How to Answer the Expected (and often Dreaded) Question: “How was your semester abroad?”

Jennie Frishtick Feature

Jennie Frishtick is a student at Scripps College and studied abroad on IFSA-Butler’s Chilean Universities Program in Valparaiso, Chile.

“How was Chile?”

The expected question. The good old “you-just-spent-five-months-in-another-country-now-tell-me-about-it-in-one-sentence” question. I came back from my semester in Valparaíso, Chile expecting this question. But that in no way meant that I came back ready for this question.

Chile was so many things. It was challenging, exciting, emotional, and hilarious. It made me smile, it made me think, it made me cry, and it made me laugh (a lot). I met new family, I made new friends, I ate new food, I learned new words, and I tried to take it all in. All of these experiences and feelings are pretty hard to get across when someone asks me “How was Chile?” Usually I just want to take this person back with me to let them experience it. But thankfully, a good combination of photos and words can get me part of the way there. So here goes!

 

Valpo is full of smells. There’s the fishy smell from the port and fish markets, fresh fruit from the green market, fresh bread and pastries from “las panaderías” (especially from the one on the corner near my family’s apartment), garbage in the streets, food vendors on the corner, you name it.


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Manjar is the best thing in the world. It’s like dulce de leche, but not. And it’s in and/or on everything. On bread with “once” (“on-say,” the tea-like meal around dinnertime), in pastries in all of the pastelerías, in DONUTS at Chilean Dunkin’ Donuts…and sometimes just on a spoon. But the spoon thing may have just been me.

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Chilean Spanish is different than the Spanish I learned in school. Every time that I’d mention to a Chilean that I came to Chile to study abroad so that I could learn Spanish, they laugh and tell me that they don’t speak Spanish here—they speak “chileno.” Or they’d tell me that I shouldn’t learn their version of Spanish because no one will understand me. Whoops.

 

Empanadas are a great snack to have whenever you go out, sometimes multiple times a day. (I have a feeling this is not the general opinion on empanadas, but just what I came to believe throughout my semester there.)

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The date September 11th meant a lot to Chileans long before it came into our psyches in 2001. On September 11th, 1973, the Chilean democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military “junta,” led by Augusto Pinochet, and seventeen years of military dictatorship followed. Standing in front of the memorial for the people who were “disappeared” (most tortured and killed) during the dictatorship, I was struck by just how recent that was. And a dictatorship doesn’t just morph overnight into a democratic government; the process of undoing and adapting to the changes put in place by Pinochet is an ongoing process.

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The cereal boxes in Chile are harder to open. I’m not sure what it is that’s different, but I was never able to open one without ripping the lid. And the same goes for the bag inside. Why?!

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Chilean students had multiple “marchas” (marches) for educational reform throughout the semester. They marched for an education that was high quality and free. Eventually they went on strike and stopped attending classes, in addition to participating in the demonstrations. Technically, as a foreigner (extranjera), I wasn’t allowed to participate. So I just “observed.”

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Sometimes, singing songs from the 90s and early 2000s at the top of your lungs with your fellow IFSA gringos on the way home from a fieldtrip is the best way to embrace intercultural learning. Avril Lavigne and The Fray can have some good insight into your experience abroad ☺

You don’t learn about Chile’s indigenous population when you hear about Chile (or at least, I hadn’t). When my IFSA group went to the south to stay with two different Mapuche communities, there was a march against the hydroelectric plant that was going to be built in the local river—not only holy ground, but also the community’s crucial source of water.

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A “micro” is a bus, and it is the main form of public transportation in the central (or rather, flat) part of the city. Technically, there are bus stops every other block or so…but the micros don’t always stop. If you want a micro to stop, you often have to communicate that to the driver in some way. It’s like hailing a taxi…except it’s a bus. The drivers will sometimes honk or flash their lights or ask in some other way if the people waiting on the sidewalk are indeed waiting for his micro, and you have to put your arm up or make eye contact with him and nod or do a little dance to show that you want to take that micro.

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Torres del Paine, the national park in Patagonia in the south of Chile, really is as breathtaking as you’ve heard it is. And bringing about ten packs of cookies for trail snacks make hiking it even more enjoyable.

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So, “How was Chile?” It was all of these things. It was a combination of experiences that make answering that question really, really difficult. I can’t boil it down into a quick response. I can’t create a short, easy answer that encapsulates what it feels like to realize that you can make really great friends in a different country and in a different language. Or when you bond with the other people walking around the city because you all need to cover your faces with scarves because of the tear gas lingering in the air after a student march. Or when you learn about your friend’s aunt who was tortured and killed by the dictator. Or when the lady at the empanada store starts to know who you are since you’ve become an empanada regular. My semester in Chile was exciting, and new, and intense. But above all, it was too many things for a one-word answer.

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