have in English. I know enough slang to translate “We pull for the goat’s nanny’s hut” to “We are going to my girlfriend’s dad’s house.” I could translate better examples, but they would be quite inappropriate for a public blog. Am I fluent? Well, I suppose that depends. Merriam-Webster defines fluency as “the ability to speak easily and smoothly; especially: the ability to speak a foreign language easily and effectively.” If I were insulting your mother or explaining feminist theory, then yes, I would consider myself quite fluent. If the conversation turns to physics or football strategy, then no, I wouldn’t be fluent, not even in English. Unfortunately, fluency isn’t an achievement signaled by a little bell ping or a finish line. If only it were that concrete. I know I am years of studying from being at the level I desire, but, for practical purposes, I would consider myself bilingual.
Culturally, I will never be the same. In the airport in Houston going through immigration being around my own culture for the first time in a year was startling. Like an outsider looking in, I could clearly see all of the American quirks and stereotypes playing around me. We are loud. We complain a lot. Everybody was in t-shirts and shorts, carrying huge duffels or backpacks. Even the ethnic diversity jumped out at me. Strangest to admit, I found myself staring at people with blue eyes and blonde hair without realizing it. Although I had only been gone a year, standing in that airport, I did not feel like an American. Apparently I was successful after having spent so long trying to negate my own culture and embrace a new one. Fast forwarding one month, the alien sensation has dissipated, but not the consciousness of “Americanisms.”
Most of all, I’ve learned about myself, specifically, my limits and of what I am capable. I went to a foreign country barely knowing the language and without knowing a single person there. I lived with two completely random families. I lived off of what I brought with me, which was limited to what I fit in a suitcase and a backpack. After such a complete upheaval, I feel like there is little that I can’t do. Costa Rica chewed me up and spit me back out with a sense of confidence and a taste for travel. Returning to Missouri isn’t returning home; it is making a pit stop before launching again on another adventure.
Blogging for IFSA Butler-Costa Rica has been a pleasure. As my last post, there are only two words I have left to say: Pura Vida!