Finding Homes in Foreign Places

I crawled into the cold, damp bed and cried myself to sleep. It was the first night of my two month exchange in Bogotá, Colombia: I couldn’t wait to go home.  

Sara*! Ana! Escuela! Listos?” my host mother called down to me and my host sister Ana.

By 5:45 A.M., we were waiting by the door to leave for school. I pushed my homesickness aside, eager to begin my new adventure. Sitting in traffic, I noticed all the buildings were shades of tan, just like the complexions of the people commuting. Window gazing and chatting with Ana in Spanish became the car ride routine, until things changed.   

A month into the exchange, Ana’s friend approached me at a party: “Honestly, Ana hates you. You take all of her parents’ attention. She wished you never came.”  

I was confused and hurt that my host didn’t even want me in the country. I felt alone. The next car ride was silent. Walking alone to the school’s main quad, I rushed to the bathroom and hid in a stall until the first bell rang.

I dreaded lunch. Like every cliche high school movie, the cafeteria was the epitome of the social scene. Without Ana to guide me, I was the outsider, until I managed to rekindle the courage that carried me through my beginning at boarding school.. 

On my first day, I felt small: a casually-dressed scholarship student with battered suitcases surrounded by extreme wealth. My roommate, Alice, shared stories of her summer traveling through Europe while her little pug’s head stuck out of the expensive purse slung on her mother’s arm. In response, I reluctantly told her about my summer in Jersey watching Friends reruns. 

The hardest room to enter was the cafeteria. Sitting next to students in elegant dresses, I silently ate my meal. 

Every room felt foreign until I stepped into the dance studio. In shorts and a t-shirt, I was the lone black girl amongst dancers dressed in flashy leotards and tights. However, unlike other rooms, my love of dance overshadowed these differences, causing everyone in the room to sense my passion. We bonded. In this space, I found a home at and a newfound confidence that spread to every room I entered. Instead of sitting quietly in the cafeteria, I had marathon conversations filled with laughter.

And so, I searched as well for a home in the cafeteria in Colombia, trying to find my dance studio in a different country. Lingering by the salad bar, I spotted one empty seat. I walked to the table with my tray.  “Puedo sentarme aquí?” I questioned in a wavering tone.   

The students smiled, shuffling their trays to make space. I struck up a conversation in my beginner Spanish. Sensing my novice skills, the students replied slowly and switched to English when I couldn’t understand. They asked many questions about my life and I eagerly answered, excited to make friends. From then on, we not only ate lunch together, but also began hanging out after school. After I expressed my love of dance with them, they showed me Colombian dances and I introduced them to popular American dances. They also taught me Spanish songs, while I taught them American songs. We always debated about which songs were better: was the original Despacito better than Justin Bieber’s version?  

On my final day in Colombia, I dreaded leaving. As I walked past the bathroom for the last time, I was reminded of how I persevered through my lonely moments. Returning home, I couldn’t forget how powerful the simple act of empathy could be. I understood now what it felt like to be an outsider in a new place. So today, if I see anyone lingering at the salad bar a little too long, I always send them a smile, moving my tray to create space at the table.

 

The author of this essay preferred to remain anonymous. She is a freshman at Harvard.