Disability from a Cross-Cultural Perspective

Part of my course load abroad was an internship to finish up my psychology major at Hope. The placement process began months before my arrival in which I was able to express my desires and qualifications for an internship in Santiago. Quite honestly, I did not feel equipped to actually contribute to a workplace environment, attributed  to a limited vocabulary and the fear of not being able to understand the directions and responsibilities given to me. Looking back on this semester, my internship challenged me in multiple ways, but more than anything it motivated me in the pursuit of my intended career path.

My main goal for an internship was to be involved with a population with physical and intellectual disabilities. I have always had a passion for working with people with special needs, and I wanted to see how that could grow and be challenged in a new culture. I was placed at a national foundation that offers many services to those with various types of disabilities. I chose to intern at a location that provides a home, schooling, and medical attention to a population who had been abandoned by their own families. There were 93 residents, nearly all of which had cerebral palsy, used wheelchairs, and were nonverbal. From my first visit, I knew this would be a challenging environment to be in, but I felt that my prior experiences had prepared me well.

I vastly underestimated the differences that existed between the rights for those with disabilities and how they vary across countries. Chile is a developing country, and the rights for the disabled populations are very far behind those of the United States. Furthermore, it was a difficult transition from working with privileged families who could send their children to summer camp or hire nannies as simply “an extra set of hands,” to working with an overcrowded foundation of residents who had no contact outside the walls of the residence.

As an intern, I was able to contribute to the building upkeep and supported the teachers and health professionals in their work with the residents. I can’t quite say that I made much of an impact on this organization, but to be a fly on the wall in a completely unique setting offered a cross-cultural perspective on disability that I would not have been able to find here in the States. I learned that empathy, joy, and friendship can be communicated without a common language or even the ability to speak. I also learned how privileged we are to have the facilities, legislation, and compassion for those with disabilities, and this is distinct in comparison with the rest of the world. As a global citizen, it can be difficult to see the injustices and imperfections that exist across cultures and people groups. However, this newfound passion is what motivates me in my studies and in future career, and will be an experience that will always remind me to be an advocate for others.

 

Hostels for the Holidays

This past Thanksgiving was the first time I have spent a major holiday away from my family. Chileans may be familiar with “el día de la acción de gracias,” but it is certainly not celebrated here. Seriously, I couldn’t even find a box of stuffing or a butter ball turkey on the shelf of the local supermarket. It was definitely strange to be away from home on such a significant holiday.

All semester I have pushed myself to learn and adapt to Chilean customs and traditions. This is something I really enjoy doing and is a large part of the study abroad experience, but it can be exhausting being out of your comfort zone for so long. Sometimes you just want someone who understands, who you don’t have to explain things to, and who relates to the feeling of misplacement and homesickness on a day like Thanksgiving.

Throughout Thanksgiving day,  I  yearned to be with my own family on one of my favorite holidays of the year. I even felt guilt for not being home– who else was going to make the sweet potato casserole, or set the table, or take care of all those leftovers in the fridge? I can’t even bear to think of how lonely the dessert table must have felt without its most loyal visitor.

Despite my wishes, I had set very low expectations for my Thanksgiving in Chile. It was supposed to be a travel day from Puerto Natales, Chile to Calafate, Argentina. However, we ended up not being able to get seats on any of the buses, so we learned mid-day that we would be stuck in Puerto Natales for another night. After scrambling for space in a hostel, we finally found a couple spots in a dorm and made our way over.

We set our things in our room, met our American roommates, and I hopped on Instagram and began scrolling through stories of food spreads, full plates, and family games. It was practically taunting, but was the dose of FOMO I needed to realize I didn’t have to miss out on one of my favorite holidays just because I wasn’t in the US.

We went to the grocery store, bought chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and ingredients for pebre, a Chilean salsa served at nearly every lunch (so maybe our meal wasn’t exactly “traditional,” but it worked for us!). After preparing everything in the hostel’s shared kitchen, we took our plates into the living area and joined the other guests snacking on salami, peanuts, and other trail snacks as they prepared for their Torres del Paine treks. Realizing we were all Americans, everyone raised a glass in the air and exchanged a “Happy Thanksgiving!”

It sure wasn’t my normal celebration, but I certainly was thankful.

More than a tourist

Well, that’s a wrap! I have finished my classes and exams and am off to do my own personal travel for the next month! I am currently writing from Puerto Natales (check me out on a map, I’m practically a skip and a hop from Antarctica!), which is a touristy city that the Torres del Paine trekkers base out of. I, too, will start an 8-day backpacking trip tomorrow, so I have spent the past three days preparing, packing, and meeting fellow trail mates.

Although I am still in Chile, I haven’t heard this much English since I was departing Detroit-Metro Airport back in July. Walking into stores, ordering at restaurants and cafés, and meeting fellow tourists— it’s assumed that English is the mutual language. Although I used to find comfort in the Chileans and extranjeros that spoke English, I have become quite stubborn with insisting on Spanish.

Being blonde-haired, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed, it is no secret that Spanish is not my first language. I have learned not to take offense when spoken to in English, but rather, see it as a kind attempt to communicate and connect with me in the way that seems fit. However, it is an act of self-confidence and discipline to reply in Spanish. I have found that when I do this, natives take interest… they realize I am not like any other tourist. It begins the conversation with where I’m from and where I learned Spanish, and I get to tell them about how I studied in Santiago all semester and am now spending the time traveling and getting to know other parts of the country. They are captivated and humbled, and I think more than anything it makes them proud to be where they are from. It is a special connection and a mutual understanding of the other. I am not just another tourist.

Climb on!

Prior to coming to Chile, I had planned on enrolling in a class at a Chilean university, in addition to taking classes with other study abroad students at IES. Although I decided to take all my courses through IES, I still wanted to find a way to get involved with Chilean university life. Initially, I enjoyed the empty planner and free nights to do as I pleased. However, the transition of being very involved at Hope to coming to a country that had no expectations or obligations for me was a tough one.

La Universidad Católica does a great job of welcoming and including international students (yes, even those who aren’t actually taking classes there, like me). There are plenty of free on-campus events, groups that offer trips and tours around Chile, and even an exchange partner program to practice Spanish with a Chilean Student practicing their English. Even more, the University offers “talleres,” which are just like intramurals. Being a Hope Intramural Volleyball Champion two years running (yeah, it was the less- competitive league…), I was ready to bump, set, and spike it with some Chileans. However, it ended up that the only option that fit into my schedule was the rock-climbing class, so I signed up!

For those of you who are not climbers, let’s just say that my annual summer camp wall climb did not necessarily give me the “climbing experience” that some of the Chileans in my class presented. The two course instructors were professional climbers and had just gotten back from a 3-month climbing trip in Spain! However, most students in the class didn’t have any experience either, and on the first day of class, they equally struggled to find a pair of climbing shoes that didn’t turn their toes into pigeon feet.

Throughout the semester, I climbed every Tuesday and Thursday. Not only was it enjoyable to be active and learn a new sport that I would be able to take back to the States with me, but climbing is relaxing enough that you can engage in conversation while off the wall. Secondly, climbing is not a sport you can do on your own! While on the wall, taking route and learning to belay in Spanish was not easy, but it certainly progressed my listening skills! Lastly, this experience really connected me into a Chilean community. Friends that I met climbing invited me to come camping, celebrate Fiestas Patrias, and go out on the weekends together! Making a Chilean community was certainly not as cookie-cut as Playfair and ice breakers at Hope, but my climbing community invited me in as one of their own!

So, a piece of advice to all those who plan to study abroad, don’t let your friendships and community be confined to the classroom! Go out and try something new. The best people you can find are those who share your passions, and it is an organic connection point that really begins a friendship. Climb on!

Ser Humano

IES Santiago offers a clinical observations program for future healthcare professionals. We explore the Chilean healthcare system by observing medical professionals in private and public hospitals, clinics, and health centers all around Santiago. Yesterday I observed in the neurology unit in Hospital Sótero del Río, a public hospital that provides care to 10% of Chile’s entire population! Here is one of the most impactful experiences that I have had thus far from the this week’s clinical observations:

It was a moment where the language barrier didn’t matter. It was as if the entire world stopped, even just for that split second in time. The regulated beeping of machines continued and brought me back into the reality of the present moment.

“Se falleció,” the nurse shared. I hadn’t even heard of that verb before, but the shared response of the hospital room was enough to know. Their faces dropped– every patient, kinesiologist, therapist, doctor, nurse, tech, and visitor. My own heart sunk, too, and it was a strange feeling. I had seen the patient in a coma just minutes before the news broke. I had no connection to her nor to her family. I didn’t even know the state of her condition and, yet, I could still feel the pain. It was a purely human moment.

The therapy sessions progressed, the conversations continued, and life at Hospital Sótero del Río went on, as it always does. I briefly departed my current observation to confirm what I thought was the situation. I went next door to the room of 6 neurology patients to find the loved ones of the deceased woman grasping onto her in the hospital bed, still so close and yet so far from her last breath. The nurses, tears in their eyes, continued their routine duties in preparation for the next patient to take her very place in the already-crowded room.

It felt so human. As future health professionals, we talk a lot about how to separate our feelings from our jobs and how to not bring our work home with us. We will evidently become a bit desensitized to the looks and groans of agonizing pain of our patients, even the sight of death of a patient whose life we have fought and cared for. In this moment, however, I don’t believe the nurses or doctors were worried about hiding their sadness or avoiding the emotions that were provoked. Instead, I saw sympathy and understanding. I saw gentle looks exchanged between medical personnel and the loved ones of the woman. I heard the booming noise of silence that resulted from a lack of any words that could have possibly alleviated the pain of the situation.

I, too, felt helpless. Even if I had the words in Spanish, I wouldn’t have been able to convey them in a way that could have helped anyone. There was no easy fix. Death is a reality of life, but it was a beautiful moment of unity and humanity that exists apart from language or culture. It was simply an aspect of “ser humano” (being human).

Sappy October Feels

It’s one of those nights that I can’t stop gazing out the window. I pace back and forth between the terrace, which faces east towards the Andes cordillera and my bedroom, which faces south towards even more mountains that I am seeing for the very first time, thanks to yesterday’s rain. My study break is well-spent admiring the sunset over the cordillera, a view that never gets old and makes me temporarily forget about the Lake Michigan sunsets that I’ll return to in the blink of an eye.

The view from the terrace never gets old!

It’s one of those nights that I just want to hang out with my host mom because I still can’t believe I am living in an actual Chilean home and have semester-long access to speaking Spanish whenever I want (I’m not always this optimistic about that). I sit down with a bowl of cazuela and reminisce on the first day that I arrived in Santiago when my host mom and I conversed for hours over a bowl of cazuela (well, she talked and I nodded and pretended that I understood Chilean Spanish… some things don’t change). Two months later, I now know that you’re supposed to drink the broth first before digging into the meat and veggies, but I still stick to my old ways.

My host mom makes the best cazuela!

It’s one of those nights that I can’t actually get anything done because I am straddling between planning my upcoming trips and flipping through photos of the many adventures I have already had on the wild weekend trips. I am stuck in this weird in-between… it’s a nostalgia for the places I have yet to go and a longing to relive the moments that have already passed, all the while trying to be present in this very day of October 1.

Study abroad has been packed with new experiences. Here’s one I’ll never forget: skiing for the very first time… in the Andes!
Another great memory: the infamous stilt houses (palafitas) in Castro, a city on the mythical island of Chiloé. This was an IES-sponsored trip that most of my group went on last month.
The classic South American photo-op with a llama! This was taken on my spring break trip to San Pedro de Atacama, the desert region in northern Chile.

It was tonight that I realized how content I truly am. Disclaimer: study abroad is not all peaches ‘n cream and I have probably had more tough than easy days. There have been days of frustration, regret, and just wanting to throw in the towel on this whole “get out of your comfort zone” thing. However, I am learning that being content does not come from a compilation of good and easy days. It is a feeling that has come from trials and tribulations, from being forced out of the comfort zone day-in and day-out, and for the joy that arises from experiencing growth like I never have before.

One of my favorite Bible verses says,  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want,” (Philippians 4:12). As I continue into my last couple of months, I cling to this: that the good and the bad and everything in between is all a part of the study abroad experience. Even more, it is a part of the life experience, and I am thankful for the growth that still is to come.