An exchange story: Meliena

Sunday, June 29, 2014

 Today I give my blog to Meliena. She will tell us about her experience of studying one year in Paraguay(2008-2009).She lived with a host family and went to a local school.

'If to travel is to be a stone skipping lightly over the water, to move abroad is to stop and allow yourself to sink into an alien world, gulping to breathe a different language.'
Mark Jenkins

I absolutely love this quote. It describes perfectly what happened to me my first few months in Paraguay. I didn't understand anybody, except fellow AFS-students, who, like me, had no idea what was going on most of the time, so from a practical point of view, we were of little "use" to each other. But after a few months in Paraguay and being able to express myself in Spanish, I learned that a language is not just a combination of words. A language is formed through its culture and its history.  The hardest challenge for me was not to learn the ability to express myself, saying what I wanted or saying what I thought. It was getting the hang of the culture. Sometimes, even at the end of my year, I had difficulty with things nearly all Paraguayans have been doing their whole life, such as not going outside when it rains, even when there's a drizzle, or arriving two hours late and still be the first one to show up at a party. The point of going abroad on an exchange is not to learn a new language (even though it is for some), it is to learn a new culture. And trust me when I say, that keeps you plenty of busy, even if you have nothing to do. 

Creative commons: Federico Villaday Flicker 
The first few days (and even weeks) I was so exhausted by six or seven o'clock at night just because there was so much I had to take in. And after I got the hang of the language, understanding the culture became easier, but when I went back on vacation a year and a half ago, I saw that I still didn't quite get it in its entirety. For example, in Paraguay they drink a sort of herb tea, and you can drink it cold (then it's called terere) or you can drink it hot (in which case they call it mate). I went back in the middle of January, when it's summer there, and in the morning I came out with my thermos filled with ice cold water, because it was already too hot for me. My (host) sister saw me and laughed, saying "Don't you think it's a little too early for terere?" (in Spanish, of course) and gestured towards my dad, who was sitting by his radio listening to the news and drinking mate. He was drinking steaming hot tea, when it was probably somewhere between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius outside. I always thought that you drank terere in summer and mate in winter, but apparently not, as I learned that day. 

Creative commons: Philipp Capper

Here has been a lot of research about culture, and the different sorts of cultures, and even though it's quite theoretical, I still enjoyed that particular course in school. As a translator you have to be aware of the difference in cultures and how this difference comes to light. I'm not going to bore you with the theory, but let me just illustrate what I mean. In the Spanish culture, family is very important. Families are really close, sometimes you live together in one house with three or four generations and that is normal, and what you do reflects on your whole family. Belgians on the contrary are not so close. I'm certainly not saying that we don't value family, it's just that the general Belgian family doesn't have many shared activities, we are all individuals and what I do doesn't have anything to do with my brother or sister. For me, the huge importance of family became clear when I discussed going out with my (host) parents. We lived in a small village but fortunately pretty close to the capital (about an hour's drive, which is close in Paraguay), so me, my best friend (also an AFS'er) and her two host sisters were planning on going out in a club to celebrate that we had been in Paraguay one month. So I talked to my host mom about our plans, and she said, "That is fine for me, as long as they drop you off at home afterwards." For me, that wasn't really a problem, but apparently it was for my friend's host sister, who though I lived far away from the main road. They said I could stay over at their place and in the morning go home, since I wouldn't have to be in school. That sounded also fine for me, but my host mother objected vehemently. I had to sleep in my own bed, that was the  condition. I could almost see my first night out in Paraguay disappear, so I asked her why I couldn't sleep over. Her answer was: "What will the people think of us when they see you in the morning walking in the streets?" 

At first I didn't really understood it, because that is not how we think in Belgium, but that is how it works in Paraguay, and all I could do was adapt. It's not always easy, especially because Paraguay is a very "South-American" country, there are not many tourists and there are little people who speak English, and on top of that there is very little influence from North-America or Europe. In our committee in AFS there are always discussions on whether people "promote" their host country too much, but I know for a fact that I don't promote Paraguay, just because I saw so many people having difficulties there, in fact, I was one of them, and although my experience was amazing and I would do it all over again if I could, it definitely wasn't easy. But then again, I don't think any exchange is. It is, however, a million of other amazing things. And on that happy note I would like to end my post. 

Thank you Meliena for your story.

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  1. Oh mega interessant om te lezen! Wat gaaf om daar te studeren. Stoer! Zou je weer eens terug willen?

    1. Ik heb het niet geschreven. Het is een gast blog, maar ik denk dat haar antwoord wel ja zal zijn. :)

  2. Wat een interessant artikel! :) Lijkt me zo apart, om in een ander land te studeren!

  3. Wauw, in het buitenland studeren lijkt me heel gaaf en dan gelijk zo ver weg! Intens! X


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