Studying Abroad Lesson 1: Fitting In Means Being Myself?

Square Peg Kids guest contributor, Hannah, is a 17 year old High School student from Central Oregon. When she was nine, she told her mother she was going to live in Spain. Eight years later she’s finally there in Andalucia, and finding out it’s a little bit different than what she’d imagined in her nine-year-old head. Apparently, she’s growing up, and it’s taking place in Southern Spain.

Read Hannah’s articles about “fitting in” to a completely different culture.

Study Abroad Lesson 1 of 4: Fitting In Means Being Myself?

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Evidently, I have “annoyingly particular eating habits”.  My family and friends from home know this about me, having tried for years to get me to eat less finicky. They know what I do (potatoes!) and don’t (bowls of things I can’t identify immediately) like to eat, and with a few exceptions they try to adapt to my strange food choices.

My host parents in Spain didn’t know this about me. The first couple of weeks in their home I timidly picked at my food, worried they’d be offended if I told them that I was a picky eater.  One day, I got the courage to just address the subject. To my surprise, they were completely fine with it. All they want is for me to be comfortable, and if eating more simply ensures that, it’s OK.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
Had I still been living with my family in America, I’d never have to have had that conversation in the first place. It was awkward, yet rewarding. It’s conversations like these that have taught me that in a new place with new people, communication is key.

Trying to fit in
I’ve lived with three different host families in my 7 months here, and with each of them there has been a pattern in how we communicate and how it affects our relationship. It starts out with a learning period where I keep my mouth shut and try to adjust to their lifestyle. I was the one intruding on their household, so I wanted to be sure that I was doing everything possible to avoid being a “problem child”.  I carefully listened to the rules and asked lots of questions, looking for answers that would help me learn about the family.  After a couple of weeks feeling out of place and foreign, things gradually stopped being new and began to feel more comfortable.

Adjusting one step at a time

In this phase, I knew how things worked and what I was supposed to do, and now the only thing left was to get used to living the way those around me did. This meant becoming a part of the group. Slowly but surely, I developed a role within the family, and established a more concrete personality for myself.

The more controversial parts of me that I’d been supressing so hard to fit in, actually started to stand out.

 

Strangely, instead of being the quiet foreign exchange student, I’d become “Hannah, the foreign exchange student”.

Often my opinions or ideas would clash with those of my host family, so the most useful form of communication became compromise. I wanted to be respectful of the family and rules I was living with, but I also wanted to be myself. At first it was uncomfortable, and I felt like I was being rude. But when they responded positively,  I realized that I was behaving the way I do all the time at home. I took it as a good sign that my relationship with my host family was advancing.

Mi familia mas gande
In my experiences here in Spain, a host family doesn’t replace your real family – even for that short time period. Instead, they’ll be added on to what the exchange student thinks of as home and family. It’s like gaining an extra city and assorted family members. After the month or so of compromising, I started settling in- acting like myself.  I often left my bed unmade (see Mom, it’s not you!), talk about Harry Potter more than socially acceptable, and give hugs whenever I saw someone.  It was like I was living in a family as opposed to just living around them, although my relationship with each of my host families was different.

Arguing came with this level of comfort. I’d have little arguments with my host mom or host sister about whose turn it was to take out the trash, just like I do at home. Contrary to popular belief, I think arguing means closeness in a relationship. Eventually, my host family and I started acting like family.
I’d never understood the work it takes to fit into a family, because we’ve always kind of just “fit around” each other.  I’ve learned about more than just living in Spain during this study abroad; I’ve learned how to be comfortable with being myself- and I know I can fit in anywhere.

Continue on to read Hanna’s Lesson 2: Grade A Student Uses the “F Word”.

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One Response to Studying Abroad Lesson 1: Fitting In Means Being Myself?

  1. Sam says:

    Loved reading this, Hannah. I am thinking about going on exchange next year and am so nervous about fitting in in a different country…especially because I am diabetic and my eating schedule is so rigid. I look forward to your next lesson.

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