I called my host family before leaving for Oaxaca City to tell them when I would be arriving at the airport. I had been confident that I could speak Spanish – I took four years in high school – although in the end my attempt was embarrassing. Fortunately it was cut short when the son of my host family interrupted me in fluent English to suggest that instead of Spanish, we speak English. I was surprised, and the feeling remained with me as I drove to the airport a few hours later. By the end of the night I was to be in Mexico, a country that I realized I knew almost nothing about. I could have given a decent report on the history of most Western European countries, but I didn’t know anything beyond the most basic details of the country next door.
I hadn’t had any time to do research, either, since I had been accepted into the University of Washington Spanish language study abroad program in Oaxaca City just before I left the country on a different trip. My two-day layover in Seattle between trips consisted of repacking my bags and catching up on sleep. As the plane took off for Mexico I tried to sort through my expectations, which I soon realized were nothing more than generalizations: My ideas about Mexico were based on caricatures and stereotypes – towns like those you see in Speedy Gonzales cartoons, pictures of people with sombreros on bottles of salsa and images of poncho wearing men riding horses from spaghetti western films. I knew these images were exaggerated, if not outright wrong, but I started asking myself whether Oaxaca City would have Internet, what sort of house I would live in and whether or not the house would even have drinkable water.
When I think back to my questions on the plane ride, I can’t help but laugh at myself a little. After I arrived at the airport, I was greeted by the mother of my host family, a distinguished looking lady, who led me to a large, expensive SUV and drove me to the home I would be living in. I was amazed when we arrived, and even after three months of living there, I still can’t believe the house – a seven bedroom, four bathroom, gated mansion. The interior of the house was immaculate as well, and not only was it much nicer than any of the houses I’ve ever lived in, it was the nicest house I’ve ever set foot inside. Plenty of drinkable water was available, and we even had wireless Internet in the house, something I don’t have at home in the States. I immediately dismissed any notion that I would be roughing it in Mexico.
At first I was slightly disappointed to be living in the wealthiest neighborhood in Oaxaca City, but I sought out a volunteer position in one of the poorest schools in the city, which exposed me to the other side of life in Mexico. Seeing the disparity between classes – the poorer side of Mexico that I had anticipated, and the wealthier side I had not – helped me learn to get in the habit of challenging what I see and challenging myself before I dismiss something as different or uninteresting. As a result, I rediscovered the joy of trying new things (almost everything in Oaxaca City was new to me) and learned to accept the discomfort associated with pushing my own boundaries. Instead of driving, I walked. Instead of doing the talking, I listened, watched and asked questions. I learned to appreciate the Mexican schedule, which is based around eating with and taking care of the rest of one’s family. I even came to appreciate Catholicism despite my lack of religious beliefs.
Yes, the time I spent in Oaxaca City has helped me grow into a better person. I’m stronger both physically and mentally and I’m probably more interesting than before I left. More than learning about another culture, I learned about myself – my time away from home showed me that no matter what the specifics of the situation are, my experience is what I make it and nothing more.