Thursday, August 7, 2014

Final Report and Advice to Future Exchange Students Who Don't Want to Read This Entire Blog ;)

RYE Final Report: Alex Bryant Chile 2013-2014
I think I should start out by saying that I had the absolute best exchange that I could have asked for. Before leaving, I heard so many people say that same phrase, and I always wondered what constituted “the best exchange”. During the hard times of my exchange, I thought that surely I couldn’t be having the best exchange while I was fighting with my family, or while I was sitting at home alone on a Friday night with nothing to do, or while I was not being invited to a single rotary meeting, or while I still didn’t understand everything my friends were saying after 6 months. As I look back on those moments, I realize that my expectations for the year were completely impossible. A year abroad is like a roller coaster with unavoidable sadness, happiness, success, and failure. I also realized that this complete experience, including all the rough patches, was much more amazing than the one I had in my head ever could have been. Through the fighting and reconciliation I had with my family, I became much closer to them (after all, real families don’t always get along), I was able to use the nights alone to spend extra time with my family, I was able to change rotary for the better, and I realized that that fact that I was able to complain about not understanding little details of the language actually meant I was improving a lot. I think that “having the best exchange” is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is stay positive, make the best of any situation, and know how to laugh at yourself. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to, but they are always new and exciting experiences. I’ll illustrate my point with the story of how I spent my birthday in Chile. It was during summer break (February), and my family had just returned from a 3 week road trip through the south of Chile, so I hadn’t seen any of my friends for a long time. I hadn’t had a cell phone since December (long story), so Facebook was my only means of communication. We arrived home and I was excited to talk to friends and plan something to do for my birthday, but I quickly found that my dad hadn’t paid the internet bill, so there was no wifi in the house. I had no cell phone, no internet, no texting, no way to communicate with neither my Chilean friends nor my friends and family from the US who wanted to wish me a happy birthday. All I did the whole day was go for a run and then organize my room with my little sister Monse. I tried to act like I wasn’t disappointed, but my one and only exchange birthday was not going as planned. I was in my room watching Disney channel with Monse when my brother Maxi came in and asked me to help him with something outside. I went to the living room and found it completely decorated with balloons and a big Mexican (my favorite food) meal on the table. My best friend Cata was waiting there with a gift and a giant hug. We had a great meal, my family shoved cake in my face, and although it wasn’t the amazing birthday filled with greetings that I had imagined, it was still amazing and perfect in its own way because it showed me how much these people care about me. Later in the week Cata and I had a joint birthday party for our school friends and went out dancing at a club, and a little afterward all the exchange students got together to throw me a surprise birthday party. I was so sure that my birthday was going to be one of the worst memories of the year, and it is actually one of the best.

Recommendations for Exchange Students:
·       - Bring a California flag as well as a USA flag because in all the group pictures you are going to want to stand out
·       - Bring California postcards to write letters on
·       - Bring candy to share with everyone—they’ll all want to try the cool US candy that doesn’t exist there (ex: Sour Patch Kids, Goldfish, Jolly Ranchers, Juicy Fruit gum, Tootsie Rolls, Graham Crackers to make s’mores)
·      -  Printing out pictures of you with your host family and friends always makes a good gift (a great end of year gift could be a framed picture, so bring nice frames from the US)
·      -  Learn some good card games to teach people (ERS was a big hit)
·      -  ***Learn your US history and especially the history of US involvement in the country where you’ll be going. At least in South America, there is a lot of resentment toward the US for their foreign policy during the cold war, and you will undoubtedly get questions from friends, parents, and history teachers about what you think of the situation. You’ll want to be informed.
·      -  People will make fun of you for carrying pepper spray around, but I always felt safer with it although I never had any problems or the slightest reason to use it.
·      -  Make your pins California related, not USA related, because you’ll want to stand out from the million other USA pins that will be on everyone else’s blazers
·      -  Don’t worry about talking to other exchange students instead of people from the country you’re in because they understand better than anyone what you’re going through and can provide a nice break from constantly working to communicate and understand the language. At the same time, make sure you put your host country friends first and make a big effort to spend as much time with them as possible because after all, you didn’t travel so far just to be friends with more people from the US.
·     -   Don’t let your host family or friends speak to you in English, at least until you feel comfortable in their language
·     -   When communicating with your host family, be specific about the cultural practices and beliefs that you and your real family have about house rules and family interaction. It can’t hurt to over clarify because that’s the only way to explain differences and miscommunications that are sure to come up
·     -   Don’t be lazy before leaving on exchange. Learn as much of the language as you can, especially grammar rules. It’s easy to pick up vocabulary when you get there but grammar is a little harder, especially if you know nothing about it. When you step off the plane and realize that now this new language is the only you will make friends, understand street signs, or ask for help, you will wish you had worked a little harder beforehand. Read books, watch tv or movies (preferably movies you’ve already seen), listen to and familiarize yourself with their music (super impressive when you go out dancing and know the words to their favorite songs), chat with your host family over Skype or Facebook
·     -   ***MAKE AN EFFORT. Be social, be nice, be real. Ask people about themselves, remember people’s birthdays, hug people often. Always laugh at yourself and allow people to correct you if you make a language or cultural mistake. Break the stereotypes that people from the US are all cold and rude and driven only by their capitalistic interests and that exchange students are only looking to party, get drunk, and have a good time.

For more information than anyone could ever possibly want about my exchange, or just to look at some pretty pictures of Chile, check out my blog:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sunday, July 13

Today I woke up on my last morning in Chile. Lilian brought me breakfast to my room and I showered, got ready, and put the finishing touches on my suitcases. There were more weight problems and I had to take more things out and weigh the suitcases a bunch of times with Manuel’s little fishing scale, but I got it to all fit (barely). I took a collectivo over to the Jumbo to meet up with my friends one last time. First I spent about an hour sitting a bench with Pablo just talking and laughing. It was kind of the last time we were going to hang out, and we both knew it, but there was no awkward sadness or anything. We had just as much fun and laughed just as much as we always do, and I had a great time. Pablo has the fastest Spanish in the whole world and sitting on that bench and just chatting with him and remembering how before it was always almost impossible to understand him made me realize how far I’ve come in a year. He left, and then I met up with Nico, Augustin, Isi, Isa, Ale, Chichi, and Heian at Berezzi.
We had café helado and just chatted for a while. Isi brought a camera, so we took a lot of pictures. This was a lot sadder because we all knew it was a goodbye and it was sort of long and drawn out. I got a text from my family saying that they were waiting for me to eat lunch, so I began the long process of hugs and promises to keep in touch and last photos with each of them.
We cried, hugged, and promised to stay in touch. As I was walking away from them, looking around the Jumbo for the last time, it was shocking how this city and those people, all completely unknown and foreign to me just 345 days earlier, had become my life and my best friends. And now I had to leave them. I took my last collectivo back home and ate lunch with my family. I gave them a parting gift of a Brighton framed photo of the three of us and letters for each of them. My friend Mapache came over to say a quick goodbye and to give me a hug. Then Lilian drove me into the center so I could change my Chilean money into American dollars. When we got home, it was almost 4 and we had to be off to the airport. We put all my suitcases in the car, and I was saying goodbye to the house and getting ready to leave, when Manuel came out to the car. On the back of the car they have that cute little family of stickers—Manuel, Lilian, Fran, and Cassandra, their pitbull. He had the pack of stickers, and he told me to choose one and put it on the back of the car because I was their daughter too. It was so adorable and simple and said I love you so much more clearly than words ever could have.
We all piled into the car and went up to the airport. I was pretty nervous about checking my suitcases because of the weight, but it went smoothly—one was exactly 23 kilos and the other was 31.5 (the overweight max is 32) so everything was perfect. I checked in and then there was nothing left to do but wait until 7:30 when I had to go through security.
My friends arrived pretty soon, and I was truly shocked by how many of them made the 2 hour bus journey up to the airport to say goodbye. We sat around talking and laughing and being pretty normal (except there were moments of silence when where we were sort of dawned on all of us). My cousin Nacho and his pants had also come to see me off. The San Martins still hadn’t arrived. I called Nancy and she said they had left the house late and were rushing to the airport but that it was going to be close. She was telling me to delay going through security to wait for them, but my friends were telling me that I couldn’t miss my flight and that I had to go.
I was so stressed and just wanted the San Martins to arrive (with Sally and Vicente). It was about 7:40 and they still weren’t there, so I started taking pictures with my friends and family that were there and I was resigning myself to the fact that they weren’t going to make it on time. As I was taking a picture with someone, I heard running and was enveloped in a giant hug from Sally, Monse, Nancy, Maxi, and Cristobal. That release of the tension that I had that they weren’t going to make it brought the waterworks, and I finally started crying. Nancy was crying too because she had been really scared that she wasn’t going to get to see me again. She told me that Eric had tried to find parking but couldn’t so he was waiting outside in the car. We ran out of the airport together so that I could go hug him and say goodbye. Then I ran back in and started going around the circle of people and hugging each of them and letting them know how much I loved them and how I would never forget them.
That was really all I could say in that moment. I remember the goodbye with Cata, and the goodbye with Pablo, and those were really sad because they have been some of the most important people in my exchange and we just hugged and it was understood how much this goodbye was going to hurt both of us.
But honestly I can’t choose a single goodbye as the hardest because they were impossible and surreal and blurred by tears. I really did have to do through security of I would miss my flight, so I walked through the door, waved a final goodbye to my entire huge Chilean family, and tried not to look back again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Saturday, July 12

Today was my last full day in Chile. I spent the entire morning packing. Throwing an entire life into a suitcase that cannot weight more that 23 kilos is not as easy as it might seem. Manuel had promised me a long time ago that he was going to take me up to the hills overlooking Rancagua, and he came into my room around 11 and invited me to go. I thought a last morning spent with my dad would be nice, so I agreed.
We drove up through the hills and past the little mining town next to the big copper mine, Codelco, where Eric works. We arrived pretty far into the hills to the place where the border patrol between Argentina and Chile begins, and then turned around.
We arrived a few hours later, and Lilian was waiting for us to go get lunch. We went to our favorite restaurant, the Mini Sheraton. The wait is always long, but today it was terrible, and we ended up waiting about an hour and a half for a table. We started eating lunch at 4 in the afternoon and it really couldn’t have come sooner because Lilian was really crabby from being so hungry. After lunch, they took me over to Sole’s house so I could say a quick goodbye to her. We hugged and she cried and told me that even though she had made fun of me about my accent and always told me that Chile was a much better country than the US, that she really did love me and was going to miss me. I already knew that, but it was really sweet to hear her say it. Then my parents dropped me off at the Jumbo. Jose met me there, and although I didn’t have very long, we walked around for a while catching up. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and although we aren’t exactly best friends, Jose was an important part of my exchange and definitely someone worth saying goodbye to. We said goodbye, and I got into a collectivo to go home. As the collectivo was pulling out of the jumbo, Cata called me crying. I asked her where she was and she said she was at the Jumbo. I asked the driver for my money back, got out of the collectivo, and while running back toward the jumbo, told Cata to wait where she was. We sat outside the jumbo on a bench and she cried and told me her problems with Louis, and how Cristobal coming back hadn’t been how she had expected it, and how she didn’t know how she was going to deal with everything once I left, and I just hugged her and was happy to be able to be with her in this moment in a way that I would never be able to again once I left. After about a half hour, I really had to go home. I got in a collectivo and went back. I was planning on just having a quiet last night, when Sally called me. She said that Lilian had been supposed to take me over to the San Martin house blindfolded because they were planning a surprise goodbye Alex/welcome Cristobal party that night, but that Lilian had obviously not understood the plan, but that I should come over quickly and look surprised.
I went over and the whole family from Talca and Santiago was there. They were having an asado and Nancy had prepared a giant buffet of desserts. Vicente, Louis, Cristobal, and Sally were there. Also my cousins Pedro, Javi, Maria Jesus, and Nacho. I talked to and caught up with all the amazingly warm people who had grown to become my family in just one year, and us kids had fun together talking and joking around.
 Nancy commented to me how amazing it was that I was almost more a part of the family than Cristobal was, because he still felt different and unsure of where he fit in after a year abroad. Eric gave a speech about how happy he was to have his son back, but also how hard it was to see his daughters, Sally and I, go. I gave a speech thanking everyone for being my family and for giving me the best year of my life. Around 2:30, I asked Eric to drive me home because I had a big day in the morning. We all cried as I said goodbye to my family. I went to sleep for the last time in my comfortable bed in my house in Rancagua, Chile.

Friday, July 11

Today was the last and most important day of the alianza. We started by watching the “flash mob” of each alianza, which was just a dance in which more and more people added in. Then all the girls had to go to the classroom to change our clothes and get ready for barras.
Our theme was go karting, so we had the outfits of the girls who wave the checkered flags at the beginning. We went outside and practiced the dances and our positions in each one a few times, and then it was time to go to the gym for the performance. Everyone was nervous, because although this was just a school competition, we had worked for a long time on this and barras is by far the most important competition in the whole alianza. We went into the bathroom and painted our lips black with paint. It was really disgusting and the paint got all over our teeth and we had to keep cleaning our teeth while we waited for the paint to dry on our lips. Our alianza was the first to go, so we put up our scenery and lined up at the back of the gym. Everyone was jumping up and down and yelling and nervous and excited and the atmosphere was great. Before we went on, they said, “guys let’s do this for Alex because today is her last day at school” and it was just the cutest thing ever. First Isi, the queen of the alianza, entered on a motorcycle, jumped off, and waved a checkered flag. Then Felipe, the king, entered in a go kart. He got out as all the senior girls and guys were entering. We did this sort of call and response dance between the boys and girls, and then the boys went off the stage and the rest of the girls came on and we did the rest of the routine. The guys also had another dance and participated in the lifts. We went through the whole performance without any major problems. We all danced full out, smiling and enjoying the performance the whole time, and all of our lifts and pyramids (the thing I was most worried about because I really just didn’t want anyone to fall down and hurt themselves) went off without a hitch. At the end we all yelled a cheer about “Alianza Gris” and ran off. The whole routine lasted about 10 minutes. We were so happy and amped up and proud of our performance. It was a really great feeling. You guys can watch the performance here: Barras Alianza Gris Then we watched the other two alianzas, which were also really good, but we were pretty sure that we had done the best, which was surprising because we had never really expected to win barras. After barras, there were a few more tests to watch, like a parade of cultures where people had to come out dressed in clothes from other cultures and a teacher-student partner cumbia dance. Pablo, Stefano, Isa, and I sat in the gym watching them. Then the bell rang and I had to go back to the classroom to say goodbye to Lila before she left. I was planning on seeing the rest of my class at the school party that night, so I only needed to say goodbye to Lila and Angulo, who weren’t going to the party. They both gave me gifts, and I hugged Lila for a long time, and she was the first person to make me cry. We cleaned up the disaster zone of a classroom (just the 3 of us because everyone else ditched), and then walked out of the school together. I tried not to think about the fact that this would be the last time I saw Instituto Ingles, at least for a while. When we had to part ways, I hugged each of them and tried not to cry too much. I walked down to the big stoplight to get a collectivo, and I let myself cry. Just as I crossed the street in front of Instituto O’Higgins, I saw Katie outside with one of her friends, also crying, because today was her last day too. We just saw each other and hugged because we understood exactly how the other one was feeling. With promises to visit before Katie left the next day, I got into the collectivo. That was the last time I saw Katie, but it’s really okay because I think goodbyes are overrated anyway. I got home around 2, said hi to Manuel, and then went up to my room to put the finishing touches on all the suitcase packing I had to do. Everything was overweight and nothing fit and I had to try 7 million different combinations of things to get everything in and fitting and the proper weight. I had to keep taking unwanted clothes out of the suitcases to leave in Chile. Around 6, I changed clothes and got ready to go over to Cata’s house. She was going to take me to the school party later. Manuel dropped me off at her house. I walked in and said hi to her, and she led me into the kitchen. There was a sign there that said “Alex te queremos” and suddenly a bunch of my friends jumped out to surprise me. It was a surprise going away party for me.
They all hugged me and laughed at how surprised I had been. We ordered pizza and talked and played Just Dance and Band Hero and had a lot of fun.
Ica, my other blonde half

I was the third person of their couple

Cata's family was definitely my third Chilean host family

Pablo is basically just awesome
I realized how much I absolutely love these people and feel so comfortable here in my life. We had to leave Cata’s house around 11, and nobody wanted to go to the party, so we ended up going over to Nico’s house. I did feel pretty guilty about not going to that party to say goodbye to all my school friends, but at the same time, I was surrounded by my best friends and the people whom I would truly miss, and I decided that was much more important anyway. We talked and played word puzzle games at Nico’s house until like 1:30 when Manuel came to pick me up. I tried not to make the goodbye incredibly sad, I just hugged everyone goodbye like I normally would, thanked them for the great party and for being such amazing friends, and walked out the door. I went home and went to sleep.

Thursday, July 10

Today was the first day of the real alianza. We would spend the whole day in the gym watching a bunch of different activities and competitions. First came the “igualito a” which is where each alianza had to recreate two songs sung by famous people. Our group did Tom Jones and Ricardo Arjona. Tom Jones was hilarious because he sings “sex bomb” and Javier danced all sexy while some girls from my class acted as backup dancers in super high stilettos fawning all over him. The next competition was the live music.
From my alianza, Fernanda and Rocio (a girl from a grade below us) were singing “Counting Stars” while Angulo played guitar and I played flute. The flute part was literally 3 notes and incredibly easy, so I wasn’t really nervous to play it in front of the whole school. Another group from our alianza sang “A Thousand Years”. We were really happy with our performance and everyone said we did really well. We ended up getting second place! Next came the fashion show of recycled clothes. For all the hectic hot gluing that had taken place that morning in our classroom, our outfits really looked excellent and I was proud of all the help I had been able to give.
After that there was a lull in the activity while the little kids did relay races and obstacle courses. We went back to the classroom to talk and chill for the rest of the day.
Cristobal and Louis had come to school that day for the alianza and I hung out with them for a little while. I was sort of surprised by Cristobal. He had just come back to his school and was seeing his friends for the first time in a year and he didn’t really seem excited at all. I talked to some of his friends who had excitedly run up to hug him and ask him about his exchange only to be met with a surly “good” and nothing more. They were a little offended by his lack of excitement and I also frankly found it shocking. I would later learn that going home is not as emotive as one might think and that really for the first week that a person is back, they are not thinking about how happy they are to be back in their country but about how much happier they would be back in their host country with their friends and family.
After school got out at 1, Mariana and I walked into the center to eat at a Korean place called “The Rice”. Louis, Cata, Pablo, and I had met the owner at a bar about 2 weeks ago, and I said hi to him. He ended up standing by our table and awkwardly talking to me in English the entire time Mariana and I were eating. It was incredibly uncomfortable and that fact that the food wasn’t very good only made things worse. We walked back to school and had barras until 6. Then after 6, Fernanda’s mom drove Fernanda, Lila, and I over to Maca’s house so we could continue practicing barras. It was dark outside and absolutely freezing cold, and we were all starving, but we went outside and practiced the dance a bunch of times and it was kind of a bonding moment. My whole class was there, plus the girls from the grades below who were a part of barras. We talked and ate chips when someone finally brought something to eat, and Sole’s mom came to pick us up at 9:30. She dropped me off at the Jumbo, where my parents were waiting for me. We drove home while I told them all about the alianza. Then I showered, prepared all my stuff for tomorrow, another hectic alianza day, and went to sleep.

Wednesday, July 9

Today Mariana and I woke up late and we had to hurry to get ready for school. We still arrived on time, and we brought all the cookies we had made yesterday. Within 20 minutes, all 300 cookies were gone. I was glad to be able to have made some typical American food for my classmates one last time before I leave. I had also brought cards that I had written for all my teachers and my friends, and I passed them out, saying goodbye to the teachers and telling my friends not to read the cards until Sunday when I leave. The teachers’ cards were postcards from California, and the friends’ cards were pictures that I had printed out of us together and written on the back of. I also passed my Chilean flag around all day so that people could sign it. We spent the whole day working on things for the alianza. Then after lunch we all went to the gym to watch the presentation of the queen. The whole school was there divided into three parts of the gym for yellow (C), red (B), and grey (A, my team). The kids in the stand were cheering and yelling for their team.
The "mascot" of the yellow alianza
All the seniors were super stressed out making last minute preparations for the performance. When it was our turn, Chichi and I stood up on desks at one end of the gym floor (the stage) and held the banner. It was great because we got a front row seat of the performance. All of the performances were really good, complete with costumes, makeup, music, smoke effects, and elaborate scenery. Our class went away really happy because ours was definitely the best.
The "sexy dwarves" of our alianza
We stayed after school until 6 practicing barras and putting the finishing touches on the recycled outfits. I went home at 6 because I had to finish a jacket I was in charge of making out of pens. I was feeling a little pressure to get it done and pack up my suitcase and everything, and I think Lilian noticed because she brought me once up in my room to eat while I glued millions of pens onto a trash bag to make a suit vest. I finally finished the vest and finished writing goodbye letters to my family around 11, and by that time I was so tired that I just fell into bed.

Tuesday, July 8

Today I went to school, and the entire day we just prepared things for the alianzas.
We glued recyclable things onto trash bags to make clothes, we practiced the dances, we practiced the presentation of the queen (every alianza has a queen, and the first competition is that each alianza has to make a 10 minute skit based on a famous movie in which the queen acts—we’re doing Snow White, and the other two are doing Tangled and Mulan).
After school we stayed until 6 practicing barras. Then Mariana and I took a collectivo over to the Jumbo. She had invited me to sleep over at her house that night. We bought the supplies we needed to make peanut butter cookies, and then went back to her house to make them. We made a triple recipe, so we were cooking for about 3 hours. We took a break from cooking for a little while to walk through Mariana’s apartment complex knocking on doors and collecting nonperishable food items. That is another alianza competition—the team that collects the most food to give to a homeless shelter nearby. I had to knock on doors and explain everything in Spanish. It kind of reminded me of when I did Siempre Por La Vida in September and had to talk to people and couldn’t do it because I was afraid of not understanding. Now I had no problem. It was cool to see how far I’d come. Anyway, Mariana and stayed up talking and making cookies until like midnight, and then we went to sleep.