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How to Be Self-Sufficient in Someplace New (Answer: You Don’t)

I didn’t realize how ‘gringa’ I was until I came to Costa Rica. It’s like how one never realizes they have an accent until they leave their native area. But it’s deeper than that: everyone has a cultural accent. My native culture has shaped how I think and how I see things so that I behave in a way that makes me distinctly United Statesian (aka gringa). For example, when I look back over the week, I realize that I was thinking in such a goal-oriented way when I first arrived. I may not have literally made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish while I was in Costa Rica, but I realize now that I subconsciously had expectations for myself during this semester. One thing that I really wanted to achieve before I left Costa Rica was an understanding of the language, culture, and area that would allow me to function self-sufficiently. I wanted to be able to take care of myself (by myself) and to interact with Costa Ricans, but not as a tourist who needed special treatment.

With this goal subconsciously in my mind, the first week here, I went about learning how to be self-sufficient. I made a small book to write down useful vocabulary as I learned it. I made a mental map of where all the important places were in the neighborhood. I took note of how people used the bus system, how they walked around the neighborhood, how they bought things at the market, how they say hello to each other at different times of the day. And I tried to remember everything. It has only been a week, but I have already decided to give that idea up. I know what you are probably thinking: “It’s only been a week; you shouldn’t give up after such a short time!” Well, I’m not ‘giving up’ the way you are thinking. Rather, I have learned something that has convinced me to stop trying to be self-sufficient.

kortney_1I have discovered that this desire to be self-sufficient or independent is a goal, or a mindset, that is fundamentally foreign to Costa Rican culture. In the United States, being successful is being able to support yourself, by yourself. Capable people do things for themselves and try not to be a burden to others by asking for help. By contrast, Costa Rica has what is called a ‘community culture’. The focus is always on relationships here. And helping others or being helped is a way for relationships to grow. I have found that the only way for me to function sufficiently in Costa Rica is to be reliant. This shift in view has allowed my host mom to show me her affection by cleaning my clothes for me when I had originally wanted to learn how to do my own laundry to avoid being her burden. It allows me to spend time talking to my host sister Ashley while she walks me to new places. People prefer to do things together here, and so I don’t have to learn everything. Even people I talk to who have been in Costa Rica for years say that they still need to rely on others for help all the time. Learning to think in a way that is community oriented rather than individually oriented is a multi-faceted task, and this is one of the ways the struggle has shown up for me.

So, I am trying to learn the Costa Rican cultural accent. It is contrary to my nature, it feels, but I have to stop thinking like a gringa, and startkortney_2 learning to let others help me. I need to practice focusing on the process of doing things with others rather than on the task itself. Already, I have seen wonderful relationships grow, and these are all you really need to function in a foreign land. I don’t need to know everything or be self-sufficient because I have so many kind people here who can, and more importantly, want to help. I may not know how to speak Spanish very well, I may be confused about the bus routes around San Jose, and I may not be able to accomplish every daily task that I could at home, but one thing is certain: I am able to function in Costa Rica.

— Kortney



20 February 2017


Kortney Cena