Before leaving the states, I thought it would be important to contextualize my experiences with traveling and studying abroad.
Last year was the first time I was out of the country, and it was exciting! I studied in Cuernavaca, México with Universal for 3.5 weeks and then travelled to México City for a week before returning home.
The experience was quite good for several reasons. After studying Spanish for several years, I feel it really helped me develop a different linguistic and cultural understanding of the people behind the language. You can learn how to translate every word of another language, in fact computers can do this; what separates a fluent person from a computer is that we can go beyond the literal translation and make sense of the cultural metaphor, which is in essence how we communicate.
Take for example two particular events from the trip. First La día de la Virgen Guadalupe, or Day of the (Patron saint) Virgin Guadelupe. Virgin Guadalupe became the patron saint after a miracle was formed. This is perhaps one of the most spiritual holy days for Mexicans. Most Mexicans go to mass on this day, prepare special foods, and put rose petals on the graves of loved ones.
Another example is the tradition of Las Posadas. Posadas is a great tradition I also learned about in High School Spanish. The weeks before Christmas each local parish and/or street (depending on the town/city) reinacts Mary and Joseph's sojourn to Bethlehem. In many parishes, its a special honor for a the girl in the town to be chosen as Mary. This celebration becomes a social celebration for the town block. The young and old come out together and join the Posadas parade, followed by the ceremonial breaking of the piñata and drinking poncho. (Poncho is a hot cider-like drink with spices, fruit and sugar cane in it.) This is another example of how the Mexican community comes together as a group or family for celebrations.
For both of these examples, I recall learning about this holiday when I was in my High School spanish class (taught by on of my favorite HS teachers Sra. Shuey). She always included culture in the study of language. Even though I was aware of the holidays and could tell you a lot about them, I never was able to "understand" their full purposes before I experienced them.
I think this gets at the heart to why it is good to study abroad: Books can only teach you so much about a given topic, what we each need to learn something fully is to experience the world. This changed my perspective on the world, I process the world through a different lense.
I think it also taught me another valuable lesson about respecting other people's lives. I think all cultures to some extent are centered on our lives and our way of life. While this can be helpful, I think we need to push beyond our culture and push towards a cultural understanding of acceptance of difference. We may be have different cultural identities such as American, Mexican, Argentine, or Nepalese, or different religions, but at the end of the day we're all humans. We're all on this planet together. At the risk of sounding like a bleeding heart (which I probably am), we need learn about each other, understand our differences and similarities, and accept every person for their own unique characteristics we each bring to the world. If we could do this, the world would look very different.
As I challenge myself to engage in another cultures social quirks head-on, I challenge us all to acknowledge the differences between us and celebrate them. After all, if we were all the same, this nation--and world--would be boring.