(and have clearly exhausted all energy to create clever titles)
So as I come around to the last couple weeks of living in BA and last month in South America (for now!), I’ve been thinking a lot about how my language skills have progressed. I can pretty much discuss anything if I look up some key words beforehand, and understand most of what people say to me. Does that mean I’m fluent? It’s tough. My conclusion as to what fluency means is this: thoughts directly translating into words. In English, as soon as we think something, we say it. There’s no period of wondering how to express it, and sometimes I feel like I only realize what I’m thinking because it comes out of my mouth first (or this could also be specific to me…?). That would never happen in Spanish. At this point, I don’t translate from English phrases in my head, which is a huge step; I think of things in Spanish first. But I still have to think when I’m talking. Unless I’m saying something fairly simple, I still have to pay a lot of attention. So I feel like I have a ways to go.
That’s not to say I couldn’t convince someone who speaks low-level Spanish that I’m fluent, or convey to a native speaker that I know more than I do by consciously avoiding complicated grammar, words, or topics. But there are definitely big gaps in my knowledge. For example, I can speak about random academic things pretty well, but I realized the other day I had not learned a some of the food names at the vegetable stands (or, the less common ones) because I’d just point at things and say “one of these, two of these, a couple of that…” and never actually use the names (for instance, it took me a full month of ordering red bell peppers every other day to finally learn the name). Random other gaps I realized today: I had gotten around the word “maid” by always calling her “the woman who cleans the house,” and hadn’t picked up the different words for different types of bags (“sack” vs. “purse” vs. “briefcase” vs. “messenger bag,” for instance) by just calling everything either a “bolsa,” a bag, or a “bolsita,” a little bag. And I still describe a lot of things as “things” without using the actual term. Which I think is all normal. But in the end, I still have a lot of vocabulary that I should probably learn.
It’s also kind of a bummer that I’m leaving because I would definitely become fluent if I stayed one more semester. That’s the kind of time it takes. I have this feeling now that I’m riiiiight on the cusp of being completely comfortable, but I’m just not practicing/listening/speaking enough. But still satisfied with how far I’ve come!
New thoughts on travel
So as I was sitting in a café the other day daydreaming about all the places in South America that I want to visit, I realized that my perspective on travel has completely changed. For one thing, I now find it much more distasteful to imagine visiting a place where I can’t communicate with locals; the thought of travelling in Latin America or Spain, where I have the tools to bond with locals and really learn about the culture, sounds infinitely more attractive than being a tourist who either forces people to speak English or is never able to really connect with people. You take for granted here the fact that you can communicate with people until you meet or observe tourists who don’t speak Spanish, and then it hits you: they are missing out on so much. They don’t catch passing conversations, can’t joke around with a street vendor, can’t ask for recommendations from locals, can’t read the graffiti or the newspapers or listen to the radio, can’t blend in… although I’m sure they have a great time, but unless they find themselves a local guide, they’ll never really be part of it. And when I imagine myself being that tourist in Asia or Europe or Africa, it just seems so much less gratifying.
Second revelation is that some of the vacations that I’ve imagined taking in the past now seem way too tame; I can’t muster up hardly any enthusiasm for Europe at this point when I think of everything I could do in South and Central America if I returned. My three trips to Europe were great: lots of museums, food, marveling at cobblestone streets, small cars, really old amazing stuff, and interesting cultural observations. But then I think about the crowds of tourists, and what it would feel like to look out over Machu Picchu, the islas de Colombia, Rio de Janeiro from a paraglide, the coast of Valparaiso, the sunrise over Punta del Este, the Bolivian countryside on horseback, the Galapagos Islands, Mendoza in the summer, Bogotá from a gondola, a scene of Carnival revelry, or the Panamá canal. And then I can’t imagine doing anything else but coming back to South America. I freaking love it.
(Disclaimer: this does not mean that I still don’t want to at some point visit all the other places I haven’t been. Buuut it is also really cool that Spanish gives you an entire continent’s-worth of travel where every country is completely distinct.)
The pros and cons of blending in
So I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the main things that I think affects a study abroad experience: the degree to which one can blend in on the street. I feel like this is a big factor affecting how different the experience is for friends studying in Europe vs. those studying in Africa or Asia, for instance. On the one hand, I love that I blend in here (in Buenos Aires — probably wouldn’t in other areas of Argentina); people initially speak to you in Spanish, treat you like they would anyone else, and don’t make you feel like a spectacle. That’s all really cool and makes you feel like more a part of a culture. On the flip side, people aren’t as interested in you. A friend who lived in Peru the summer before this semester said it was really different when she stood out so much because people approached her to talk more often and were generally more interested in her, giving her more of an opportunity to speak Spanish to random people. I get the sense that in countries where Americans stick out more, although you’ll always be the gringo, at least you’re an interesting, exotic gringo who warrants a conversation. Or maybe I just feel a little envious of people in situations where they’re a novelty because my host family has had Middlebury students every semester for five years and so almost nothing I contribute to the dialogue is novel. Another benefit of being somewhere where you stick out is that people might appreciate more the fact that you speak their language and understand the culture, as I feel like they would more in either a more rural area without tourists or a country where gringos never speak the language (like pretty much all of Africa, for example). But then I think about how nice it is to also be able to observe the culture naturally and without the stigma of being a foreigner — at least until I decide to speak. I guess both experiences — blending in and sticking out — are just better for different things, or different people. I feel like the ideal combination would be a country like Brazil, where I could sort of blend in (I coulddd be from the South…), but where it’d also be sufficiently impressive to speak good Portuguese (I think?). Another point for Brazil!
YES! I now represent an entire ideology!
Remember how I talked about how it might get awkward to be from America in my class on economic liberalization? Well. As it turns out, I am now the de facto in-house representative of capitalism.
I didn’t think my paper on privatization in Argentina was very biased; my main thesis, after all, was that private and state-run enterprises can both be successful strategies, but that it’s the degree to which economic policies are well-managed and the effectiveness of the leadership in a country that determines the system’s success or failure (but more specific on what is “well-managed”; otherwise I guess that sounds like a “well duh” thesis…). So I was very taken aback when, after having gone around in a circle in class briefly summarizing our papers and conclusions, my entire class decided to focus on the fact that my paper was biased, extremely neoliberal, advocated privatization, and essentially represented all that had destroyed Argentina. Say what?!?! So of course, my teacher asks me to rebut these critiques in front of the entire class, which was frightening and stressful. And next Monday I have to give a 20-minute presentation about this with a “debate” at the end, and am positively terrified.
Other things I should probably write about… later:
- Host family. I realized I haven’t talked much about them, so I’ll do a little thing on them next time. We’re not… super tight.
- Visiting Uruguay- SUCH A GREAT PLACE.
- How my immigration project is progressing. I now know all about the Chinese mafia here, which is cool.
- How my internship ended up going. I’m done with it now, but it was overall just a really neat experience, and I went to a really interesting talk at “La Casa” de GPS the other night on Brazilian politics. It’s just fascinating to be surrounded by people who basically constitute the young political elite of Argentina. They’re all so cool.
- La UBA en general. The university system here is really interesting. Also, comparisons to how US universities are set up. One thing that I’d never appreciated before is how unusual and fantastic it is to get to live on a campus with 2400 really cool other people around my age. Although this is possibly a quintessential example of cultural relativism, I’m also convinced that this is pretty objectively true: college is way more awesome in America.
Guys. I am so excited to come back to Middlebury.
Oh! I almost forgot about my idea to add a music video to spice this post up a lil bit. Here’s my current favorite song, by a band from Cuba (=impossible to understand when they get going).
- Another thing I forgot: the other day someone told me I looked, “like, so porteña right now.” I didn’t know how to handle how delighted I was. Absolutely giddy. Highlight of the week, for sure.