One of my toughest decisions while applying for the IES program was choosing where to live. Unlike most programs, IES offered the option of a homestay or a residential hall for international students. I was attracted to the homestay because it would immerse me in the culture of a local family. But I was also intrigued by a community of international students. I imagined meeting neighbors and having big cookouts, study sessions, and parties. Ultimately, I chose the residential hall. I was assigned a single studio-style apartment, but would have to wait until the week after my program started to move in. The residential hall didn’t open until then so I would spend the week in a homestay. I didn’t mind the delay and actually, I was excited to have a host family and independent living. To learn more about my experience, read my blog: “A Warm Welcome“.
When choosing where to live, it’s helpful to know your living habits. Ask yourself questions like, what is important to me? Can I advocate for my needs if there is a conflict? How will you get to know people? How much can I pack? What is my budget? The main thing to consider is what do want out of your living experience, a place to sleep? A place to build relationships? Or maybe both. Check out this list of things I considered when choosing my living situation.
The week after orientation, the day finally arrived. I was moving into my new home! Only things didn’t go quite as planned. The first issue I encountered was my schedule. Unfortunately, the day I moved was also my first day of classes. I had originally planned on going to my first class in the morning, quickly moving to my apartment and coming back to the center later for another class. I quickly realized that plan wasn’t realistic. Instead, I worked with my student advisor to reserve a taxi for 4:30 that evening. After a long day of classes, I rushed back to my apartment to pack up the last of my things. It was later than expected and I only had a few minutes to say goodbye to my host family. At 4:25 pm, I rolled my bags down the three flights of stairs, eager to find my taxi when my suitcase broke, unzipping in both directions. Everything including my blanket, pots and pans, tampons, clothes, and shampoo bottle went spilling onto the sidewalk. I bet that was a sight. Thankfully, my taxi had yet to arrive. While I collected my things, my host mother hurried upstairs to find something to replace my faulty luggage. A few moments later she returned with reusable bags and tape. Her daughter and I used the packing tape to wrap my luggage shut. It didn’t look very secure but we finished just as the driver pulled up. I gave one last hug to each of them and hurried to my ride.
In the taxi, my thoughts were preoccupied with images of my stuff rolling around in the trunk and spilling out onto the street once it was opened. But there was nothing I could to do for the next 30 minutes, so I sat back and studied my surroundings. Whether I’m walking or taking public transportation, I have found it useful to use street view on Google maps to find my destination beforehand. Simple things like knowing the travel time, local landmarks, and at least a few street names make me feel more secure in a new location. As we drove through the city, I recognized buildings and monuments I had seen on my search earlier that day. For future study abroad students or travelers who are visual learners like me, I recommend trying this trick.
We pulled up to a vaguely familiar building and I hoped my luggage would hold for just a few more minutes. I was so focused on hauling my things up the stairs that I didn’t realize until I was halfway in the building that my taxi had already driven off. I stood for a moment confused, second guessing if I had paid or not. I hadn’t. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. I had booked my reservation under my advisor’s number and had no idea how to contact my driver. There was nothing to do, so I decided to deal with it later and proceeded through the door. I barged into the building and only then did I realize I had no idea what to say. The lobby was busier than expected and I received a few amused looks at the sight of my tattered luggage.
I tried to shake it off but the hits kept coming.”Hola, estoy umm Checking-In” I murmured to the secretary who gave me a skeptical look.
“Hablas español?” (Do you speak Spanish?) She replied and I shook my head a bit too eagerly. “Me entiendes?” (Do you understand me?) She asked again.
“Si” I responded, finally finding my voice.
“¿Cuál es tu nombre?” (What is your name?) A basic question, at least I thought until she asked me to spell it. My brain grasped at middle school lessons, the last time I had sang the Spanish alphabet.
I began listing the letters, “Kah, Ah, Sa-” However, as I watched her fingers on the keyboard I quickly realized my mistake. I was using the Tagalog alphabet which read “KASIANA” instead of “CASIANA” . I could feel the blood creeping up my neck: “Lo siento,” (Sorry,) I interjected. “Quiero decir, Ceh, ah, Ese…” (I mean, C,A,S…) I said, correcting myself.
There was a brief pause as she typed the changes. “No lo veo en nuestro sistema.” (I don’t see it in our system) She finally responded.
My stomach dropped. “Great,” I thought, “What am I supposed to do now?” But before I could ask, I was told to take a seat and wait for the manager. Feeling defeated, I dragged my luggage to a nearby chair. Just as I sat down, my phone rang.
“Hello?” I answered with confusion.
“Hi Casi,” It was Caroline, my student coordinator at IES. “The taxi company just called. They said you didn’t pay.” I nearly burst into tears.
“Oh, umm, he just drove off,” I explained weakly.
“Ok,” She replied calmly, “He’s coming back to you now.”
Feeling embarrassed and eager to get it over with, I rushed outside to look for him. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “God is with me.” My anxiety was high and I was getting frustrated that everything seemed to be going wrong. During my time abroad, I had said say I wanted to be challenged. I’m working to accept each situation with grace, but this was not what I was expecting. About ten minutes later, my driver pulled up and I was able to pay. When I re-entered the building, I was just in time to meet the manager. I gave her my name and my passport and was asked to wait a bit longer. Nearly an hour and a half later, she emerged from her office with me good news. She had found my information and my room was ready. Before I could see it, we filled out some paperwork and went over their policies. Shortly after, I was escorted to my room. As soon as I was through the door, I dropped my stuff to the floor with a thud and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Glad to be alone, I surveyed the room and my jaw fell open. It was ginormous! To my left was my personal kitchen including a microwave, electric stove, oven, sink, and a mini fridge. I was most excited to cook my own meals and the kitchen was a lot nicer than expected. Across from the kitchen was my bathroom with a stand-up shower. My living area was furnished with a twin bed, a few chairs, tables, and a desk. My room even came with a flat-screen tv. It was more than I had imagined and well worth the wait.
The rest of the night went without a hitch and I was grateful to have my own space. After stressful moments like today, I realize how much I overthink. But I also believe it’s important to reflect on moments that teach us how to act in different contexts. Traveling by myself has taught me to appreciate the familiarities of home. Once again, I empathize with people that live somewhere dominated by a different language than their own. Although it’s intimidating to navigate, I am extremely grateful for the chance.
Since moving in, I have enjoyed movie nights and girls brunch with a few of my IES classmates. Together, we’ve been able to explore the city and met other international students outside my program. It has been an adventure for sure and a great learning experience thus far.