How Guatemala Changed Me
(Written July 2015)
This summer, I spent a little over 6 weeks in Guatemala — a country that, just half a year ago, I wouldn’t even have considered visiting. In fact, all my life I have wanted to travel to Spain. However, my university offered a brilliant and immersive program in the wonderful city of Antigua, Guatemala. I can now say that choosing to studying abroad in Guatemala was the best choice I have made thus far in college.
I am an electrical engineering major. Yet there I was, engrossed in a study abroad pamphlet advertising an Education program in Antigua, Guatemala. With it’s homestay, linguistic immersion, and service learning components, I thought this program looked great. In my mind, I knew that I would always find my way to Spain one day. As for Guatemala? It hadn’t even been on my top 10 list of countries to visit. However, I saw it as a chance to step out of my comfort zone. WAY out of my comfort zone. It would be a chance for personal growth and a path into somewhere off of my usual radar.
Upon arriving in Antigua, my 4 fellow housemates and I were warmly welcomed into the house of our host parents. Don Carlos and Doña Ana, an elderly man and woman, would be hosting us for the next 6 weeks. Now as I look back, I am infinitely thankful for these two wonderful people, for they not only opened their house to us, but also gave us all of their help and care.
Doña Ana cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for us 6 days a week. It was amazing. A great side effect of eating with 7 people every day was that we had great conversations. Don Carlos told us all about the years he spent in the United States as a Drug and Alcohol Counselor. We heard countless stories about his extensive travels in Guatemala, the United States and Europe. In turn, we were able to tell him about our personal backgrounds and share cultural differences. I fondly remember many nights of conversations at the table that included everything from chistes (jokes), to local cuisine, to ghost stories. On several occasions, we stayed late at the dinner table to talk and laugh, despite the homework that was waiting to be finished. In so many ways, the table was the center for socializing and cultural exchange in our house.
Living in the homestay gave us insight into the life of a Guatemalan family. My experience would have been 100% different if we had just stayed in an apartment. The children and grandchildren of our host parents came and went through the house, and we were able to share some great exchanges with them. We listened to local radio stations everyday during breakfast (88.1 Fabuestereo). We saw the water man come once a week to deliver water jugs. We saw how families purchase tortillas from the lady around the corner every day. Taking part in the daily living of ordinary citizens was an extremely special experience that truly helped me get to know Guatemala from the inside out.
Cultural Experiences Galore
I had my fair share of cultural experiences in Guatemala. But really, that’s a total understatement. I learned something new almost every day. Of course I must start with food, because I love food and I think it’s an integral part of any culture. Eating the homecooking of Doña Ana was great. We had tortillas, rice, frijoles volteados (a type of black beans) and eggs on a consistent basis. On special occasions, we had Pepián, the Guatemalan national dish, or Jocón, another Guatemalan staple. About 2 weeks into my stay, I realized — this food is not like Mexican food at all. Nothing is spicy, and the tastes and flavors are very different from those of Mexican food. Then I realized that I had subconsciously assumed that Guatemala would be just like Mexico. Why had I thought that? This was just one of many cultural revelations to come.
I also experienced a lot of cultural differences outside the house. In Antigua, you can just wave your hand for a Tuk Tuk (a small taxi motorbike that fits 2–3 people in the back), and the driver will take you to your destination. The same goes for the Chicken Buses (name of the local buses). There are no bus stops. The outdoor market is a huge gathering center for locals. I was tentative to explore the market at first, but after a few visits, I became very comfortable navigating my way through its maze-like alleys. Within the vast expanse of the market is a what I see as a microcosm of society. You can buy almost anything you need — clothes, food, electronics and more. There are also cafeterias, bakeries, churches, barberías, and even places to play computer games. People gather there to socialize and watch fútbol games on TV. It is much more than a market; it’s a center of social life for the local people of Antigua.
It took a while to learn the ins and outs of Guatemalan daily life. I learned to barter with street vendors. I learned to hail tuk tuks. I played basketball and soccer with the locals. I even rode a Chicken Bus one time, though it was a slightly scary experience (they didn’t drop me off at my stop). It’s hard to describe every little thing that I picked up on. However, it’s safe to say that I was constantly adapting to the new pace and way of life. What did I gain from this whole process? I learned to cross transnational boundaries with people and to whole-heartedly accept a new culture. I became confident in my ability to take on new things. I learned to be infinitely excited by the unknown.
Español, Español, Español
I love Spanish. I took Spanish for 3 years in high school, but at that time, it never quite made sense. My dad even made me read Spanish books every week back then, but I still wasn’t that interested. It wasn’t until late in my senior year of high school that I realized that Spanish could be a means of communication; a way of talking to new people with different experiences. This changed everything. During my freshman year of college, I spent an hour a week studying Spanish. I didn’t only study conjugations and words, but also watched TV shows, read articles, and practiced speaking with with a friend I made through an online language exchange website. It was all starting to click. It was exciting.
In Guatemala, I had the chance to speak Spanish every day. And I was in heaven. I loved being able to talk to people, and being able to express myself in another language. Even more, I loved hearing the stories of other people. It took about 2 weeks before I started truly getting the hang of speaking and listening to Spanish at a conversational speed. But it sure was a joy to talk to people. I talked to cafe owners, street vendors, tut tuk drivers, teachers and many more. During the 6 weeks there, I took an immersive Spanish language course as a part of the program. This course was way different from any other Spanish course I’ve taken in the past. It placed us in small groups and actually encouraged us to speak. I learned a lot in the course, and I must say that Spanish was an integral part of my Guatemalan experience.
To me, language is a window into new cultures. I don’t have an intrinsic love for Spanish, but I love using it to meet new people and to hear about their diverse experiences. In Guatemala, I was able to use Spanish to communicate with the local people, thereby better understanding their histories and life stories. For this reason, I am now beginning to learn… French :)
As a part of the program, my classmates and I took a course called Sociocultural Influences on Learning. In the course, we examined the impact of factors such as race, gender, class, language, and immigration on different systems of education. The cool part about this class was that it related directly to the things we were seeing and experiencing every day.
In class, we discussed the injustices in American, as well as Guatemalan educational systems. This whole issue truly hit me when I was speaking to the 16 year old grandson of my host mom. When I asked him what he aspired to be when he grew up, he told me — I would like to be a farmer. At the time, I was actually a bit shocked. I’d never heard that response from any of my peers before. But as I learned more about Guatemala, I came to understand that less than 10% of their youth attend universities. Most children start working at the age of 5 or 6 to help support their families. Furthermore, the majority of Guatemala’s economy is based on manual labor. There is no technology or business sector into which students can enter. As I learned of all these things, I began to see how privileged I am to have the opportunity to go to college. I’m privileged to speak English, the most powerful language in the world. I’m privileged to be able to travel. To visit other countries. To then see that others are less privileged than I. Oh the irony.
In class, we also discussed a great deal about the indigenous Mayan groups of Guatemala. Wait what? There are still Mayans today? That was my thought too at first. History tends to relegate indigenous folks to the past. However, in Guatemala, I saw first-hand that the Mayans are a living and breathing people, with beautiful languages, crafts and cultures.
In Guatemala, Mayan groups make up 60% of the total population. Despite their numbers, the indigenous people are the most oppressed group in Guatemala. It’s true that society has denied these people a lot, yet it’s important to see what they do have. I learned that they have 21 — yes twenty one!— of their own Mayan languages. These languages can still be heard spoken in the local villages and markets. The Mayan people also make beautiful textiles and crafts. On several occasions, I watched Mayan women weaving textiles, some of which take several months to complete. Learning about the indigenous people of Guatemala not only helped me understand another culture, but it also helped me see the social hierarchy and injustices of Guatemala. It prompted me to question the social injustices in the United States. What are the causes of institutionalized racism? Why do some groups in society lack quality access to education? Is the US separated along class lines and how does this affect upward mobility? Seeing Guatemalan society allowed me to view the United States from a different perspective. I gained a more critical perspective of the social issues that pervade US society today. I now stand here to confirm that what they say is true— studying abroad truly broadens your viewpoints.
Learning About Myself
My entire experience in Guatemala caused me to learn so much about myself. First and foremost, I came to clearly recognize my privilege. I have privilege as a middle-class male, who speaks English, who has educational opportunities, who has parents who provide emotional and financial support , and who has the resources to travel to other countries. I have seen myself from a different perspective and I understand that nothing in my life should be taken for granted.
Second, examining race and ethnicity in Guatemala prompted me to begin thinking a lot about my own race and ethnicity. Chinese, Asian, Asian-American… which ones am I? Which ones do I want to be? For many years, I’ve had mixed feeling about being Asian. I still don’t think I fully understand my place in society and how my culture and identity fit together. I have always felt labeled by American society, yet I feel a yearning to carve an individual identity for myself. These questions and feelings will take time to ponder. However, I know that in searching for these answers, I am growing and developing as a person.
Lastly, Guatemala brought out a new passion in me. Teaching. It’s a fairly new idea to me, but I think I do feel really strongly about it. In Guatemala, I volunteered in a local elementary school and was able to see a different form of education. I saw the ways in which knowledge empowers people to achieve and to understand themselves. I’ve been a tutor before and I’ve worked on engineering projects with children in Austin schools. However, my experiences in Guatemala really made me feel passionate about spreading knowledge. It’s something that excites me greatly and I now hope to incorporate education or ethnic studies into my college education. Educators have been the single most influential people in my life thus far and I feel a strong urge to do the same for future generations of young people.
Buenos Momentos, Buenos Recuerdos
So what can I say? Guatemala was fantastic. It was definitely the most life-altering experience I’ve had in my short lifespan. Guatemala holds a special place in my heart and I promise that one day, I will be back. Until then, you’ll probably find me travelling in many other countries because trust me, I have a long list.