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May 9, 2013

What will you dump into your coffee?

Silence. It’s a beautiful art. And it’s what I experienced a lot this week. For the past week, I was in Santiago, Chile, escaping the dreaded finals and instead presenting two and a half papers at the International Society for Theoretical Society.

But I don’t want to talk about the conference. I want to talk about studying abroad. I follow two very serious rules when abroad.

  1. Speak as much of the country’s language you can
  2. Order the thing that makes the least amount of sense on the menu.

#1 is tough — My 2nd grade to 11th grade Spanish classes didn’t teach me much then and I’ve forgotten most of it anyway. My phrases thus far are “Gracias, yo hablo espanol un poco, Mas perros tienen no casa, yo gustaria este.” What you quickly realize (which, sadly in the States we forget so often) is that not everyone speaks English, and how weak you are without it. It’s the most humbling experience — silence. Not knowing how to say “How do I hail a taxi? (Standing on the side of the road works) is really scary, especially by yourself.

#2 usually works pretty well — you have a better chance of really experiencing the local cuisine. And when I went to dinner, I almost got away with it until I attempted to order off the child’s menu and they went and got me an English version of the menu. But I’ve roped Kenny into doing it as well — and I have yet to be disappointed.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned at Clark, it’s respecting good coffee. There was a local who was there and watched me take two big spoonfuls of the white powder in front of me and dump it into my coffee before running over and informing me my sugar was salt. Spooning it back out did no good, and after about five minutes of drinking salt flavored coffee, the shop brought me a second one on the house saying “We want you to enjoy Chilean coffee.” And the second round was SO MUCH BETTER.

Ah, with sugar this time.

Ah, with sugar this time.

Salt or sugar?

Salt or sugar?

My talk!

My talk!

I think what’s important is just throwing that spoonful of something in. Don’t know how to dance? Join ballroom! Can’t be yourself? Explore the Theatre Club. Not athletic? Join a sport! I got to this conference thinking I couldn’t do it. That no one would care about my ideas. That I had nothing to say. And after the first talks, Kenny and a nice professor named Lia turned to me and asked “What did YOU think?” The question blew my mind. What did I think? About what? That someone just summarized a literature search, that another just read a paper, or that Jaan was so typically Clarkie that the fact he fell asleep within the own symposium seemed to resonate with how the rest of the symposium went? And I realized I did have things to say. I had important points to make. People cared and they talked to me about my work.  I dumped the salt into my coffee and I’ ll spend the next year getting that second round. I may have made a few mistakes in my research, my writings, what I thought I was interested in… but whatever! I’ll get a second chance. At least I know now that salt and coffee don’t go well together. But who knows unless you try it yourself!

College is the coffee shop. College is study abroad. College is not knowing how to speak the correct language. It’s not knowing the future. It’s not knowing what’s familiar. But not knowing the familiar isn’t bad – your hopes, your dreams, your life aspirations, your future friends, your future contacts  — they’re not familiar to you until you dump that ISWEARITLOOKEDLIKESUGAR substance into your coffee. They’re not familiar until you order off the children’s section of the menu. They’re not familiar until you struggle to communicate where your house is to a taxi driver.

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College is experimentation. It’s crazy. It’s a life full of uncertainty. And the only thing that is certain is that people, whether you believe it or not, care. They want to hear what you have to say and see who you are as a person and what you are interested in.

So, what will you dump into your coffee? How will you explore the unknown at college?

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