A Letter Home


Dear Joe,

I had no idea what to expect—I guess no one does. The vision of an event is always to be reconciled with its reality. The truth is I had always wanted to study abroad, ever since visiting you during your Latin American adventure. I guess you could say my aspirations, like my expectations, were hardly unique. Feeling sheltered, often frustratingly so, I had in me the desire to throw myself beyond range of my socio-economic and personal boundaries into the tantalizing world that surrounded my ordinary life. Why am I in Costa Rica? I ask myself this constantly. Damn, it's a great question. I wanted to grow, not just as a fascinated student or intrepid explorer, but as a person. I wanted to change, to evolve, a metamorphosis, an odyssey—my odyssey. Filling out the mountains of paperwork to study abroad in Costa Rica safe and sound from the States, visions of pounding meringue rhythms and cheap pina coladas flew through my head like ocean breezes through palm trees. With the completion of each new hurtle, a medical clearance form or petition for a student visa, I smiled. The nights I would have! By the time I returned, I would be a tan, worldly senior, my Spanish smoother than suntan oil. And as the date of departure got closer and closer, like the ghost of Christmas Future, I sometimes found myself visited by my reflection in the mirror, wondering if I would recognize the person who came back.

Upon arrival these sugarplum visions of a carefree banana republic paradise met head on with reality—in my case the immigration officer at the airport. I soon realized that the Spanish I had studied, read, written essays in and stumbled through during the past two years of language classes bore little to no resemblance to the blank face of the Spanish speaking gentlemen behind the desk who wanted an answer to what was clearly a very pertinent question to my stay in Costa Rica. The officer sighed, asking this time in English the reason for my visit. A few awkwardly attempted stabs at the Spanish language and a passport stamp later, and I had my first study abroad Spanish language encounter, and a pointed exclamation of Homer Simpson’s echoing through my head.

As you know, my program didn't begin until the end of January, but I'd come down a month earlier to get to know the country and sharpen my language skills beforehand. To immerse myself, as it were. I quickly realized I would need every day I could beg, borrow, or steal. In short order ordinary tasks like going to the super market and catching a bus shrunk me to the mental equivalent of a 7 year old. Listening to directions on the street was an enigma worthy of a language rocket scientist and calling someone on the phone to make a reservation in Spanish I akined to the peculiar sensation of asking a girl to slow dance in middle school (yeah, that bad). My new world was hardly the Americas, nay, the moon.

Gone was the vision of me laughing jauntily with my Costa Rican classmates about the party last night, shattered the daydream of whispering sweet Spanish nothings in some senorita’s ear. My idea of Costa Rican life was replaced instead by a landslide of culture more tremendous than any brochure, orientation meeting or intensive language program can possibly mitigate. I cannot truthfully use any word for my time here but intense. After all, you cannot prepare yourself for a world you’ve never seen before. Everything you’ve ever done or gotten used to, from the simplest administrative actions to the avenues of language that help define you as a person are swept away, dragged out to cultural sea and drowned, leaving you nothing but your wits, which you realize aren’t as sharp as you thought they were.

Studying abroad is more disorienting than you think it will be. We tend to idealize this idea of immersion, of being immersed, while glossing over the personal ramifications of doing such a thing. It is nothing less than having the very rhythm of your entire life stripped down and shaken to its very foundation. And after such radical change, only the most fundamental part remains—you. The habits and devices we use to cushion our contact with the outside world, to insulate us from undue danger and trouble are rendered completely and utterly useless. Like monsters out of childhood, the dark and unfamiliar customs and corridors of a foreign country loom large and menacingly. But just like childhood, wonder and amazement lie in the smallest of things and the most unexpected of places. Some days you feel totally lost, crushed by the enormous burden of a country pressing down on you. But more often than not, you feel stronger than ever as you rise to the occasion more and more. You need only to look inside to feel yourself growing. However difficult such immersion is, it is surely more than compensated by its remuneration. Indeed, it is the trying and sometimes painful nature of immersion itself that is ultimately the benefit.

So you forge bravely ahead. Slowly you climb out of what sometimes feels like a cultural hole you’ve thrown yourself into. While you’re still a far cry from the self you saw smiling back at you from the Costa Rican study abroad brochure, you’re even farther from the kid sitting in the office freshman year looking at it for the first time. And then walking to class one day, you look around and realize you’re in it, you’re here, you’ve been here. You also realize you won’t be here that much longer.

Sitting in the Education Abroad Program office at home looking at that big calendar, or alone in your room charting the course of your prospective academic year, a semester in a different country looks like an enormously long period of time--so large you get lost in it. As your year abroad unfolds before you, events plug the holes in the previously unimagined colossal timeframe that is six months. Exam dates and weekend trips, futbol games and endless administrative work slowly but surely begin to scatter across the spaces of that calendar like stars making up the constellations of your foreign experience. And before you know it, you only have three months left, and are sitting at your computer trying to quantify the word Immersion when it is painfully clear that you have not been immersed, but are immersed.

And then you can take a step back, or try to. You can smile at the nights where the imperfection of the event is the soul of the experience. Walking barefoot in the rain down a Caribbean beachfront; sharing an afternoon in Spanish with some traveler from some other part of the world who has nothing in common with your life other than this cup of coffee and the fact that you both happen to be in this one place, in this one country, at this one time. You can smile when a fellow student makes a joke in Spanish, and stay after class to talk with your professor about the definition of popular culture. You go out drinking with local students, swearing with the rest of them as a heinous referee costs your new country the game, and laugh when a local asks you for directions—and you give them to him. And riding a bus, late a night, you can stare out the window as your city flashes before your eyes. As all the neon signs and taxicabs, people coming home from work with bags of groceries, and sidewalk preachers hurling fire and brimstone in Babylonian tongue that once seemed so strange flare past you, so briefly. And you don’t know it yet, but this is what it means to study abroad, to live in another country, to be immersed. Maybe you won’t realize it until you get home. Because for the moment, this city is too bright. Because you are still recognizing the latent potential that you saw in yourself so many months ago as you looked in the mirror and asked yourself “What am I doing?” This is Immersion. Because you are still asking yourself that question.


Your Brother

San José, Costa Rica