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  • Every single thing I do here makes me realize how much more difficult it is to adapt to a place new and unfamiliar when I also do not know the language.

    Each morning, I make some odd creation of a sandwich for lunch in an attempt to save a little bit of the money that I do not have. Presently, I have settled, it seems, on raspberry jam, sunflower seeds, and dulce de leche between two slices of bread. It is odd but decent: I certainly do not hope to eat this every single day, but it shall do for now. If I have a couple extra pesos on me, I might wander off into the surrounding neighborhood during the short lunch break to purchase a piece of fruit or pastry of sorts. There are many, many good options in both of these categories. The tortita negra (little black cake, named for the color the coating of sugar turns when heated) beside my lunch container has been an especially good find, and is only 2 pesos.

    About that lunch container, though. It is the perfect example of nearly all of my actions and experiences here so far. As you may be able to tell, it's a small pitcher. I settled on it after a great period of careful consideration at the grocery store when I was unable to find any sandwich bags or other especially suitable food containment devices. It works, but it's silly-looking. And it stands out as especially ridiculous in admitting that only a few days later, I found a shelf in a different grocery store that had all sorts of appropriate containers, and far more embarrassing than that, a complete store that pretty much sold only containers (naturally, many of them appropriate ones).

    Both of these stores were places I passed on the way to and from class. These things - very obvious things - are bizarrely difficult to recognize when you have no idea what you're doing, though. For me, just making it to class without getting lost is the top priority, and there are only three streets apart from my own between me and the university. That issue, the one of getting lost, is perhaps a different, far greater one entirely for me, but the point remains.

    Endlessly, I find myself making odd compromises from moment to moment, just to make it to the next one intact. In action and in speech, everything is a bit of a guess, a cobbling together of what I know from life up until now and what I'm trying to learn from life here, in this new place. I always land somewhere in between, preferably but not usually more toward the side of what I'm trying to learn, but never actually there. And I stand out and feel a little foolish, always, because of it.

    Asking for and heeding recommendations from those who live here can help at times, but it seems more often that they can be a great distraction from truly figuring the basics out. How much of what you told someone new to your neighborhood about living there do you imagine would be truly applicable or helpful to that particular person? And in particular, when this must be accomplished while attempting to bridge a language barrier? The grocery store I first visited was really not so great, but I thought it must be if it was what my host mother recommended. Of course, we have different needs, different expectations, different factors shaping our perceptions of what is, and is not, a good grocery store. Perhaps she just likes the people there, or the proximity to her apartment, or the prices of certain items. Does she imagine that I am looking for a store with a decent selection of food items that is also easy to navigate? It is difficult to say, in a very literal sense, when communication is so limited.

    More humorous than taking recommendations about grocery stores, however, can be accepting warnings and exaggerated stereotypes from those who are attempting to be overly cautious for your sake. Upon arriving, we received no less than 3 straight days of orientation warning us about the various risks and dangers of living here. "Never stand or sit anywhere near the door on the subway! You will be robbed." (That's virtually impossible to avoid, considering the doorway to standing/seating space ratio on a subway.) "Avoid acknowledging, making eye contact with, or generally looking at anyone in the street. It will get you into trouble." (Is that really going to make you look like someone who is comfortable, or belongs, in a neighborhood?) Or the best, not to deny that it may be applicable at times, but, "Never trust little old ladies or children asking for help. They are the worst, and only a distraction from being robbed."

    You know what paying too much attention to that last one results in? My roommate and me standing in an aisle of a grocery store in the middle of the day, with a very little, very old lady apparently asking us to read her a somewhat difficult to decipher price on a mate gourd, neither of us knowing what to do, no one else around, hesitantly attempting to answer/understand her while simultaneously wondering if we are about to be the victims of some very bad situation. Nothing happened to anyone. We all walked away perhaps more confused than when we first encountered each other in the store.

    Would a local be concerned if they had to stand slightly near the door on the subway, or feel like they should make a conscious effort not to look at anyone in the street, or run away from a little old lady asking for help at the grocery store? Probably not. The reality (as I see it) is that these sorts of warnings are meant more as an attempt to entirely prevent any possible small thing from happening, even if the chances are low. Because if you are completely foreign to an environment and you do acknowledge someone you do not know or place yourself in a slightly more accessible position on a subway or elsewhere, you open yourself to greater risks, however slight. In the least, to some inevitable confusion if you can't communicate much past the opening "Hello, how are you?" The problem is that if you take any of these recommendations too seriously, you fail to open yourself to just about anything. And that is, in a way, riskier than ignoring many of them.

    Life is regularly and entirely confounding when attempting to join what seem to be two entirely different perspectives, divided most notably by language, on what is arguably the same universal experience for all of us. Yes, it is important to understand and appreciate what makes me different from the many individuals who surround me here. It is important to be conscious and careful. Undeniably, there are some habits or appearances that I would do well to adjust. At the same time, however, the more I do and the more I observe, the more apparent it becomes that much of who I am will and should remain the same regardless of where I am. A clear difference in language, which forms such a great basis of how we think and act and express ourselves, makes it easy to forget this. But to doubt the true nature and being of myself is to deny the very important recognition that I am a person among many persons. And we have a lot in common.

    Consistently finding reasons to remind myself of this is exhausting. But more so, it is wonderful.
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