Posted on April 24, 2009 at 10:41 am
For the last seven months I have been walking up and down the sidewalks of Libertador San Martin, Argentina, saying, "I swear I haven't really learned anything!" I came to Universidad Adventist del Plata to eradicate every trace of American accent when I speak Spanish, to find myself, to see what would happen when I was removed from my native environment, and because I heard they had siesta (nap time) every day from 2 to 4 p.m. Mostly my grammar quiz scores have stayed the same. I still conjugate things wrong and get stuck on long words. (muni...muni..municipalidad.) But last week I was talking to my mom on
the phone and I said something Argentinean. I said, "El siempre chamullea." My mom, native Spanish speaker from Guatemala, said, "What does chamullar mean?" But I couldn't explain to her exactly what it means. I tried to explain, faltered, started again, and finally settled on saying," It's like saying someone's really flirty." But it's not, mostly that's what it means, but not completely. It means
flirting, but a little more than that, it's an attitude too. A cross between flirting and buttering up that there is no word for in English and no true synonym for in Spanish.
I collect words the way other people collect knickknacks and spoons from other countries. I don't display them but I keep them piled not-so neatly on one of the shelves in my head. I'm a writer, and it's always nice to have that exact, precise word for what something really is. My fastidiousness (see not my pickiness or my obsessiveness, but a word that means both, a little) can be annoying, even to me. I'll
dwell on a sentence for much longer than I should because it just feels.... what's the word... wrong. I really thought that I hadn't learned much this year in Argentina. The school system is vastly different and after four sleep-as-little-as-you-can/read-more-then-read-some-more years of studying at PUC it seemed too easy. "How is this learning?" I couldn't help but ask. "I'm not exhausted."
This year there have been no all-nighters finishing a paper, no dead week bags under my eyes or caffeine highs that inevitably end with my face on the keyboard in a dead-tired slump. I have read novels I didn't have time to read in my years at PUC, taken long walks, spun in the rain, jumped a fence after curfew, fought with a bus agency in Uruguay and killed more massive cockroaches then I care to count. All together a very different year from my time at PUC, but when I said that word to my mom, that word that means exactly this very precise thing-chamullar-I realized I had learned something. A distinctly Argentinean word had slipped into my head and added itself to my vocabulary. This whole time I'd been thinking I hadn't really picked anything up and then something slipped out.
When I first got to PUC I wondered if I would really like a place that seemed so different. You want me to read how much? The nearest Target is how far away? I have to live with how many people? But I adapted and eventually grew to love PUC. I felt at home where I once was a stranger and completed most of an English degree in the process. I didn't learn how to write a 10-page paper on Conrad's Heart of
Darkness overnight. It took lots of nights, lots of reading and lots of patience from my teacher, but eventually I got to the place where I could write a paper on my own (even though I still get a little anxiety at the thought of such a huge assignment.) Argentina has been similar and radically different. After exactly seven months and two days of being in this very foreign place I am now beginning to feel at home. My American accent hasn't been eradicated, but it certainly has been modified, just like the rest of me. I have memorized the rules for accent placement, studied 32 chapters of grammar and learned the word chamullar. And after weeks and weeks of being homesick, of missing points on grammar quizzes and repeating things for cashiers who have no idea what I'm asking for, it's nice to know that I'm taking more home with me than a Buenos Aires t-shirt. I'm taking home chamullar and every small and large experience this year has given me.
Studying at Universidad Adventista del Plata
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