Fun fact! In Spain, Chinese food comes with a small gift (such as a bracelet), and if you ask your host family if they’ve ever heard of fortune cookies before (and show them pictures), they will look at you like you’re crazy.
The smallest things are what remind me the most that I’m not living in the US – details like fortune cookies, light switches, or skinny sidewalks. In the first two weeks, I’ve had both elated highs and tearful lows while making the transition to living abroad.
Overall, I’ve felt that my life-so-far has left me reasonably well-prepared to study abroad. Some of the life skills that have been most useful include:
- The Ability to Eat Almost Anything. Coming from a Vietnamese-American family (shout out to Wasians everywhere!) whose Asian meals sometimes include ingredients that many Americans would find strange, I’ve learned that a good strategy for trying new foods is to try it first, enjoy it, and only then ask what it is. My eat-now-ask-later approach has lead me to discover many delicious foods that I might have otherwise avoided, if only because it sounds different than what I’m used to!
- The Ability to Read a Map. As a means of exploring, I sometimes enjoy getting lost on purpose, and then pulling out a (yes, paper) map and finding my way back. Planning to not plan a route means I stumble across more places and spend more time looking at my surroundings and less time hunched over my Google maps app. As someone who acquired a smart phone four years after acquiring a car, I spent many a stoplight squinting at a tattered map book and honing this ancient skill. And since I decided against buying a data plan here, it’s come in handy! I’d like to take this moment to thank my mother for teaching me to look for tall landmarks, my father for teaching me to pay attention to cardinal directions, and them both for having hilarious debates about their methods’ competing merits.
- The Ability to Talk to Strangers. While I’ve definitely walked past the same local bar three or four times before mustering the courage to walk inside alone, I’m proud that I’ve been able to take that step through the door instead of turning around and looking for less “intimidating” options (read: bar where English is the main language spoken) for the night. I’ve met interesting locals and travelers by seeking out non-touristy places to socialize and more generally trying to strike up a conversation with nearly anyone that stands next to me. I’d like to attribute this life skill to the three weeks I spent at Virginia Spanish Governor’s School (think summer camp), which initially helped me overcome my shyness; my time spent working as a waitress and teaching assistant, which was a constant practice for talking to new people; and the opportunities I’ve had working as an event promoter and instructor in salsa communities, where I’ve come to love interacting with new people. Some of my friends are surprised when I tell them that I wasn’t always as outgoing as I am now, but I promise, it’s a trait that’s been a long time in the making!
- The Ability to Speak Spanish. This one sounds like a no brainer, but I acknowledge that I’m extremely privileged to have attended top public schools with good language education and lucky to have worked with many good Spanish teachers. While my Spanish isn’t perfect, I have no trouble holding a conversation in Spanish, and speaking to locals in their native tongue has added a richness to my experiences here for which I’m very grateful.
Continue to Fortune Cookies Are American, Part 2 to read about some of the new life skills I’m learning here (whether I like it or not!).