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   Date: 6/8/11 Bookmark and Share

Notes From Abroad

Read other Notes From Abroad:

Leda Grossman ’12

Emily Forster ’12

Christianne Beasley ’12

Laura Itzkowitz ’09

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.

Beneath the Surface, the Real Mexico

By Mia Kortebein ’12

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 (Smith ’12).

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 approach.

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.

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