Notes From Abroad:
Mia Kortebein ’12,
who spent the academic year studying in Puebla, Mexico,
was proud of acquired abiities to speak Spanish, navigate
the city and consume spicy food. But she discovered that
genuinely getting to know Mexico meant much more than familiarity
with the language and cultural pastimes.
By Mia Kortebein
It’s my last of 38 straight
weeks studying in Puebla, Mexico, for my junior year abroad—so
long, as my host mother recently remarked, that I’ve been
unofficially conceived and reborn as a Mexican national.
Mia Kortebein ’12
and her friends hit the Oaxaca market. Left to right:
Jacqueline Moreno (of Wellesley), Mia Kortebein,
Samy Jafet Hedez Zagoya (BUAP), and Karisa Klemm
A colorful side street,
Callejón de los Sapos, in Puebla.
I was proud of her tongue-in-cheek
designation, aware that she was acknowledging my almost-fluent
Spanish, navigation of the poblano bus system and city streets,
friendships with university students, and ability to eat
spicier food than even her three grown sons can—all attributes of Mexican city
life I had striven to master.
Even so, I silently disagreed.
I had started my academic year
with two goals in sight: bilingualism and a better understanding
of the rich cultural identity that my Mexican friends in
the United States shared. I set out to see cathedrals and
folkloric dances and to hike near waterfalls and up volcanoes.
But in my rush to assimilate
myself in “true” Mexican culture, I overlooked the very essence
of it, and struggled to maintain even my own spirit. In the
end, my most important lessons have been about balance and
respect, with the realization that I had been attempting
to learn the right things in misguided ways.
I have finally
understood what my host mom knows inherently: that those
visible aspects of Mexican life—the ones to which I worked
so hard to accustom myself—are not necessarily the root of
Mexico. They may be the most celebrated aspects of a study-abroad
experience, but there is a much stronger, deeper thread that
unifies the Mexican people; and I have only begun—after immersing
myself as completely as I could in ten months—to discover
what that is.
It might be called culture,
it might be called soul. It could be called anything. But
this unnamed entity is real, and varied. It includes all
the factors of Mexican society, including a perceived social
indifference and a lack of upward mobility that I at first
chose to separate from my created perception of Mexican culture.
It has to do with a fierce pride that recognizes the beauty
of a Baroque cathedral built upon a Mayan pyramid as well
as the historical suffering that image represents. It has
to do with an amazing perseverance, a can-do spirit that
says, “the party—or life—must
go on,” no matter the trials. “We will make do with what
we have. We are divided and we are one.”
For two semesters, I have spoken
the language, eaten the food, visited the sights, and studied
in a public university. I now know, however, that totally
immersing myself in the culture of Mexico means not curating
the experience from my own gringo perspective, but instead
letting things happen as they happen, in line with the Mexican
Most of all, what I will take
away from my study abroad is the knowledge that as a foreigner—an alien visiting and living in the country
for a short time—I could not presume to understand the incredible complexity
of the powerful bond that is ser mexicano.