An elderly Chinese woman and a college student from the United States walked into a tiny French bakery in Latin America. This isn’t the opening line to a joke—this was my life. In line to get my morning coffee, I was fixated on the conversation unfolding before me. The wiry café owner greeted the woman in Spanish with a thick French accent. She ordered confidently—but choppily—in reply. He nodded and slid a loaf into the paper sack for her. Clearly, neither of them were native Spanish speakers, yet they were still able to communicate.
I’ve traveled extensively in my collegiate career. From places in the US: Oklahoma City, Seattle, Washington D.C. and Chicago, to Central America: the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. I’ve even jumped the pond to visit Barcelona, Spain. As the world quite literally has opened up before me, so has my vision for my career and my life.
My experience in Costa Rica taught me so much more than Spanish. In a whole new way, I watched theories and concepts from my field of study (communication studies) come to life. Perhaps the most entertaining of these is the practice of nonverbal communication. My “gringa” appearance nonverbally communicated “I am out of place here. I’m not one of you.” This yielded different reactions; as harmless as a stare, or as infuriating as being charged unfairly by a taxi driver. Trying to live in a place that doesn’t speak your language requires an intense concentration on body language, facial expressions, and gestures. As I practiced these skills, I learned so much about myself and Latin American culture.
Back in The Rendezvous Café, I ordered my coffee in my own terrible accent, and took a seat in one of the small metal chairs. Food is the best part of studying abroad, by the way. The woman was chatting away on her cell phone, in Chinese of course, and the man behind the counter is softly singing in French as he filled small crescent pastries with chocolate. And what was I doing? Oh, just writing my friend a letter… in English.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Here we are…three “extranjeros” (foreigners). What are the chances that the three of us would rendezvous in Costa Rica? Despite those odds, we managed to share our afternoon with coffee, pastries, and four languages.