Living in Chile this past month has served as a reminder of the significance of my social identity as a U.S. citizen and a woman, the implications of which can be something I tend to take for granted.
Before attending the University of Michigan, I lived in Peru for a year, and my experiences there left me with mixed emotions towards this part of my identity. At times, I was grateful for being born in the U.S. and all the advantages the “lottery of birth” had bestowed upon me. At other times, I wished I was not at all associated with the U.S. because of the negative reactions I would get from people when they realized my citizenship. Peru was a long time ago and I never really realized how important my identity as a U.S. citizen was in shaping my experience abroad until I returned to South America once again for a three-month internship in Chile.
My Spanish was much better this time around when I arrived in Chile than it was when I first arrived in Peru, so I blended in better and was able to even pass as Chilean at times. Now, when I see other tourists or people passing through who speak in poor Spanish with heavy American accents, I find myself making assumptions about them as well. I have been there and I understand the difficulty of trying to survive in a foreign country with a different language and culture, but I also understand why I stood out as a foreigner so much during my first few months in Peru. I am still the same girl from Minnesota, but I also feel like the language and culture of South America are becoming greater parts of my identity as well—so much so that it is hard for me to identify with travelers from North America who I happen to meet in passing. This new realization is exciting for me as I can honestly say that I am fully assimilated here in South America and that I even feel at home.
One big difference between my time in Peru and my time in Chile is that here in Chile I am not reminded constantly of my identity as a woman as I was in Peru, due to a variety of different reasons. In Peru, I was always cautioned about leaving the house alone and was often harassed on the streets, at university and, at times, at home because I was a woman. One of the cultural norms in Peru is that women, especially younger women, do not leave the house except to go to school or if they are accompanied by a male. This norm is not without grounds as gender violence towards women is a huge issue in Peru, as in many parts of South America, and most parents see preventing their daughters from leaving the house as a way to protect them. Women are also expected to contribute more in terms of chores. They cook, clean, wash the laundry and often take care of their younger siblings. However, teen boys spend their time out with friends and are hardly ever required to help with housework, and they are expected to act macho or “like a man.” Boys in their early teenage years have more freedom than some women have in their entire lifetime. I was very fortunate to have incredible host moms in all my host families who made it possible for me to have more freedom during my time in Peru by advocating for me at my university and at home, an advantage that many fellow female exchange students and Peruvian friends did not have. As someone who grew up in an environment in which I always felt I was treated as equal to men, living in a place in which your sex very much defines you was an unpleasant shock that left me angry and even scared at times.
Santiago is much safer than Lima, so I do not feel afraid to walk somewhere alone and I am not objectified by men on the street every time I leave the house. Also, I am working in Santiago rather than living with host families as an exchange student, so I have more freedom and am less restricted by the cultural norms surrounding women. I am not claiming that sexism does not exist in Chile, but it is not at the same level as what I experienced in Lima. Luckily, my internship has placed me in an environment in which my sex is not discriminated against. Also, having a paid job provides me with great freedom as it allows me to live independently, whereas as an exchange student I was dependent on my host families. Though I do miss Peru for its vibrant local culture and cuisine, it is such a relief to not feel targeted and unsafe because of my identity as a woman. For that I am very thankful to be in Santiago.
My move to Santiago went very smoothly. I did not take time to really prepare myself for the move because my life was very hectic before I left Michigan, but my past experiences traveling prepared me greatly for arriving and settling in. The most difficult part of the move was beginning my job. Though my coworkers are all very kind and helpful, I had never worked in an office setting before this internship. I was afraid to navigate the office dynamics for the first few weeks, and I hardly talked with others except for minimal conversations. In addition, as the first intern from the University of Michigan, I felt pressure to do a good job so they would continue to hire U-M students. After a few weeks of not really enjoying my job, I decided to make more of an effort to get to know others in the office and to just be myself instead of trying to be what I thought they expected of me.
Though it is important to make an effort to learn the dynamics of your workplace—especially since they can be very different abroad from what we are used to—we all make mistakes. Being afraid of making those mistakes prevents us from learning. Now I feel at home and have found my place in the office, where I feel like I belong and am able to contribute. I think the biggest mistake I have made so far is underestimating myself. I know that there are always going to be obstacles and challenges, whether living abroad or not, but by underestimating my ability to navigate these types of situations, I was the one holding myself back and making myself unhappy. I was so nervous about making mistakes at my internship and not adjusting fast enough to my new job that for the first few weeks I hardly engaged with my coworkers or explored the city. While it is important to be humble, you must also trust in yourself. Though the majority of my challenges had to do with adjusting to my internship, the same goes for adjusting to new cultures and learning new languages.
My advice to any young traveler is to not be afraid of the unknown; you’ve got to start somewhere.