Study abroad reflections – Las Primeras Tres Dias

The first few days abroad. Foreign city. Foreign school. Foreign language. Foreign food. Foreign foreigners!

All the newness paired with a lack of familiarity can seem exciting and fascinating while simultaneously cause feelings of frustration and bewilderment. This juxtaposition of thoughts and emotions can be summed in up two words: culture shock.

Culture shock is a feeling of disorientation and unfamiliarity that many study abroad students experience when immersed in a new culture. Though I didn’t realize culture shock was what I was experiencing at the time, I can now identify the various stages of culture shock I was experiencing, through the journal entries and blog posts I wrote while abroad.

Culture shock is extremely common, but sometimes difficult to discuss or even realize that’s what you’re experiencing! For those of you about to depart on your study abroad programs and are wondering what the first few days abroad might be like and how culture shock might influence your experience, you might enjoy reading the following post I wrote after three days abroad!

August 19th, 2007

Well, I am finally here in Queretaro! It seems surreal that I am here in Mexico for the next four months but it is slowly sinking in.

We left home yesterday afternoon make the hour trek up to the airport – here are my sister and I in the car!

My sister studied in QRO last summer, so we spent this last hour chatting about random QRO advice she had – I’m getting pretty excited / nervous at this point! It’s kinda hard to imagine sitting there in the car with my family, knowing that I am about to get on a plane to the heart of Mexico…and not be back for four entire months. Crazy.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I thought I’d have plenty of time to check in, say my goodbyes, etc., but the next thing I knew, I was already on the other side of security!

Shortly after passing security, I saw a few familiar faces (a handful of us in my program were able to book the same flight, which I was grateful for!) Here we are, waiting for our flight. Although I have a book in my hand in this picture, focusing on reading was the last thing I could do at this point! I think we were all pretty excited but a little nervous and anxious as we were all about to spend the next 4 months in central Mexico!

We got on our flight shortly afterwards which left at 8:30 pm. We thought it was a straight shot to Mexico City, but we actually had a two hour layover at LAX.

I think it hit me when we reboarded the flight to Mexico City because we were honestly the only non-Hispanic looking people on the flight.  Ay caramba. What did I get myself into?? The flight down to Mexico City seemed like forever and ridiculously quick at the same time. Here was our first glimpse of DF! (I’ve learned that people here in Mexico don’t call Mexico City “Mexico City”. They either say “DF” or just “Mexico”)

The flight went well…once arriving in Mexico City we went through customs. I was a little scared because my customs officer was quite intimidating. All of the other customs officers let everyone through but mine kept on asking me questions in Spanish and I couldn’t understand a lot of it…he was asking me if I had a green card, etc. I didn’t know what to do so I just showed him my letter from my study abroad program telling him I was there for school and showing him my return date. In retrospect, I was probably just overwhelmed from the newness and unfamiliarity of the situation, but regardless, I was still a bit perturbed!

Finally he let me through with a 120 day visa which will be nice because I won’t have to go get an extension later on.

Anyway, we picked up our luggage, exchanged money, bought a bus ticket to Queretaro and we were on our way! Before getting on the bus they checked our bags, gave us a quick pat down (like they do at airport security) and video taped us getting on the bus which was different, but we knew this would be happening and was normal. As we boarded, the bus company gave us a bag with cookies, a sandwich and water. The bus was SO nice – roomy, clean, comfortable, and almost empty aside from the six of us!

The ride from Mexico City to Queretaro lasted about 3 hours and though I tried to stay awake to watch the scenery, I think I lasted about 5 minutes before passing out! (I had slept only 1 hour the night before, just couldn’t do it!)  One thing I did observe before falling asleep was how Americanized that part of Mexico felt…we passed Walmarts, Sears, Burger Kings, Starbucks, etc. (I promised myself I would not go to any of these places though – I came to Mexico for a Mexican experience, not to go to Starbucks!)

We arrived at the Queretaro bus station and I called my host mom to let her know I had arrived and would be taking a cab “home”. I’m not going to lie, I was super nervous and didn’t really even understand ½ of what I was saying (so heaven help her if I couldn’t even understand myself!) It was also at this point when I realized that although I had studied Spanish for 5 years in school, “book” Spanish is very different than “street” Spanish and I would have alot to learn over these next four months!

Just as I had flagged a cab and was about to get in,  a woman came up to me, introducing herself as my host mom. I guess I didn’t understand on the phone that she and my host dad were coming to pick me up. Oops. Good thing they caught me right in the nick of time!

We got in their Honda Accord, left the bus station and headed “home”! Here’s a pic. from the drive to their house, there’s a giant Mexico flag!

We arrived at my host family’s house about 15 minutes later – I was pretty much out of my element and everything felt so surreal. I unpacked and had dinner with mis padres (we had spaghetti…wonder if I told them it was my favorite?). My host parents are SO nice and so welcoming! They made wonderful food and asked me alot of questions. They spent alot of time telling me things I’d want to know about Queretaro, things about my schools and my program and places I’d want to visit. I feel very lucky to have such wonderful host parents!

Here’s a picture of part of my room. It’s so cute!

At 6 my host parents and I went to Gabi’s school (one of my 2 schools) to meet up with the other students in my program as well as their families.

(Here’s a photo of Gabi’s school from the inside out! It’s a small little language school on the edge of downtown – it must have been a house at one point and converted. Lovely adorable school though!! Wonderful staff too!)

After our meeting at Gabi’s school, we went back and my friend’s host mom drove her and I to the other University we’ll be attending so show us where it is located. Tomorrow is orientation and the following day we begin clases.

I think we were all a bit in a state of culture shock as there was so much to take in at once and so much to learn NOT in our language. I have been speaking Spanish to mis padres as much as possible…I know I am making mistakes left and right but it will get better as time goes on and the only way to improve is to practice!

All in all, a solid first few days! Lots to take in, lots to learn and lots of adjusting, but I’m up for the challenging and looking forward to what the next 4 months have in store.

I am about to go to bed but one quick side note…I didn’t think my padres spoke English that well; however, they are currently watching The West Wing in English, so I’m thinking they might actually know English better than I thought…I guess time will tell… (=

Oh yes, and first rainstorm and lightning storm was tonight! Crazy!

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