I have four siblings, and my family is poor. Both circumstances meant that until I was sixteen, the farthest I had travelled from my home in New York was New Jersey. The first time I was able to leave the United States was through a home-exchange program. I lived with the Pareja-Pareja family in a small Atlantic coast town called Conil de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz, Spain. I was the only student there on a scholarship.
I didn’t have access to the Internet for those two months because my family couldn’t afford an international data plan. By the time I got back to my homestay and had access to Wifi, it was too late for me to call my parents. As a result, I would wander around the neighborhood and try to find free Wifi. That’s where I found a crowd of potted plants nailed onto a local’s wall. When I showed them to the program’s staff, they were surprised that, despite having lived in Conil for the entirety of their lives, they had never seen that wall before.
My homestay family and I culturally shocked each other. They helped me unpack my luggage and could not understand why I had an entire suitcase full of gifts for them. My Korean mother initially wanted me to bring two suitcases. My Conil family showed the type of physical affection that my New York family had always taught me to abstain from. When Mr. Pareja offered me a glass of wine at dinner, I obstinately refused. He obstinately encouraged. He told me he wasn’t trying to fool me into slipping, just like the American cartoons with the banana peel — it was one of his favorite popular culture references. I took a picture of a banana peel on the beach in his honor and framed it as a parting gift.
On my last day of Spain, my program took us all the way to the southernmost edge of town, and when I looked into the zoom lens of my camera, I could see Morocco. I was too embarrassed to cry, so I pretended to take photos and ended up taking an amazingly striking one of Morocco’s windmills. I still look at that photo now.
My intention is not to glorify poverty or to disengage from a central aspect of my life simply because I now attend a prestigious institution. I just hope that students who can identify with my situation will feel some encouragement to study abroad or even immerse themselves in an unexplored culture.
I’ll be going back this March, on a trip with my classmates from my Spanish seminar. This time, I will have Internet access, and I cannot wait to send my parents live updates.
Photographs courtesy of Esther Couch