Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My virtual paranoia

You've probably noticed that the anecdotes that appear on this blog include quite a bit of self-deprecation (or self-congratulation, as the case may be) but hardly any personal detail. For example, I've posted about nasty clients I encountered at my last Chilean job but refused to indicate what type of job I had. I even deleted comments that alluded to it (sorry). I wrote a fair amount about my neighborhood in Santiago but didn't say which one it was. (What up, Estación Central?) And, of course, it's not a coincidence that nearly all the photos I post of myself don't include a full frontal view of my face. I'm not just being emo.

People might wonder -- with good reason -- why I'm so paranoid. It's not like I'm a celebrity or anything. Why would anyone want to waste their time stalking me online?

I'd like to ask the person who tried. I don't want to get into the sordid details, but a few years ago, a person contacted my employer in Chile seeking information about me and claiming we'd had a class together when I'd studied abroad. To make a long story short, I corresponded with this person for a few days online, all the while feeling guilty that I didn't remember her. The reason for this soon became obvious: I'd never met her at all. I realized this person had found sufficient information about me online to track me down and was now posing as someone she wasn't in order to achieve who knows what.

So I became paranoid. I wasn't that I was particularly afraid of this person, who dropped off the radar -- except for a minor Facebook incident -- when I cut off communication. The experience, however, made me aware of how easy it is for strangers to use the internet to both investigate and deceive you. The truth is that if anyone truly wanted to stalk me online, he or she could almost certainly find a way to do so; I decided, though, that I wasn't going to give potential stalkers any extra help by posting personal details on my blog.

This has made it impossible for me to share things about my life that I really would have liked to. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to blog about the outrageous experiences I had at my last Chilean job. Every time, though, I had to hold back: Even if I hadn't given the name of my company (which, needless to say, one should never do on a personal blog), the rubric I worked in was small enough that it would have been easy to guess where to find me from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. The same goes now for the Ph.D. program I'm about to start. Although it will probably become pretty obvious what I'm studying and where, I'm not comfortable publishing that information just yet.

Honestly, I wish I were, because -- call me voyeuristic -- I think learning details about other people's lives is part of what's so fun about reading blogs. Still, I think it's necessary to maintain a filter. I've seen blogs in which people have written things like, "Hey, friends and family! I got to India last night and spent today getting all my stuff organized in my new apartment. Here's the address so you can write me." I probably should have posted a comment along the lines of, "Are you insane?! Get your home address OFF THE INTERNET!" I've also read posts by people who identify their companies by name and proceed to bitch about their jobs. Bad move, amigos.

What do you think? Where should bloggers draw the line when it comes to sharing personal information? Is there any aspect of your life you would never consider making public?

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Ph.D. in crayons

In about a week, my sister, Q., and I will be moving into an apartment in New York City and starting our respective school years. At present, said apartment is completely empty aside from basic kitchen appliances and a few ceiling fans. Therefore, last week we decided to make that greatest of twenty-something pilgrimages: a trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

We piled our cart high with pillows and bedbug-proof mattress covers and struggled to maneuver it around displays of such enticing items as University of Minnesota Snuggies, butt-lifting underwear and something called the Pasta Boat. We must have looked lost (or like prime targets), because every employee we passed asked us if we needed help finding anything.

"Are you shopping for college?" one of them asked.

My mom, who was with us, explained that my sister was getting her master's and I my Ph.D.

The employee looked at me aghast. "A Ph.D. in crayons?" she demanded.

I'll admit that I can look young for my age. I don't say this in a "look how well I withstand the signs of aging" way; apparently, there's something about my face infantile enough to have made people assume I was in high school during and well after college and that I'm too young for big grown-up tasks like buying alcohol in countries where the drinking age is 18 and getting advanced degrees.

I'm sure I'll end up being grateful for this a few years down the line, but right now, being babyfaced sometimes results in people not taking me seriously – like the client at my last job who told me I “wouldn’t know anything about” a topic I wrote my undergraduate
thesis on.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t feel like a child sometimes, too. I was pretty good at keeping things running smoothly in Chile and Ecuador, but the fact that I’ve lived so many of the past several years abroad means I don’t really know how to be an adult in the U.S. I went straight from the protected island of college to a series of adventures in destinations south, and although I got jobs, opened accounts and rented apartments, everything seemed too transitory and precarious to fit into a stereotypical portrait of adult life. While some of my friends in the States were buying and decorating homes, I was renting furnished rooms in other people’s houses or – in the case of Ecuador – filling my apartment with cheap furniture I hoped to be able to resell when I left in a few months’ time. While some people my age were advancing along the hallowed road of “building a career,” I was working quirky jobs that, although rewarding, were more like tiles in a mosaic than rungs on a ladder.

Of course, I don’t subscribe to the idea that stasis is the key ingredient to adulthood. I would also hazard to claim that my unconventional experiences have made me more self-reliant than going a more traditional route would have. In other words, I’m prepared to take on adult responsibility, but I just don’t know how to do it here yet. I could tell you all about talking down your rent in Ecuador and could show you the statements from my Chilean retirement savings fund, but I still get nervous whenever I have to write or deposit a check in the U.S. And it is a bit unnerving to know that this new educational endeavor falls completely under my responsibility, both academically and financially: My fellowship is mine to keep or lose, and a lot more independence and self-discipline are going to be demanded of me than when I was a perennially sweatshirt-clad undergrad who spent hours in the cafeteria getting sugar highs from the impressive array of frozen-yogurt toppings. All of this makes me wonder if I'll be able to prove myself any older than the employee at Bed, Bath & Beyond assumed I was.

So stay tuned for my adventures in crayons, alternately titled “Little Leigh does Big-Girl Things.” No posts about writing checks: I promise.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 4: Say yes

That’s right: more tips for exchange students. In case you haven’t noticed, nostalgia for Chile has coincided with excessive amounts of free time to create very favorable conditions for blogging. Below are links to previous posts full of unsolicited advice:

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 1: Stick around

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 2: Academics
Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 3: Go extracurricular

Today’s tip: Say yes. I have to admit that I didn’t think this one up on my own. “Say yes” was actually a piece of advice given to me by a coworker in Ecuador. She was also from the States and explained that in order to meet people in her new country, she had decided shortly after arriving that she would say “yes” whenever a friend invited her out. As a result, she said, she made a lot of Ecuadorian friends – among them the man she eventually married.

I hadn’t met my coworker yet when I was an exchange student in Chile, but looking back, I operated according to a similar logic while studying abroad. I had arrived in Chile determined to make Chilean friends and integrate myself into local life, and I knew that this was going to require me to “put myself out there” – as my mom likes to say – more than I was accustomed to doing. See, I’m not the world’s most social person. In college, I much preferred staying in with my roommates to making a half-day production of going out to the neighborhood bars a lot of my classmates packed into once they turned twenty-one. To this day, any social outing that involves a significant amount of preparation and energy investment awakens in me a vague sense of foreboding.

I knew I had to get past this while studying abroad. Not only would avoiding situations in which I felt socially awkward prevent me from making Chilean friends, but I quickly learned that it would prevent me from leaving the house at all. (Unpleasant but necessary news flash: Being an exchange student is AWKWARD with capital everything.)

So I started saying yes. When someone invited me somewhere, I tried to repress my concerns about how out of place I would feel and just go. And it actually paid off. One particularly illustrative example is the story of my first judo barbecue.

It was my second semester in Chile, and I had decided to lower my stress level a bit by taking a judo class at one of the universities where I was enrolled. A few weeks into the semester, I was having a great time getting my ass kicked but had yet to reap the bounty of social benefits I had hoped getting involved in an extracurricular would provide me. I had become friendly with only one of my classmates: C., one of the only other female judokas.

When the upperclassmen in judo announced they would be hosting a barbecue for the entire class, C. and I took an “I’ll go if you’ll go” approach. Both of us enjoyed the company of the other students, but neither of us knew them well. We figured going as a pair would shield us from the uncomfortable prospect of not having anyone to talk to.

The afternoon of the barbecue, I boarded the bus with my violin case in hand (at the time, I was taking lessons with a music professor kind enough to put up with my chronic lack of practicing) and set off in the direction of what I thought was going to be the beginning of my new and improved Chilean social life. However, just after I’d arrived at the designated meet-up spot – I was one of the first, as gringas and gringos almost always are – C. called me and told me she wouldn’t be able to make it after all. (Another unpleasant but necessary news flash: This WILL happen to you in Chile.)

So there I was, a solitary gringa with a violin case standing around waiting for a bunch of people I didn’t know to show up. I felt extremely awkward and wanted to leave. Luckily, I managed to remind myself why I had gone in the first place and decided to stick it out.

It ended up being a blast. My classmates were much more inclusive of me than I had expected them to be; I even ended up performing an impromptu violin solo. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been nearly as sociable if I’d had C.’s shoulder to lean on the whole time.

That first judo barbecue ended up marking the beginning of a few important long-term friendships. The barbecue itself wasn’t enough: I knew that if I wanted to keep the ball rolling, I had to keep saying yes. That’s why, in the coming weeks, I found myself going out dancing until dawn with my new judo friends and, once I knew them better, running panting with them onto the last outbound train of the night in order to make it to a party in the country. Each time, I could have come up with a million reasons to say no: I was tired; I wasn’t dressed right; I wasn’t going to know many people. In spite of it all, I went the spontaneous route and have never regretted it.

Several years later, I went to a birthday party in honor of O., a classmate with whom I’d initiated a friendship at that fateful barbecue, and mentioned to him how happy I was that I’d decided to take judo. “We wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t,” I said.

“You mean if you hadn’t been social,” he corrected. “If you hadn’t gone to that barbecue, we would have just been classmates, not friends.”

He was absolutely right. As it turned out, “being social” that one afternoon had consequences that were much more far reaching than I’d ever imagined. A few years later, I was strolling near the Santísimo Sacramento church in downtown Santiago with my then boyfriend when it occurred to me that I would never have met him – two and half years after the barbecue through that classic chain of friends of friends – had I decided to take my violin case and go home.

“What are you smiling about?” he chided.

And I told him the long story that had brought us to where we were.

As you can see, embracing spontaneity worked well for me. I’d like to emphasize, however, that spontaneity is not the same as recklessness. I would never advise you to hop on a midnight train with people you didn’t know and trust or say yes to anything you felt would put your safety at risk. I would also maintain that, under some circumstances, you should say no to an invitation: The idea of study abroad isn’t to wreck your health or fail out, after all. I would, however, advocate pushing your social boundaries a bit: for example, by going salsa dancing even if you have two left feet or going to a party with your host sister even if you’re afraid of making embarrassing errors in Spanish. I think most of the people I know who have studied abroad in Chile would agree that, when it comes to making Chilean friends, the exchange student usually has to take the initiative. And you certainly can’t do that if you’re sitting at home.