Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

I Feel Like a Real Person!

My first week of my second semester in Costa Rica was not at all like my terrifying first week of school last semester.  It wasn’t that circumstances changed; it was that I had changed.

This semester, I am taking three regular courses through the university and two Spanish classes for extranjeros.  My three regular classes are: Art in Cinema, Hispanic Vanguardian and Mundonovist Literature (I really have no idea how to translate mundonovismo), and Drawing I (Arte en el cine, Literatura hispanoamericana vanguardia y mundonovismo, Dibujo I).  (They all have a better ring to them in Spanish.)  There’s nothing remarkable to tell about them since they feel like new college classes that happen to be in Spanish rather than terrifying chambers of barely comprehensible babbling.

It’s crazy to feel the difference in how I handle life.  In six months, I went from being afraid of riding an unfamiliar bus by myself or anyone talking to me in Spanish to organizing a weekend trip for the entire group of exchange students and making friends with the Ticos and Europeans in the hostel kitchen without even thinking about it.

I wouldn’t say my change has been remarkably fast or above average–if anything it was more difficult and took me longer to adapt than what I have observed in the other exchange students.  But the point is, I did adapt.  I became a person I could not even imagine last semester.  And if feels good.

I would just like to give you a sense of context for how the contrast feels.

I’ve heard language-immersion is like being an adult with a 5-year-old’s vocabulary before, and I wouldn’t argue with that.  But it goes deeper.

Imagine not being able to communicate your deepest, well-thought out views on religion, social issues, hypothetical situations, or philosophical abstracts.  Thus, you can’t enter into intellectually engaging and interesting conversations as an educated and independently-thinking human being.

But you can live without that, right?

Imagine not being able to follow a class discussion, or if you can follow, not being able to contribute because by the time you phrase something comprehensible in your head, someone has already said it, or the discussion has moved on.

Don’t worry, participation is only 25% of your final grade.

Imagine not being able to catch jokes or understand anything when you’re with a lively group of college kids because they’re all talking over each other and having three conversations at once, so you just have to sit there and reflexively smile when everyone laughs.  Also, you’ve lost all ability of comedic timing and if you say something unusual or ironic, people get confused because they think you got your vocabulary mixed up.

It’s ok, there are quiet people without a sense of humor in this world, and they get along just fine.

Imagine all potential friends looking at you and assuming from your skin and hair color that you can’t speak their language, so no one ever initiates conversation with you.  If someone does unexpectedly speak to you, the gears screech in your head as you struggle to switch languages and you have to ask them to repeat whatever they said, which confirms their assumption that they won’t be able to communicate with you.

Not a problem, provided you don’t want friends anyway.

Imagine not being able to tell a comprehensible, much less funny, story in past tense, or that anytime you get excited, your words can’t keep up with your mind.  Imagine trying to talk about cooking without knowing the words for pot, pan, spatula, dough, bake, boil, chop, cutting board, or various ingredients.  Imagine that happening with almost any specific topic: volleyball, the Middle East, fairy tales, Cher, a detailed description of your left shoe, how great the movie Rise of the Guardians is, the finer points of proper spaghetti-eating etiquette….

Eh, having a personality is overrated.

Imagine the reproach in the eyes of a far-too-intelligent 6-year-old girl because she knows you don’t actually understand her, that you’re just smiling and nodding because you’ve already asked her to repeat what she said twice and have given up trying.

Because you don’t even have the capacity of a 5-year-old to communicate.  You are an adult, with the social expectations of an adult, in an adult’s world without the capability to function as an adult, and it’s terrifying.

I came to Costa Rica expecting to adapt quickly and have the time of my life, and ended up in an overwhelming vortex of the unknown.  This song does a good job of capturing the sense of confusion and loneliness I had through most of the semester:

So, after all that, imagine the relief at being able to start over.

I can make friends that don’t speak English.   I’ve developed a new sense of humor based on my ineptness and find that apparently I’m often funnier in a foreign language. I enjoy learning in my classes rather than struggling just to keep up, and although I love my new gringo friends, but I’m not dependent on them.

Traveling alone to somewhere I’ve never been before not only seems possible, but also exciting.  I use the general assumption that I don’t speak Spanish to my advantage to ignore piropos from male strangers, and also as an opportunity to work on being the one to initiate conversation with potential friends.  Last year, making Tico friends seemed impossible, and now it’s almost as easy as making friends back home.

My confidence, flexibility, and adaptability have grown with my vocabulary.  I’ve discovered a lot about myself; I’m interested to see what kind of person I’ve become in the context of my own culture.  Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, I’m definitely still a foreigner, but a capable foreigner.  And I like it.


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