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  • Writer's pictureHeather Tracy

The Best Way to Learn About “America” (and yourself) is to Leave It.

Immersing in a new culture made me whole in places where I didn’t even know I was broken.

Find an opportunity to leave. I’m not talking about a 2 week trip to a Mediterranean island, which although lovely, basically leaves you with a very nice tan and a smaller bank account. I’m talking about real cultural immersion and all of the messiness that comes with it — the language, the food, the driving, the music, the politics, the weather, and the people.

Why bother? The challenges life hands you abroad may be much more difficult outside of your comfort zone, but the benefits — if you are open to them — will change you, your perspective, and your life for the better. Yes, you will (hopefully) learn a marketable skill by mastering another language. But perhaps more importantly, you will learn problem-solving, empathy, humility, patience, perspective, openness, and completely new ways of communicating — not to mention the grit and confidence that you can indeed get through pretty much anything.

A Warning About The Two Approaches

Now in my 17th year of living and working in Costa Rica, I’ve seen my share of US citizens trying their hand at living abroad with varying degrees of “success.” Some define success through personal growth and self-improvement. These people come in with all the gusto to learn the language and live like the locals. Others define successful immersion as trying to continue living (or to improve) the lifestyle they had in the US but for a cheaper price. Don’t be this person. Those who seek such luxuries for a cheaper price not only find frustration a daily state of being, they are missing a grand opportunity.

Learning a foreign language and immersing in a new culture made me whole in places where I didn’t even know I was broken.

Growing up in a small Midwestern town, I did my best to achieve and experience what was available. I took the advanced public school course load, loaded up on extracurriculars, saved up my restaurant tips to join the high school trip to France, and was awarded a full ride to an excellent university. But my values and lifestyle were never really challenged.

Yes, college certainly challenged me since I was a bit out of place amongst students who had mostly gone to private Catholic high schools, joined sororities and fraternities, and didn’t seem to have any need to work the after-school jobs I had to work. A graduate school research practicum placed me in a public high school where I experienced how it felt to be a “minority” for the first time. But none of these experiences resulted in me being fully immersed at all times in a place where there was no one else like me. Therefore, I just kept being me.

Was There Something Wrong With Being Me?

No, not really. Sure, I had a questionably (un)healthy dose of Type-A perfectionist drive to achieve; I even ended up at an Ivy League school. That’s what was rewarded in the US, and people were proud of me. But I also never really tried anything that I wasn’t fairly confident I could master, and therefore I never really grew. I learned things in Costa Rica that I never would have learned had I continued down a safe, traditional path. I wasn’t broken, but I also wasn’t whole.

What I Learned From Cultural Immersion in Costa Rica:

I learned to be out of place. I learned what it must feel like to always feel like an outsider — in looks, in speech, in mannerisms — all while wanting to be a part of what was going on. I gained a huge sense of empathy and appreciation for those who feel out of place. I also learned how to be aware of myself and how I was “coming across” in groups or communities that were not just like me.

I learned to take the time to try to understand. Day after day, as I sat in silence, my brain fatigued, trying to catch all the Spanish words and phrases being thrown around, someone would always stop and try to help me understand what was going on. Even in the first six months when I was walking around with an open dictionary, I never truly felt lost. The kids I taught were endlessly enthusiastic to help me learn Spanish. Adults often took the time to write something down for me, consult my dictionary, or simply play exaggerated charades until I caught the gist of the conversation. I know this made me a better teacher and a more empathic human being.

I learned self-acceptance. When I arrived to Costa Rican beaches as a 23 year old, I was in great shape — running miles a day and hiking any trail I could find. Yet I still wore one piece bathing suits (or tankinis meant for women my age now!) from the embarrassment of not having a centerfold beach body worthy of a bikini. After months of watching local Ticas strutting around on the beach with no self-consciousness about wrinkles, cellulite or a belly, I finally figured out that the beach wasn’t about centerfolds, it was about the beach — the sand, the saltwater, the power of the ocean, and the experience of being one with nature and friends.

I learned humility. I remember being picked up by immigration officers at a restaurant in a random raid early on during my stay. I had a valid visa but — as the responsible person that I was — I had turned it in 2 months before it expired to get it renewed, leaving me only with a photocopy. They took me in anyway, and I learned very quickly that the entitled American attitude of the “customer is always right” didn’t get me very far. So, I shut my mouth, ate the rice and sardines they fed us, and became the “model detainee” before being released about 48 hours later once they located my passport… in their own offices. Sure, I cried. I felt the injustice. But on the other hand, I could probably write a whole book about the fascinating people I met who were detained alongside me. PS — Don’t be scared of Costa Rica because of this — it was years ago before cell phones and their now state of the art electronic databases, and I have never heard of any other US citizen being detained in this way. PS #2 —No, I was not doing anything shady (ha!) but I now never leave my passport at home.

I learned how to give up control. If that last story wasn’t enough to convince you of this point, there were less traumatic ways I learned to go with the flow. Before I could even speak Spanish, I learned to dance merengue, salsa, cumbia and any other dance Ticos would teach me. For the first time, since US music isn’t much for couples dancing, I learned how to let someone else lead. I had to go with the flow. I had to listen to the music and let my body move to the joyful rhythms even as the lyrics sang of cheaters and lost loves.

I learned patience through “carma”. Yes, that’s right — CARma karma. In a country where road rules don’t necessarily apply, I started practicing “Carma.” I now quell road rage and wait patiently when someone stops their car in the middle of the road to let someone out or to say hello to a car passing in the opposite direction, oblivious to the nine cars lined up waiting behind them. I now enjoy watching while a herd of (insert animal here) decides to take up my lane for a few minutes. I learned to slow down to let people cut in front of me to help the flow of traffic. I’m a more patient person because of it.

I learned how to communicate. Sure, we all know the difference between verbal and nonverbal language. But until you learn a foreign language in context, I’m not sure you can truly understand how integrated they are. One word can mean 3 different things. One pronunciation can be spelled 3 different ways. The tones and inflections tell you which is which. Reading body language is an art, especially when you can only pick up half of the actual words.

I learned about Cafecito. I used to view stopping to say hello to a colleague, or taking 15 minutes out of the work day to share a cup of coffee and chat about anything besides work, as a waste of productive time. I was wrong. Period.

I learned about complexity. I learned to “see” things I hadn’t seen before, not just in nonverbal language, but in politics, history, and cultural norms. I learned how a small country without a military could survive. I learned what free education and free health care looked like in reality. I learned how having multiple political parties plays out in elections. It all made me that much more aware of how things play out (and why) back in the US, and in the world.


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