4 life lessons best learned from living abroad

Waves

By Pöllö at creativecommons.org / Wikimedia Commons

Based on remarks to wonderful staff members, volunteers and friends of AFS Costa Rica in San José on Sept. 29.

I’ve spent a number of years and many thousands of words pondering the lessons Costa Rica has taught me. Some of them are specific to the delightfully unique attitudes, wordplay, foibles and flaws of this particular country. Others, however, are life lessons that I think are familiar to anyone who has lived or studied abroad.

We carry them with us, whether we “forget to come home” – as my father, who turned 80 last week, likes to say of me – or whether we head back to our native lands, forever changed.

Here are four of the lessons that have been most important for me. What about you?

  1. Progress isn’t always linear.

This is, perhaps, a lesson learned simply by getting a little older – but experiencing the intricacies of culture shock over a period of years definitely helped me figure this one out. The thing is: it’s not really one shock. And it’s definitely not a series of steps to check off.

It’s more like waves, experienced as if you were a bit of flotsam and jetsam, bobbing in changing and inconsistent waters. You may be confident and serene right now, but in a flash you’ll be tossed backward, more lost or excluded than the day you arrived. Perhaps the tide in this metaphor is indeed marching in the right direction, heading slowly but surely up the beach. However, you’re just a bit of wood or a lost flip-flop, so it won’t feel like progress to you.

It’s not your fault, or the waves’. It’s the way things work.

You have to get used to that, or you’ll be very frustrated. And that’s true not only of cultural adaptation, but of most anything in life that matters: Friendship. Parenthood. Love. Learning hard things.

A reader wrote me recently telling me he found the fact that I’m still learning about language and culture in Costa Rica after decades of study “disheartening.” My response: please don’t! It’s so much fun. If I ever did reach mastery of these un-masterable skills, I’d have to move somewhere new.

  1. The worst thing is sometimes also the best thing.

Again, we learn this sooner or later simply by being alive, but experiencing another country accelerates it. We quickly see that the qualities we treasure most in the places we’re encountering, and in our own homelands, are often the things that frustrate us the most.

Costa Rica’s famous laid-back approach, exemplified by pura vida: the key to happiness, or a frequent gateway to acceptance of mediocrity? The convenience and ease of life (say, running errands) in the United States: delightful, or the foundation for materialism and obesity?

The answer is usually both. The same is often true for the people in our lives, as well.

  1. Others – people, communities and countries – are always more complex than we realize.

When I’m home in the United States and come across Latin American Blend coffee, it always seems so strange to me. Latin American Blend? Why? Even a Costa Rican Blend would be very strange, when coffee from Orosi and, say, Santa María de Dota taste so different. Twenty years ago, I would never have thought about this the same way, but years of mountainous drives and many, many cups of café chorreado gradually changed the way I thought about what’s in that bag.

Obviously we estadounidenses are particularly renowned for a lack of understanding of countries beyond our borders; our size, power and linguistic dominance contribute to our myopia. But I’m often asked in Costa Rica what people eat in the United States, or what we believe, or what the weather is like, and find myself explaining just how many varieties are housed within those 50 states.

Any lack of understanding I’ve encountered pales in comparison to my own ignorance about, say, the almost unfathomable diversity and nuance among the nations of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe. Hmm. I should really get on the road again.

  1. Being an outsider grants you powerful vision – and insiders should seek that out.

I’ve written before about “immigrant vision,” the fresh perspective outsiders have on our adopted countries, a perspective that is often overlooked or underutilized. Those who travel or live abroad gain such perspective. However, I think it’s even more important that we gain an appreciation for the value of the outsider, and can take that appreciation home with us.

You can travel the world and remain as close-minded as the day you began. You can live abroad for 30 years and refuse to learn a thing. You can live your whole life within a five-mile radius and be the wisest, kindest and most learned of people.

However, I do believe that travel and student exchange are, without any doubt, powerful medicine for a world continuously wobbling in the wake of violence, hatred and bigotry.

To all those packing their bags, enrolling to study abroad, or working hard as teachers, parents or volunteers so young people can venture forth into the world: thank you. The world needs more of you. More homestays, more awkward first days, more this-will-be-funny-later misunderstandings that lead to humility and knowledge.

That’s progress: as messy and sure as an incoming tide.

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A tale of two Costa Ricas: hope, inequality and an hour on the train

170925TrainCartago.jpgConsidering how much I love the idea of trains in general, and San José’s Tren Urbano specifically, it’s embarrassing how long it took me to hop aboard for a ride to and from Cartago. I’d ridden the train eastward from games at the National Stadium – by far the best way to get away from the jam-packed streets surrounding Sabana Park after any major event – but never from my home, just east of San José, to the former capital.

I finally remedied this on a recent Saturday, along with my husband and daughter. As we waited for the train at the station in Cipreses de Curridabat, it was inevitable, given my obsession with Costa Rican slang, that I would wonder aloud whether there are any choice costarriqueñismos related to trains.

My husband considered this. “Not that I can think of right now,” he said.

“¿Que no le deje el tren?” I suggested.

“Sure,” he said. “That’s in general, for not being left behind in some way; or, in the past, it was often used to describe women who hadn’t yet been married. ‘La dejó el tren’ meant that she’d never gotten hitched.”

As I pondered the lovely linguistic gifts bestowed upon unmarried women in many languages, our particular train trundled up to our stop. We were off: up the hill to Cartago, off the train for a short visit to the Mercado Municipal and the Ruins, and then back.

The journey was a bit of a revelation – or, rather, a heightened view of everything I consider the essence of Costa Rica. Everything I love, and love to hate, and thoroughly dislike about my adopted country flashed by outside the open windows (why is it that when it comes to Costa Rica, I can only seem to use the word “hate” in the phrase “love to hate”?). I returned to the source.

Most any journey by car or bus in greater San José is, well, less than life-affirming. You’ll see traffic, fast-food chains, pedestrians risking their lives as they sprint across streets, big-box stores holding court in increasing numbers. And thanks to the tendency to live “del portón pa’dentro,” as one person once described it to me – hidden behind a big front gate or wall, and probably a series of locks – there are precious few of the glimpses of family life that can enliven travel through the streets of some other cities I’ve known.

The train, however, cuts through these barriers. You chug through graffiti-heavy underpasses and peer into lush backyards. You gaze into someone’s kitchen window right next to the tracks and wonder how on earth the woman pouring coffee into her mug, so close you can see the steam, has gotten used to the sound and vibrations.

We saw a man and his son buying chips at the pulpería; a semicircle of bare butt-cracks where a group of workers were squatted around the back of a pickup for an impromptu lunch in a vacant lot; breathtaking views of ravines and cafetales; the backsides of some very ugly new buildings; mounds of trash here and there; people waving to us as we passed by; a child whirling, for some reason, in a cimarrona costume in his family’s back patio.

At many points along the route, we saw glimpses of Costa Rican life that haven’t changed much since my husband, now 39, was a little boy.

We also got a unique view of the drastic inequality that was not the same back then, when he played among these coffee plants. Not to the same degree we see today.

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Just minutes after leaving Cartago on the last train of the day, headed back to San José, all the riders in our car were startled by an object that seemed to drop from the ceiling at top speed. We looked at each other in momentary confusion. After a second or two, we realized that it had been thrown in through one of the open windows.

“This is a slum,” one well-groomed señora explained to the rest of us, gesturing at the neighborhood passing by outside our windows: garbage, kids on bikes, rusty roofs and slanty tin walls. “Es un precario.”

I pictured a skinny boy jumping up and down on a dusty slope, realizing that he had hit the target. Even though we were rumbling along fairly slowly, it would be deeply satisfying to aim just right and get something through that little window.

“It’s one thing to be poor. It’s another to be a good-for-nothing,” said a man across the aisle.

Es que esta es la chusma,” said the lady. This is the riffraff. She rose to close the window next to the four-top she shared with what appeared to be her husband and granddaughter. The man across the aisle did the same.

The object rolled to a stop at my feet. It was a small, tan, plastic container of West Country deodorant.

Our fellow passengers opened the windows about ten minutes later as the train pulled into the extraordinary decadence of the suburbs past the town of Tres Ríos. There, as Tres Ríos turns into Curridabat, train riders get inside glimpses of houses that are more like castles, homes whose luxuries are normally hidden behind massive gates and armed guards. There are crystalline pools ringed by world-class landscaping; broad, inviting tennis courts; rolling lawns.

I watched all of this and thought: Costa Rica, que no nos deje el tren.

I didn’t mean some shiny bullet train on the fast track to the developed world – not that that’s necessarily on the horizon. I meant this very train, clunky and slow, with its faded seats and scratched windows.

May we not be left behind by this train and all it sees during its brief voyages through the Central Valley. May we not miss the opportunity it represents.

The opportunity of this car, where people of many walks of life – not all, but many – filed into the same seats and experienced the same things, with all the annoyances and friction and humor and real, human interactions that come when we emerge from our social circles, from our little boxes made of ticky-tacky.

The opportunity to ride shoulder-to-shoulder on public transportation, instead of in the plush isolation of the cars that are choking this city.

A reminder, however fleeting, that this country’s extremes of wealth and poverty are actually close neighbors, whether or not we care to see this. A tiny open window between these realities many people work very hard to isolate – even if, on this trip, all that came through was a deodorant container.

A reminder that exuberant green and exuberant, sometimes foolhardy development are also close neighbors. Balance, somehow, must be achieved.

These are massive challenges, all of them: giving San José room to breathe, alleviating its transportation nightmares, integrating development with the environment, finding economic and social solutions that can somehow slow and reverse the accelerating concentration of wealth in a country that long boasted of its strong middle class.

It’s an uphill climb, but as I alighted from the train with a tired four-year-old Tica hanging from my arms, I realized one thing gives me hope. It’s the fact that so many of the smartest, most creative and most passionate people I know, often driven by a natural sense of solidarity, all with an underlying, even if unspoken, commitment to peace – so many of them, so many, are Costa Rican. And I’ll hitch my car to theirs anytime.

Why learning another language keeps us young

IMG_3653Published in The Tico Times on June 5, 2017.

When you’re tuckered out from a long day using Costa Rican slang at every conceivable opportunity, how do you announce you’re ready for bed? With a little local color, of course. So when my husband needed our four-year-old daughter to hit the hay the other night, he said to her, “OK – a planchar la oreja.”

Planchar is “to flatten” or “to iron.” When you’re off to “flatten your ear,” it means you’re ready to put your head down on your pillow. It’s my favorite expression for going to bed, followed closely by “voy pa’l sobre.” A sobre is an envelope, and the expression conjures up the cozy feeling of slipping between tightly tucked sheets; I love the mental image of someone slipping into an envelope and snuggling up to sleep.

Our daughter burst into tears and grabbed her ears in a true panic.

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The power of immigrant vision

Founders’ Day remarks delivered at The Derryfield School, Manchester, New Hampshire, May 19, 2017.

Vision

Thank you, Dr. Carter, the Founders, Mr. Sanborn, and everyone who played any part in helping me get me back to Derryfield today, including my parents, who made the drive from Eastport, Maine. The list of reasons we love Derryfield is very long, but one I have been thinking about lately is how much I was allowed to try when I was here. Middle and high school are always going to be scary – but I got to experience that part of my life in a place where I felt able not only to do the things I was naturally good at, but also to do things I was clueless about. I mean, they let ME on the soccer team! Mr. Holland let ME through the door of his classroom every day for years! Breakthrough Manchester let ME teach a total immersion Latin class to sixth-graders.

I was not great at any of those things. That means that Derryfield helped me start to learn what it felt like to enter new spaces where I did not quite belong. Those small experiences of awkwardness in a safe place build up little muscles that help us deal with bigger uncertainties later on. Those muscles, that practice of cluelessness, have been crucial for me as an adult.

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A room of our own: Costa Rican choteo and Virginia Woolf

Originally published by The Tico Times, http://www.ticotimes.net.

When I worked in English-language education and visited an advanced young-adult class in San José, I asked them what their biggest challenge to language learning was. Lack of time? Mastering irregular verbs? The delightful traps with which the English language is laced, such as the multiple pronunciations of -ough, with no rules to follow whatsoever (think tough, bough, through, dough, cough)?

Nope. Their answer was none of these, and they all had the same one. El choteo, they answered in unison, a few sheepish glances flying across the room. When they opened their mouths to speak English, they told me, they knew that if they made a mistake, they’d be ridiculed by their peers. On the other hand, if they spoke perfectly, the mockery might be even worse – who do you think you are to speak so well? So they kept quiet, which is of course disastrous for a language learner. Their oral proficiency suffered because they were afraid to speak up.

To chotear is to take someone down a peg, to mock, particularly when people show aptitude for something or getting too big for their britches. “Uuuuuuuuuy,” you might hear if you’ve done something right, with the intonation that goes with a strut and a la-di-da hand gesture. It goes hand-in-hand with Costa Ricans’ love of fun and wordplay, but many Costa Ricans have told me it is also rooted in a cultural aversion to standing out, to individual achievement, to ego. On several occasions I’ve heard Costa Ricans compare this aspect of their culture to the famous analogy of the crabs in a bucket that pull down any fellow crab that starts to haul itself out.

Constantino Láscaris, in his excellent book El Costarricense, outlines this view of choteo as well, but ultimately dismisses it in favor of a lighter, more positive view. “El choteo is funny,” he writes. “The jokes might be good or bad, accurate, dirty or less dirty. But it represents an extraordinary popular wisdom. A people that tells jokes gives an outlet for passions… The President of the Republic is the delicious object of choteo, as well as all legislators, no matter who they are.”

See also: Costa Rica is for lovers – the affectionate language of daily life

I think both interpretations are probably correct. I have often been grateful for the fact that in Costa Rica, it’s tough for someone to get high and mighty, or to go to extremes, because someone will also be there to make fun. At the same time, I think it is also true that this might inhibit some people, and maybe even keep them from following certain passions.

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San Gerardo de Dota: plenty of room for thought.

I found myself reflecting on el choteo in an unexpected context recently, and in a beautiful place: San Gerardo de Dota, where, on a cabin dangling off the edge of a mountain, I read A Room of One’s Own for the first time. In air just about as cold and crisp as you can find in Costa Rica – which is to say, utterly delectable, demanding warm socks and wood fires at night – and in a silence that, aside for birdsong, is just about absolute, I read Virginia Woolf’s brilliant analysis of what happens to women who try to climb out of the crab bucket, artistically speaking.

I read Virginia Woolf’s imaginings of what would have happened to Shakespeare’s sister, if he had had a sister whose brilliance was equal to his own. In that patient, detailed way of hers, she paces through the possible actions Shakespeare’s sister might have taken in order to pursue her passion and live as a writer. No matter what thread Virginia pulls on, it does not end well.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

Months ago, when my obsession with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was at its peak, I read that his family works to give him and his wife a support system, especially in terms of childcare. The article said something like, “Their priority is to make sure he has the space he needs to create.”

It sounded so delightful – and necessary, for all those of us who think that Miranda (speaking of Shakespeare’s relatives) is the Bard’s Nuyorican spiritual twin. I want his family to give him space to create. Please, provide him with whatever he needs to make the Next Great Thing.

I also want that space for myself. When I think about claiming it, though, I feel presumptuous. A voice says, “¡Ni que fueras Shakespeare! ¡Ni que fueras Lin-Manuel Miranda, mae! ¡Ni que fueras Virginia Woolf!” Ni que fueras: a classic choteo opening. “As if you were.” Think again. Come back down to earth. Ubíquese.

I am choteándome a mi misma, pulling myself back down into the crab bucket, which many people – particularly women, I’d argue – are all too good at.

But here, right here, as if she could hear my inner choteo, is what’s so brilliant about Woolf’s famous essay. She has doesn’t argue with these voices; she sidesteps them. She makes no pretense that everyone in her audience have works of genius stored within, waiting to pour out. Rather, she argues that no matter how talented we may or may not be, we all have a role to play. All books are the continuation of the books that came before, and all original thought, even if imperfectly expressed, moves the ball forward for the team she imagines of women writers throughout history.

She says that Shakespeare’s sister “would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.” We must recognize “the common life which is the real life and not… the little separate lives which we live as individuals.”

The common life, which is the real life.

That’s why I think el choteo has an upside and a downside. It has an upside because the common life is the real life. No one of us is such a big deal, all on our lonesome. When we start to think that we are, it’s good for our friends and family to shake us out of it with a little humor. I can think of some people in my home country, the United States, who would be much better people – and leaders – if they were doused on the daily with some healthy choteo.

At the same time, each of us has a chance to contribute something to that common life. We do have a worthwhile reason to carve out what we need for that purpose: a room of our own, whether literal or figurative. We do have a mission to fulfill, because whether we produce masterpieces or only mediocrity, we have a shot at providing the next genius, Shakespeare’s sister, with a boost. A leg up. A starting point a little further down the road.

So to every tentative English student, every aspiring writer, every one of us feeling a little pretentious as we claim our space as artists or thinkers or learners, I think Virginia would say, if she were here in Costa Rica: accept your fair share of choteo with a nod, and let it keep your feet on the ground, rooted in our common life. But after that, simply carry on. Don’t stop. Create something. No matter what they might say.

Read previous Maeology columns here.

Katherine Stanley Obando is the editor of The Tico Times and the author of “Love in Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter,” a book of essays about motherhood, Costa Rica’s unique street slang, bicultural parenting, and the ups and downs of living abroad. She lives in San José. For more from Katherine about Costa Rican life and culture, follow her on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to the Love in Translation blog.

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Why a Costa Rican Holy Week is a treasure to be savored

Nature Landings Cover Screenshot 2017-03I’m pleased to be writing a new column for Nature Air’s magazine, Nature Landings: “Word on the Street.” The magazine is full of fascinating travel stories, cultural information and more, and I’m proud to be a contributor. With permission from Nature Landings, here is a look at this month’s musings as published in the April-May edition. Look for the column the next time you’re in the skies enjoying what truly is the most spectacular way to see Costa Rica.

Oftentimes in Costa Rica – a country that lacks the spectacular Holy Week celebrations of, say, Antigua, Guatemala – Holy Week seems best characterized by a long list of things you can’t do. Drinking is one of them, since dry laws prohibit the sale of alcohol on key religious dates (ineffectively, as demonstrated by a popular nickname for Semana Santa: Semana Tanda, or Drunken Week).

Shopping is another, although much has changed since the days when you could barely find a place to buy bread on high holy days. Each year, more and more shops keep their doors open, increasing convenience but eroding tradition – all the more reason to embrace Holy Week while we can.

There is a whole host of activities that are forbidden on Good Friday, for religious reasons or by long-standing superstitions. Don’t eat meat. Don’t go swimming in a river or ocean, or you will turn into a fish. Don’t hit your children, or your hand will fall off; there’s one superstition we can all wish were fact. Don’t wear red, since it implies support for the devil. And since it’s a day of mourning, don’t run, play or work.

But alongside all the can’ts, what you can do during Holy Week in Costa Rica, especially in its town and city centers, is slow down, reflect and relax as at no other time of year.

Nature Landings Photo 2017-03 MQC

Courtesy of Nature Landings. Photo by Mónica Quesada.

 

It is a hot season, and very still. Streets empty; miel de chiverre, or squash jam, is lovingly prepared over stovetops nationwide; painstaking preparations are made for local processions. Regardless of your religious affiliation, something about Semana Santa invites reflection – or, at the very least, peace and quiet.

It’s worth seeking out this national pause. It’s worth leaving behind the rush of everyday life, or even, for the tourist, taking a detour from the beach to experience Costa Rican town life at its finest: with stores shuttered and schools locked, people of all ages can come together in the street behind the solemn beat of the Romans’ drums.

Walk with them, and you’ll be reminded why we want traditions to survive in the first place: because they connect us to history, even when that history isn’t ours.

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Waiting for gray (bochorno)

IMG_7086.JPGDear E.,

The longer I live in places where you can wear flip-flops 12 months a year, the more obsessed I become with seasons.

It’s not as simple as missing them. If I could choose right now, I’m not sure I’d wish the seasons of my childhood back into my current life. But I’m fascinated by the way those memories find us at odd moments, and how we reconfigure them among the smells, sounds and sensations of entirely different climes.

Last week I was telling you your favorite bedtime story, the same one you ask for every night. In it, you discover a set of keys that unlocks little doors hidden in the nooks and crannies of our house, doors that go unnoticed until you discover them one rainy day. There is one key and one door for every color of the rainbow, and each door reveals a different landscape: an orange grove, a blue Maine lake, green hills that we run across and roll down.

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