Lost in Translation

According to the most recent statistics compiled by the Off Campus Study Office, Swarthmore students are not shy to dive into a completely new culture; of the graduating class of 2012, 40% studied abroad. In the 2011-2012 academic year, 150 students, mainly in their junior year, attended 85 programs in over 44 countries. While most students studied in Europe (59%), 17% went to Latin America, 7% lived in Asia, 6% explored Oceania, 4% chose Sub-Saharan Africa, and 3% the Middle East/North Africa. As for that age-old tale that Honors makes going abroad impossible, of the 29 who completed honors in the graduating class of 2012, 28 had studied abroad. Whether traveling to meet a language requirement or simply to escape the Swarthmore bubble, Swatties are embracing international life. This choice comes, however, not without its challenges.

After studying in Madrid for four months, I am no stranger to the difficulties associated with being on one’s own miles from home. I couldn’t get a bagel for breakfast. I was sick of ham on everything. I was itching to have a thought-provoking conversation in which I didn’t have to translate everything being said and stumble over my own responses. The hugs from my friends, no matter how loving, were never my mom’s or sister’s. Sometimes, I just wanted to walk into a store and know what kind of deodorant or shampoo to purchase. It didn’t help that on Facebook all my Swat friends were tagged in photos that convinced me they were having a swell time. The hardest part for me was having to be constantly be on, always performing and alert. Nevertheless, I am eternally grateful for the food of my host family, the silliness of the clubs, the beauty of the city. I also learned to thrive in discomfort, a lesson that is invaluable. Below are the stories of four Swatties, Natalie Campen ‘14, Rachel Fresques ‘14, Nicholas (Nicko) Burnett ‘14, and Elena Ruyter ’14 who, basking in discomfort, learned to live in linguistic and cultural abnormality and grew because of it.

“She’s such a lazy c**t”: Australia, the English-Speaking Non-American Country

“They used words I would never use,” Natalie Campen giggled about the people she encountered while studying biology and ecology at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. Their word of choice, c**t, had many compounds of meanings. “B***h c**t, f**k c**t, were the most common. This word was a “blanket swear word” for anyone and everyone. These small linguistic differences were not only reserved to the foul-mouthed. “Compulsory” replaced “required” or “append” became “staple,” Natalie explains. Thinking she took the easy way out by not choosing the Spanish-speaking Costa Rica, Natalie still had to adjust to common sentence construction variations and the Australian dollar conversions. Academically, Natalie missed the Swat emphasis on “participation” and the way her professors encouraged her to learn “how to think” as opposed to simply memorize material. As she puts it, Australian professors “have a wealth of knowledge that they give you to soak up and spit back”. On top of her classes being lecture-based, her entire grade was a midterm and a final which she was scared to “mess up” she said. “I prefer more opportunities to do well because for some reason, I always mess up that one big paper”. The way her classes were taught was not the only difference in the general perception of education.

Her Australian roommate a “second year vet student”, though a Sophomore, already had his career set. Natalie explained that in Australia, “at 18 years old you enter a career-based program” that sets you for life. For this reason, most take a gap year between high school and college to figure themselves out. “If I had to have it figured out by college that would be ridiculous”. She’s right. We sort of hope we have it figured out by the time we graduate. If some choose to continue to “Uni” but don’t really like it or their career program they often “just contemplate dropping out”. There, “going to the university was a choice” that some chose not to make. In fact, a large number of Aussies choose to work immediately out of high school. What Natalie understood as a “freedom of being,” I interpret as a more inclusive understanding of productivity or success, concepts that are inseparable from the American identity. From young ages we are taught to associate a college education as the only means of not only monetary success but of proving our worth. For her, this mentality felt less oppressive and allowed for Australian youth to really work on themselves. This encounter then, not only showed her there are many ways to lead a life you deem fulfilling but that even her assumptions about productivity were in themselves, narrow-minded. Recounting a moment of culture shock, Natalie laughed, “I went out with my friends one night…and our friend asked for an Australian friend to get chips, because they served guacamole and other spreads. He came back with fried potato wedges. We all laughed it off and snorted “lost in translation!”

Tango and Mistaken Identity: Dance as Universal Language in Buenos Aires
Rachel, a participant of the Swarthmore in Buenos Aires program, chose Argentina because she wanted to “experience Latin American culture and improve my Spanish”. However, she soon found that Buenos Aires was no Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, or Bolivia: “I was taken aback by its Europeanness”. The architecture, the people, the shops, all screamed modernity and European aesthetic. Expecting the small, village feel of the Bolivian pueblo she visited, she was instead confronted with a fast-paced city she likened to NYC, “just people don’t drive in lanes and there is dog poop everywhere”. On top of the disappointment about the city, she felt isolated. Her program, with only 4 Swat students, was closed to external students. Originally, she was attracted to the smallness of the program, which gave her the freedom to study what she was curious about: “you decide what you want to study and they find teachers for you”. As a psych major, she was connected with a cultural psychology professor who allowed her actively engage in her research project. “I was able to interview new mothers at a hospital” for research. While she gave her academic experience a solid A, her social life suffered. “The Swat students were nice but it was frustrating to have such a small, set social group”. Even when at home, she felt isolated. As she put it, “it was overwhelming to walk around the city alone, but I would return and sit in my room by myself”. In the city, she would often get mistaken for an Argentinian, adding to that anxiety. They would often “direct questions toward me” and she would “stumble through the interaction” until they, shocked, acknowledged she was not “one of them”. In some ways, living undetected based on her appearance drew people to her. Even then, it “took more time to develop relationships with people because of the language barrier”. What’s worse is that she often felt on the spot, having to justify who she was against the assumptions people made of her.

Rachel found solace in her passion, dance. Taking ballet 2-3 times per week, Rachel was at first “concerned about not being able to follow the class” in Spanish. I “knew the French” she chuckled, which allowed her to dance. According to Rachel, her instructor was unaware she was an exchange student until a few weeks of her coming. Even when this was established, she continued to attend them and loved using ballet as an outlet. She also tried her hand at tango. Tango allowed her to be dramatic and to engage in the Argentinian culture. An outcome not anticipated came out of her tapping into dance: she made Argentinian friends. “I would often hang out with friends made in tango class” and while it was “hard to convey my personality in a language I was not fluent in,” these relationships soothed her feelings of social isolation. Her experience proves that we place too much emphasis on verbal communication and that bodily expression connects everyone.

When Life Throws You Lemons, Duck: The Value of Positivity in Roma

When Nicko Burnett chose to study abroad in Italy, I highly doubt he anticipated spending 6 nights in the hospital for a stab wound he would receive in a senseless act of violence. In fact, he chose to go to Italy because he had “never traveled outside of the country” and he wanted to get in touch with “Italian ancestry”. After making the decision to study at the Temple University program in Rome over Prague, Nicko opened himself to Italian culture. Being abroad in Rome was ideal for Nicko: he didn’t have class on Fridays, was able to travel to Barcelona, Munich for Oktoberfest, Paris, Amsterdam and London, studied Roman art (a class that involved weekly site visits to museums and other relics), and loved the food and nightlife. He thoroughly enjoyed his week-long orientation, where he learned how to tip Italians (who don’t formally receive tip), cook basic Italian sauces, to wait in line (without being skipped) and Italian phrases for food or transportation needs. What struck me the most was how positive Nicko was. When asked about culture shock (or any form of adverse experience), he at first thought he hadn’t encountered any. Then, after some thought, he aloofly mentioned that he had to travel 45 minutes to class every day, had to cook for himself, felt Italians were a bit inconsiderate of personal space, and that his father died two weeks into leaving for abroad. I couldn’t understand why he was so nonchalant about it. This attitude of nonchalance extended to his recounting of a near death experience he had right before the end of the semester.

The night before Thanksgiving seemed like it would be a quiet night on the town. While he and his friends normally went to an Italian bar, they chose to go to a nearby American one. As was custom, they split a pitcher of beer between them and sat at a table outside because the bar was packed with English soccer fans. At some point that evening, they hear a noise and see a group of about 50 guys congregating outside of the bar, all with knives, clubs and masks. Suddenly, the group charges his table and in an attempt to escape, he rushes at the group. As he is running past one man, he swings what appears to be a bat at him, which he ducks. However, the man ends up hitting his back. When he finally escaped, he strikes a conversation with an American girl. He casually touches his back only to realize his hand is covered in blood and he needs to get to the hospital, fast. With her, they hail a cab that will admit him despite his bleeding. Upon arriving at the ER it was empty. He yelled “emergency!” and showed a nurse who spoke little to no English his wound. They proceed to clean the wound and stitch it up. The surgeon explains to him that the wound has exposed his lungs and that he has to stitch the muscle and the skin. Not until he is stitching the skin does he give Nicko any form of morphine. After 6 nights in the hospital, he is released to only one more week of the program. Why was he targeted? Nicko infers that it was related to anti-semitism and sports fanaticism: being in an English bar, it was assumed they were fans of the English rival soccer team. “I still have the scar, but I’m okay,” he chuckles. After hearing this story, I was terrified. When asked if he would do it all again, he said “Of course. I really enjoyed myself.” The moral of this story? Positivity goes a long way when abroad especially. What for some would be deal breakers- the extensive travel time, a loved one’s death, a senseless beating- Nicko took in perspective. For him, exposure to a new culture was invaluable in that he gained at once an “appreciation for the culture of the U.S.” and an “appreciation of the Italian way of living, one where Italians make money to survive and know how to live, have a good time, and love family and friends.”

Illustration by Yenny Cheung.

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