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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Learning a foreign language: Your identity in different cultural contexts

<ur sets of deep brown eyes and thick black hair sank into their routine, I did my best to keep up. To include me in our first meal together, my Chilean host family asked me a series of questions. As the interrogation session progressed, I realized that something was wrong.

In our study abroad orientation, we were told to be honest about our food preferences, so I was. “Would you like the salt?” My host mother asked. “No, thanks” I replied. “You don’t like salt? We eat salt in this family. Did you hear that, ‘la Casey’ doesn’t like salt.” That was my first cue that I was not answering appropriately.

“What would you like to drink?” The oldest sister asked, realizing there weren’t any drinks on the table. “A glass of water, please.” I said, surely a neutral choice. “You don’t want juice?” In elementary school I used to trade my juice boxes for dunkaroos. “I’d prefer water?” I tried again, hearing my statement shift into an insecure question. “Gringos don’t like salt or juice? Chileans drink juice.” Wrong again, and now cultural norms were being extracted from my personal beverage habits.

After fielding a few more questions, an unfamiliar one threw me off guard. “¿Te cuidas?” – do you take care of yourself? Well, I manage decently at the basics – eating well, sleeping enough, doing my homework, etc. – though I don’t wash my sheets as often as I should, and I have a streak of impressive mental breakdowns under stress. As these thoughts scurried along my forehead, I realized that what I heard her ask was not what she was getting at.

My host mother was inquiring as to whether or not I take care of my body, if I watch my weight. This seemed to be a loaded question, and one that I have never been directly asked, especially not by a maternal figure I met ten minutes ago. I hastily considered my options:  if I say no, I’m a lazy American; if I say yes, I’m a calorie-o-phobe who might be ungrateful for their generous meals. Quickly, I blabbered that I’m a vegetarian and that I’m a runner hoping that would offset the implications of the former option, which had become my impetuous choice during this uncomfortable pause.

“We are women, we take care of ourselves here,” my host mother informed me, and her daughters snickered – first cringing at her gendered language, I then cringed again as I realized that I might have to sacrifice honesty in attempt to be a part of this family. 

As was clear from this first conversation, during my experience abroad there was a heavy tension between expressing myself and locating my identity in a place, and a family, with distinct values. Despite the initial resistance that I felt from my hosts, an unexpected outcome spurred from my collection of perpetually wrong answers: I became the exceptional American. Americans aren’t friendly – only Casey isn’t like that. Americans don’t care about their families – just not Casey. Americans are materialistic pigs – but not Casey. I was their first exchange student, and ultimately they decided not to host another one. “We love you, but you know, most Americans aren’t like you…” my host sister explained. No amount of protest could convince them otherwise.

In this strange genre of alienation, the assumptions that hide in the net of conversational language became painfully lucid. Of course this happens in our own culture too – for example I’ve experienced it when chatting with people whose values differ from my own. But only in that clash between what we think we’re saying and what our listeners hear, do those lurking assumptions announce their precarious presence.

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