I have successfully completed my first week of classes here at the Universidad Popular Autonoma del Estado de Puebla. One of the longest and most tiring “first weeks” of my life, I think this past week of classes has at least begun my process of acculturation.
The most difficult part of every day is the beginning, I wake up, get ready, eat my breakfast that is graciously prepared by my host mother (even at 7am when I have to leave for my 8 am class), and then begin the treacherous experience of getting to school. I don’t know quite how to explain the bus system here, other than by saying that the word “system” should not be used to describe how public transportation is organized here in Puebla. There will be more describing just how difficult my commute usually is, but for now it will suffice to say that once I get to school my day can begin and I can breathe easily for a few hours until I must return home on these buses once more.
My classes are wonderful, and I enjoy all of them. I managed to schedule myself a slightly less labor intensive semester since I only need one Spanish class to graduate, and this decision was most definitely a good one. Most of my classes are centered around Mexican culture, literature and psychology, with the exception of one class I am taking on the special education system here in Mexico. I decided on these classes with the hopes that I would leave Mexico in May not only with the ability to fluently communicate in Spanish, but also a knowledge of what it truly means to be Mexican. I believe that with this background I will be able to much more effectively work with students in the United States who are new to the American culture and school system.
As far as my Spanish goes….it is improving, slowly, but surely. Of course I feel as though I will never be fluent or able to effectively communicate, but my host mother insists that I’m already speaking faster and with more grammatical accuracy. I allowed myself some English time with the other exchange students this first week as we all adjusted to our new school, but starting tomorrow it will be all Spanish all the time. I’m determined to reach my goal of fluency, even if I must stumble and be corrected by native speakers constantly for the first few weeks!!
Speaking of stumbling, I think the best way to describe the majority of my time here thus far is the most embarrassing two weeks of my life. Living in a new culture with a new language is obviously challenging at first, and I had prepared myself for a period of discovery. What I did not prepare for however, is being embarrassed almost every two minutes. I have never felt like I am doing the wrong thing so frequently before in my life, in fact I usually pride myself on my ability to act correctly and discreetly. In Puebla it’s a different story. Here I am the most bumbling fool in the universe and no matter how hard I try, my words and actions are usually being misunderstood a minimum of three different ways. Everything is awkward, all of the time. The things that I took for granted in the United States like eating, asking to go to the bathroom in class, getting to school by myself, all of these seemingly mundane tasks are perfect opportunities for awkwardness here in Puebla. For example getting on the bus. The buses here go about 80 km/hr, all the time, they only stop if you flag them down, and you have to read tiny little signs on the front of the bus to see if it is the one that you need (there are no numbers or bus lines or even bus companies). So as I stand on the side of the road panicked, for 45 minutes, reading as fast as I possibly can as buses fly by me I finally see the bus I need and flag it down. When I attempt to get on the bus behind a woman on her cell phone I am forced to hold on the railing with my feet on the bottom step as the bus flies down the street while the woman searches for the right change from her purse. Then, after surviving this daredevil stunt, I attempt to pay the bus driver and make my way to a seat but he takes off in the middle of this process almost hurling me to the floor. Mind you, it would be okay if everyone had a problem with this process, but no, there are kindergarten students watching me wondering why I can’t stand up on this constantly stopping and starting speeding bus. Awkward. Even amongst our group of exchange students there are endless miscommunications due to our various cultural and language barriers. For instance one of the boys who is from Korea explained to me that he had been looking through my facebook pictures and he thinks I have lost a lot of weight. However he was not trying to complement me on said weight loss, he just wanted to inform me that he thinks I look “more prettier and more better when I have more weight and fat on me” complete with hand motions indicating hips. Now, what is one supposed to say to that?! Awkward. At home, I am more comfortable so things usually go smoothly but every once in awhile I just completely miss what I’m being told. Yesterday my mom asked me if I wanted to go to “Popo” with her and my sister. I immediately thought of the volcano Popocatepetl, so I got my camera and got dressed and headed out the door with them. Sadly when we arrived at our destination I realized that Popo is also the nickname for the Angelopolis Mall, so I probably wouldn’t be needing my huge camera. As my sister looked at me as most people would when they see someone bringing their professional camera on a shopping trip, I just wished for the future days when I actually understand what is going on. Awkward. Eating is getting slightly easier now, however at first I felt completely out of place. On my first night here my host mom asked me if I wanted some milk to go along with the multiple other dishes she had made me for dinner, I said sure assuming I would be getting a glass of milk to drink with my dinner. Nope. I was wrong. When someone asks you if you want milk it means in a bowl accompanied by cereal. So I added a whole new entre to my already extensive meal. The worst part; now she thinks I need to eat “milk” with pretty much every meal so I’m being fed as much as Mark or Jeremy would be, and end up feeling rude because all I can manage to finish is my papaya. Awkward. Classes have been slightly better because there are less opportunities for me to speak and make a fool out of myself. However, on the first day of every class I was asked to introduce myself and tell where I was from. My standard line was “Me llamo Mia, soy de Nueva York. Estudio la terapia de lengua.” (My name is Mia, I’m from New York. I study Speech Pathology) This worked well until one of my professors decided to make comparisons between city life in Mexico and city life in the United States, asking me for examples and testimony. I of course had to lie my way through what it’s like to live in New York City, since of course no one here knows there is an entire state. The worst part was there were other exchange students in the class with me who were laughing since they knew I am from the smallest upstate town possible. Awkward.
As all of these experiences and endlessly embarrassing situations become a part of my life I have decided to embrace them, and I think that in the end I will be a better person for them. I also am quickly losing my fear of embarrassment due to the fact that I am constantly embarrassed and still alive, so I should be the most outgoing person in the States when I return. One can only hope that this slow acculturation process begins to speed up, and I gradually gain the ability to blend in slightly.