by Christy Callaway-Gale
The beginning and end of everyone’s year abroad (yes, I am about to generalise, which in Oxford’s terms is the bait for your tutor to rip your essay into unbelievably miniature shreds) can be summed up by the question, how are you feeling about leaving?
Surprisingly, I think both my answers, although separated by a period of ten months, are pretty similar. So much for all that self-growth I was supposed to be doing. It’s just the order and perhaps the degree of my emotions that have varied in my two responses, which are stated here in chronological order: excited, nervous and just that little bit sad; very sad, but excited, and just that little bit nervous.
The reason for the excitement that figures in my first response, given just before embarking on what would end up being practically a whole year in Chile, is obvious. Picture the case-study: linguist gets to spend substantial amount of time with native speakers of the language they are learning, live in South America, and generally has the chance to try out being one of those enigmatic ‘independent adult’ beings. Not to mention that this is an obligatory year, which has to be completed in order for linguist to graduate, and that if they have a nice college (like Oriel) they might give them a bit of money to go out and do all of this. Ok, Oxford, if I really have to.
For me, the year abroad really did keep all of its glowing promises, making crushingly sad feelings about second year ending (a.k.a literally the best year of my life ever) seem fairly ridiculous. I am haunted by a blurry memory of drunk me, bawling my eyes out at the end of Oriel Ball, because, and I quote, none of my friends will be here when I get back, whilst I am simultaneously being comforted by a friend who will indeed still be here when I get back. Perhaps even more ironically, it’s now the end of my year abroad (a.k.a literally the best year of my life ever) that is causing the same ‘huge pit of sadness’ that I was experiencing on that final night of second year.
You may think that referring to my leaving Chile as if I’m being ripped away from the home where I grew up is just that bit pretentious, like I’m trying to say that after ten months I am now officially Chilean and will soon be correcting my tutors’ corrections of my translation work. But, I promise, it’s really not that at all. I am painfully aware that ten months is absolutely nothing on any scale. Nothing. And that my Chilean Spanish is, at best, a caricature. But before you dismiss my sadness at the thought of leaving, let’s just think for a second about what the infamous Year Abroad actually requires you to do, and then you can cuff me to a desk in the Rad Cam for being the pretentious language student you already think I am:
1) Be away from home for a minimum of 8 months (which if you’re in South America doesn’t mean popping back home for weekends) in another country where you know no one and where, even if you think you speak the language, you find out immediately that you don’t.
2) Find somewhere to live in a foreign country, using your language ‘skills’, and get to know new housemates/ make new friends, who you don’t understand a lot of the time due to aforementioned language ‘skills’ and who you think will never get your humour, also because of aforementioned language ‘skills’. (You can practically hear the post-joke, awkward silence already, complete with a recently-pronounced grammar mistake that echoes in the room like a backing singer who you’d wish would just pipe down.)
3) Be a fully-functioning human being in said country, which involves buying a foreign SIM card, renewing your tourist visa four times (let’s pretend that’s entirely above board), finding and enrolling in activities that you are used to doing at home that help to make you feel normal, navigating public transport to get to these activities, finding a job/study placement/other to keep you occupied and entertained, and all of this while trying to avoid big, real, live, cultural barriers that you never thought could cause that many problems on a day to day basis. Oh, how could you have been so wrong?
4) Survive moments of ‘Year Abroad’ desperation that may be caused by any incident, whatsoever, connected with 1, 2, or 3 (or by any of the invisible numbers on this list that count up to infinity which describe other Year Abroad challenges, such as the one your friends proposed of finding a ‘fit Latin American husband’), while scheduling in regular Skype sessions with family to assure them that you are still alive after the multiple earthquakes and floods your new ‘hometown’ is experiencing.
So just imagine coming to the end of ten months of hundreds of these little, everyday hurdles, that could amount to roughly 10,000,000 in total, not all of which you overcame first time round, and realising that succeeding and failing so visibly on a daily basis has never made you feel so good about yourself. Ever. And that you have met people here who you care about and who you now physically have to leave (in a style that merits the small ‘leaving party’ you had in England before you ‘left’ that other time). And you realise a whole bunch of other things that, altogether, help to dig that ‘huge pit of sadness’ I was talking about before, which is making you tear up at the sound of your Venezuelan housemate singing along, full pelt, to some cheesy Mariachi music. The shame.
Having covered, ever so briefly, the ‘sad’ part of the response to the question, which I started to analyse some few pages earlier, that just leaves me to explain the ‘nervous’ bit. Well, this time round, it’s not only caused by the thought of dreaded Finals (with a capital ‘F’) that you are absolutely not prepared for (unless you are my tutor reading this in which case, not to worry Alice, everything is going to be fine), but also by the thought that perhaps nothing, absolutely nothing, will have changed at home and that you’ll get swallowed up in your old routine until you forget that, once upon a time, you lived in Chile. Plus, the fact that your Dad regularly refers to his Year Abroad as the best year of his life, your version of which is now over, probably isn’t helping.
So there it is, the pre-twenty-something-hour-flight splurgings of a soon to be non-Year-Abroader who is yet to discover ‘life after the Year Abroad’, a life that sounds about as far off and incomprehensible as the Year Abroad itself did, way back when, to little, old, second-year me.
Stay tuned for my next article, then, that will no doubt be about my undying love for Oxford, how I cannot believe I’ve lived without it for so long, and the ‘huge pit of sadness’ I’ll feel at being forced to part with it at the end of fourth year.
Excuse me, while I just go and look up the Spanish word for ‘fickle’.