This article was written by Sara-Louise Williams, an AFS exchange student from New Zealand, studying abroad in Argentina. Sara-Louise describes her expectations, observations and learnings while on an exchange program.
Whether you like it or not, when you go on exchange, you have to learn to accept rather than expect. Acceptance is embracing something as suitable, while expectation is having set ideas about what is suitable; and when you replace one by the other, there is no longer a basis for disappointment and conflict. This concept has filtered into many more aspects of my exchange than I expected, and is something I will gladly take away from this experience.
Faced with the initial culture shock, acceptance is really the only option. Family eats at nine? You have to greet everyone in a group with a kiss? These customs might not be what you are used to or expected but resisting these day to day differences would be pointless.
But over the course of my exchange, I’ve come to understand the mission of the original American Field Service volunteers who funded this organisation, to promote world peace through acceptance and understanding of other’s cultures. Conflict isn’t created by difference such as whether you wear shoes, slippers or go barefoot in your house, rather deeper cultural differences such as beliefs, notions and customs.
While I’ve always had itchy feet (figuratively) and a thirst for discovering new things, from moving a lot during my upbringing, something that lead me to choose going on an exchange, here people have lived in San Lorenzo all their lives for generations. My host mum will stop in the street to greet a friend from kindergarten while I don’t remember who I went to primary school with. This smaller closer knit community means that family and friends are much more important, that all free time is spent socialising and everyone knows everything about everyone. People have a strong sense of belonging to this community, something I always struggled with growing up. And I’m very grateful to have become part of this. While many people have commented on how it’s a shame I didn’t get placed in a nicer city, they are still proud of San Lorenzo and to me, I couldn’t care less about the busted sidewalks, because like the residents I’ve accepted the charm of the place and it’s people.
The pace of life is slower, school and career aren’t as important, but faith is. All of these are deeper cultural differences that I’ve come to understand, and don’t judge as better or worst.
It has been interesting to put acceptance into practice here in San Lorenzo, a backdrop which provides contrast. A majority of the population here is descending from immigrants from all over Europe, but there is notably less diversity than in Auckland. A small town might not be a perfect representation of the whole of Argentina but here, the lack of exposure to different cultures can be noted in the way people are less accustomed and accepting of other cultures. Of the small Chinese community, I’ve only seen them run family businesses such as local supermarkets and dry cleaners, and of the even smaller African community, only as street sellers. People are quick to assimilate darker skin with crime, racism is casual, and the notion that people of different ethnicities aren’t necessarily strangers doesn’t exist.
I’ve also gotten to experience the difference in acceptance across different generations, going to my painting class where the next youngest person after me is in her fifties. I actually really enjoy going and mostly just laugh as they talk about their grandsons and daily struggles or repeatedly try to marry me off to their sons (something I inadvertently once agreed to when I didn’t understand) but not so funny is the way they lament over how many gay and trans people there are, discuss how recomposed families are a shame and atheism is a pity.
While I am incredibly grateful for how easily I was accepted here, and the fact that with me, people are more curious about my culture rather than judging, the lack of acceptance I’ve noticed is purely due to the lack of exposure. They are not accustomed to a diverse community; the ladies at the painting class had an upbringing where sexuality and gender norms here much stricter; and the strong influence of religion here also affects what is viewed as acceptable or not. I think this really drives home AFS’ message; exchange students and the people they connect with on their exchange are exposed to alternate cultures and realities and this helps develop acceptance globally.
One thing though, that Argentinians are good at accepting, is a situation. At the departure camp, we reflected on what the Argentinian culture had taught us, and a reoccurring idea was making the most of a situation, or being happy with little. A third of Argentina’s population lives under the poverty line. Evidence has been quite confronting, like the boy who begs outside the bakery, but mostly I just notice it in the lack of opportunities. You are lucky if you go to university, and unemployment is high. It makes me feel incredibly lucky for the opportunity, not only to go on this exchange, but also the ones it will lead to. While Argentinians don’t necessarily accept this situation, making their discontent heard to the government, they make the most of what they have and keep a positive attitude instead of resisting it. They place more a importance on the things that are free in life, family, friends, sleep…
I’ve never been materialistic (otherwise I wouldn’t have spent most of my savings on an exchange) but I did have upbringings with cultures (French and kiwi, i.e. New Zealand) that strive on achievement and competitions. And while these expectations have pushed me to achieve things I am proud of, I was always seeking the next step, improvement, without ever appreciating my current situation. And while I still want to take up every opportunity I can, I no longer want to base happiness on achievement, and make the most of where I am in the present.
Finally, I’d like to touch on personal acceptance and how this exchange has helped me.
Coming to a place where nobody knows you means two things. Firstly that nobody expects you to be a certain way, and this gives you the freedom to change; and secondly, having to learn to spend time with yourself, become more self-reliant away from the usual support. I’ve gotten to know myself better, and accept my strengths and my weaknesses; develop things I realised were important to me, and leave behind habits and reactions that aren’t. I’ll return to New Zealand more assertive and confident in who I am.
My personality is not the only thing that’s changed, but also my body image. Before coming here I had the idea that all the girls here would be gorgeous and put a lot effort into their appearance, and this is possibly the only expectation I was happy wasn’t met. I don’t know why I thought differently, but the girls are just like in New Zealand, and we all have our own insecurities. Being exposed to slightly different beauty standards means I’ve realised it isn’t as relevant as I thought it was, and this along with being forced to practice acceptance as I went through the classic exchange students’ bad skin + weight gain combo, has made me more accepting of my appearance. Also getting ready before going out, something I wasn’t used to doing in New- Zeland, definitely boosted my confidence.
Being exposed to slightly different expectations in New Zealand and Argentina has broadened my own notions and expectations, and made me more accepting in many different ways. As I start to think about soon going home, I know I will have to keep this open mindset as I make the most of my last month and return to New-Zealand where I know things will not be exactly the way I left them. I would like to thank AFS New Zealand for this opportunity, hoping that I’ve conveyed how many benefits I will take away from it.