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.