This past winter term, I decided to do an Oberlin-sponsored language intensive in Mexico.
Because It sounded like an adventure.
I arrived in Guadalajara tired, jet-lagged and absolutely terrified.
On the insanely long plane rides from Guam, I had half-heartedly tried to learn some basic phrases, so that I could at least order a taxi and explain to my host family that I was their foreign student... and that I didn't know any Spanish.
It didn't feel like enough.
Somehow, I managed to get a taxi to my new home for the month. I stumbled in, dazed, confused, and exhausted, to be greeted by a friendly Hungarian who spoke absolutely perfect English (as it turned out, my host family loves to host people), and fell asleep almost immediately.
My first week was incredibly hard. I was the most jet-lagged I've ever been (Guam is almost exactly 12 hours different than Mexico), the classes were really difficult (four hours a day, with only three people in my class, learning Spanish... in Spanish, followed by an hour of conversation class), and every Obie was trying to speak in as much Spanish as they could, which made me feel alone and disconnected.
I was the only one on the trip with completely no prior experience.
Perhaps most importantly, I was still reeling from an emotional rollercoaster of a semester, the personal drama of which had followed me all the way from Oberlin, to Guam, to Mexico. (Not to mention the soul-crushing state of American politics.)
In fact, I was so wildly under-prepared for this winter term, that I didn't even have a notebook for the first week - I wrote everything on scrap paper.
And then, I proceeded to have an incredible, thrilling, and deeply inspiring winter term.
I worked hard to learn Spanish. School was exhausting - I woke up at 7:30am every day to catch the bus (for only 6 pesos) to get to school by 9, and we didn't get out until 2.
I had only studied Latin in High School before, and while that helped immensely, it was not even nearly the same as being forced to speak in an entirely new language, all day, every day.
I was pushed to my limits, I was challenged, and I grew for it.
But for as hard as I worked, I played even harder. We would still have to be at school by 9 for our weekend excursions (except Puerto Vallarta) to get to wherever we were going around Guadalajara or in Jalisco, so I didn't even get to sleep in on the weekends. I don't think I really slept during the month of January. When I commit to something, I commit fully - and that's just a part of who I am, a part that I'm still figuring out.
As it turned out, there was a circus in Guadalajara, called 'Circo Dragon,' which immediately felt like a circus home. I passed clubs with someone who spoke no English, and took a few classes.
As it also turned out, the National Danish Performance Team just so happened to be in town in January. They also just so happened to teach Tumbling and Dance workshops at Circo Dragon, which I took, and did a combined performance with Circo Dragon one evening.
I couldn't believe my luck. It was an incredible experience, and inspired me right around when I was starting to doubt my commitment to circus, dancing, and movement arts (more on this in another blog).
Later, I even found a tricking gym - the only dedicated tricking gym in all of Mexico: Acrobatics Centre Guadalajara.
But besides all of that, Mexico was just beautiful.
(I could only convince six of us to build a pyramid... in front of the pyramid. Get it?)
That first weekend, we got a tour of stunning, historical Guadalajara, visited Tequila, Mexico (where they invented one of the finest beverages in the world), and some of the oldest pyramids on the continent.
The next week, things got easier. I could communicate, at least on a basic level, and I could actually follow what was happening in my classes. Crazily enough, it actually got fun.
The following weekend, we went to Puerto Vallarta, a delightful beach city. I have a thing for the ocean:
Learning and speaking a language a new language really got the intensely curious/science-y part of my brain going.
I started to think about what I actually use to communicate with in English (as it turns out, a lot of slang) and it made me actually want to take some Anthropology/Linguistics classes to learn more. In some ways, I think Spanish is actually a more efficient language than English - for example, the way verbs are conjugated includes the person, so pronouns aren't as necessary.
But for however much I obsessed and pondered the technical differences between English and Spanish (like the computer science major I am), I also really realized how entwined language is with culture. And that's the reason why all languages break all their own rules, and are beautifully imperfect.
The example of this that really struck home for me is the use of 'Salud!' In Spanish, you say it both when someone sneezes, and as a toast. One of the times I was sharing a few companionable beers with my host brother and his friends, they played on the double meaning - when someone sneezed, they all yelled 'Salud!', laughed, and drank. There's no equivalent joke in English, because our language is just different.
And all of these little things absolutely fascinated me.
I am now firmly in the 'everyone should learn another language' camp.
The next thing that I realized is that there's some level of communication that you can only get with someone when you speak their first language.
How we speak is such a crucial part of who we are, and what tribe we belong to. It doesn't matter that I've lived in the States for almost two years now (...damn) - occasionally, a Kiwi-ism will slip out, because it's just a part of who I am that I'll (hopefully) never fully lose.
The way I communicate is English is so dramatically different to how I communicate in Spanish - and even though I'll spend the rest of my life learning Spanish (and hopefully more languages), I think that there will always be a little truth to that, because it's just what I grew up with.
Besides, it's an exceptionally privileged viewpoint to think that 'because English is my first language, I don't need to learn another language.'
When we were in Puerto Vallarta, one of my new best friends and I were at a market with a lot of American tourists, who were all speaking to the vendors in English. When we spoke to the vendors, we spoke in our broken Spanish, and they immediately lit up. They were more energetic, friendly, and just more willing to communicate.
That's because by learning and speaking to someone in their first language, you're showing a great amount of respect (especially if your first language is English). You're showing that you're willing to put a bit of work in to try and understand them, their culture, and their language better.
What a crazy new idea - what if we all did a little bit of hard work to understand each other a little better? What if we worked to build bridges, instead of walls?
I was fiercely proud to be in Mexico, learning Spanish, during Donald J. Trump's Inauguration.
In case you need a reminder: This is the current President of the United States who, during his speech when he announced his candidacy, had this to say:
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
Not too surprisingly, not a single Mexican that I met liked him. In fact, they all despised him.
A little surprisingly, my host family hated their own President far more than Trump. Which, I guess shouldn't have been that much of a shock - while Trump's policies may have huge consequences on Mexico, their own domestic policy will probably affect them more.
But if you thought that it would create a rift, a disconnection, or a sense of 'othering' between us Americans and the Mexicans, you're dead wrong.
I got to know my host family pretty well. I spent every other night in a discussion with my host mother, in Spanglish.
I shared a beers with my older host brother and his friends, and they fit my theory: I believe that all around the world (at least, in first world countries), young people are all kind of the same. We watch the same movies, listen to the same music. We have the same romantic troubles. We have the same hopes and fears - and we're all just coming into the world proper, and trying to find our place in it.
My younger host brother wanted me to teach him tricking. While our schedules never lined up, on the day that I left, I told him about all the artists and YouTube tutorials that had inspired me, and gave him the address of the tricking gym in Guadalajara. He almost teared up, my gift meant that much to him.
My host mother, when I was leaving, told me that "you'll always have a home here in Mexico. Remember to tell the American people that no matter what, us Mexicans will love them."
She was the sort of woman who if she only had a loaf of bread left, she'd share it with you.
You know, Trump was right about one thing.
Some of 'them' are good people. Genuine, honest, friendly, giving, and loving people.
I know that Trump has (and will continue to have) had a significant impact on the future of the United States and its politics. I know that we'll be seeing these consequences play out for decades, and I know that this period of time is a critically important moment in American history.
But for the rest of my life, I'll always remember that when he became President, I was in Mexico, learning about a beautiful language and culture, and living with an incredibly loving host family.
See, his divisive rhetoric, his practice of 'othering,' isn't just inflammatory, dangerous fearmongering; it's plain wrong.
People can't be othered, because humanity is a shared experience.
It's a damn shame that it feels like the world forgets that sometimes, but it's people like my host family that give me hope. Hope that in the end, love will always trump hate.
And at the end of the day, always remember to have fun.
Important side note: This blog wouldn't be complete without talking about the food. THE FOOD. I'm going to be in withdrawal for the rest of my life. I didn't know that lime made everything better, and that tortillas come in handmade pouches to keep them warm.
We ended up at this place on accident the first time. It looked like a cheap, kinda crappy diner-equivalent.
Nothing stood out. We picked what the waiter recommended.
We ate the Dis Joky.
The experience of that meal will stay with me for the rest of my life, a stand out in a month where every meal was more delicious than anything I'd ever eaten.
This photo was of our glorious, late-night return. Just look at Finn's face. The taco cupped gently in his hand, eyes longingly staring at our Dis Joky. That look is pure joy.
The giant, bowl-like beverages were Horchata, a rice-milk spiced with cinnamon. My second favourite beverage in Mexico.
A winter term is just long enough to inspire, to galvanise, and to leave a desire for more.
It simply astounds me just how much knowledge, raw stimulus, and life experiences that I've crammed into my winter terms.
I never want them to end.
By my last week, I felt like I could actually live in Guadalajara - I had full, real, conversations with my Uber drivers, I knew which local food joints were the best, and I knew the sights on my bus route to school by heart. IMAC felt like real school, the fellow Obies on the trip had become real friends, and my host family's place felt like a real home.
And then I was gone. Back in Oberlin, now five weeks into the semester, in the blink of an eye.
But above all, winter term always makes me think about how far I've come.
I thought about New Zealand, my childhood home, which I left almost two years ago. With my parents living in Guam now, it's not very likely that I'll be able to visit again until a few (or more than a few) years after I've graduated and I can afford the trip myself.
I thought about Seattle, the first city in the US that I truly fell in love with, and the location of my circus home for last January and last summer. With new plans for this summer, I don't know when I'll be able to return.
And I thought about Oberlin, a strange place that I feel like I'm finally digging my teeth into. My goal of being abroad next semester will leave me with only three semesters and one winter term left.
It's hard not to feel like I'm leaving everything behind all the time, and it's impossible to not to get nostalgic already.
But whatever happens, I always find myself waiting in an airport.
It's truly amazing; after two years of long traveling, of suffering through the TSA, of grimacing at expensive airport food, I still get excited at airports. I still get this strange feeling of peace, of freedom, and of intense romanticism.
It doesn't matter where I'm going, just that I am.
And when I do finally get on the plane, all I do is sit and stare out of the window; watching the airport and city below grow smaller and smaller, until the only thing that I can see is the sunlight dancing between the clouds.