The Journal, University of Illinois at Springfield Weekly Campus Newspaper

Lost and Found: Student Abroad

September 23, 2009

The Journal invited UIS students studying abroad this semester to submit an essay detailing their experiences. This segment will appear twice a month as part of a semester long series.

By Monti Mueller
University of Colima

Monti Mueller

Mueller stands on the balcony of herMexican apartment. Mueller is spending the fall semester abroad at the University of Colima in Colima, Mexico. UIS has an exchangeagreement with Colima.

Every part of the world seems to have its own mood and personality, and I enjoy the feeling of trying to become acquainted with a new city based on people and attractions present there.

When I arrived in Colima, Mexico to begin my semester abroad here, I realized getting to know this city felt very different than other areas I had visited – like the difference between introducing yourself to someone you meet at a party and getting to know your freshman year roommate. There is so much more to take in, and such a stronger bond to be made.

It took me about a week here to get past the dreamlike “this isn’t real” stage, but after that passed I was able to let the permanence and culture shock of living in Mexico really sink in.

Little by little I have been able to pick up on the cultural differences between this city and my hometown Collinsville, or Springfield, Ill.

The language difference is of course the most prevailing; it has strongly affected the way I speak, think, interact, learn, and express myself to a degree which is not always comfortable.

My teachers, my friends, the woman at the fruit market, taxi drivers and more are only able to communi - cate with me by using the shared outlet of Spanish. This was overwhelming and exhausting at first, but as my grasp of the language has grown I have really learned to appreciate what knowing Spanish means for me.

There are many exchange students at the University of Colima from countries all over the world whom I would not have had the ability to connect with without our common knowledge of Spanish.

When a Spanish conversation takes place in Mexico between a student from Japan, Germany, Korea, or New Zealand, and one from the United States, all feelings and “rights” of ethnocentrism are eliminated, no power relation exists—only a timid conversation on an even playing field.

I am continually surprised by the friendliness and patience of the local people of Colima, and the way they greet a stranger in passing with a kind “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “goodnight.” This is only until the third of fourth time in passing of course, and then introductions are in order.

I have so quickly become acquainted with my new neighbors and the vendors on the main road because of the sense of community and cultural openness here.

It helps that it is a very frequent part of life here to walk to destinations up to 40 minutes or even an hour away. This mode of transportation has helped me rapidly familiarized myself with the surrounding area, as well as people, who are all so eager to start conversation.

My strikingly uncommon blonde hair and pale skin may have an impact on the sizable number of people who stop me to chat – because I have certainly noticed the frequency of the question, “Where are you from?” Despite my obvious physical differences, I feel accepted and welcome in the community and the university.

Other than the occasional “Hello” or “How are you?” greetings in English, I feel that my Spanish speaking abilities and native friend group allow me to be treated like a local. However, there was one incident the day after the national holiday for the Independence of Mexico from Spain which threw me into a whole new kind of cultural realization.

After classes had resumed the day after Independence Day I went with two of my friends from the University, one Chilean and one Mexican, to a small street taco stand. Our local friend was telling us what dishes were the most popular, delicious and spicy, and asked the vendor to tell us some about the variety.

The vendor very bluntly stated that all of the tacos were good, but she would not sell to a ”gringa.” As someone familiar with this derogatory term used for whites from the U.S., I clearly understood the racial prejudice in the situation I had just been confronted with.

Being born in the United States as a middle-class Caucasian placed me in a socially constructed category of unearned privilege based on my physical appearance which had allowed me to never before encounter racial prejudice. Despite the fact that we all had been speaking Spanish, she refused to serve me due to the skin and hair color that defined me as a “gringa” in her eyes.

Though I feel that this situation was uncomfortable to endure, I believe that it is an important learning experience for me.

My friends and I went to another taco shop afterwards, and were served without question as I had been elsewhere in the city. But our conversation that night was rich with the history of Mexico and conquest, as well as the entwined histories of Mexico and the U.S., and deep seeded cultural stereotypes and race relations in both countries.

I believe the most important thing I have learned from this amazing experience so far is just how vast and endless the depths of another culture truly can be.

Realizing that one taco vendor can teach me such a valuable lesson, I no longer believe it is possible for me to become fully acquainted with this culture in the short three months that I am here.