Name: Jenna Johnston
Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica
It is impossible to summarize everything that I learned or took away from my experience in Costa Rica in a blog post. Over a month after returning to the States, I’m still untangling this mess of emotions, from gratitude and love for the experiences I had and the people I met, to profound grief for the seven weeks I lost. So far, what’s helped me has been reflecting on some of the little things, from dinner table customs to the treatment of time, which then allow for me to draw greater connections and reflect more deeply about my experiences.
I noticed one difference between my culture and Costa Rican culture during my first meal in the country. Heidi picked me up from the airport and brought me to my host family’s house, and we all ate lunch together. While we were eating, Heidi explained to me that, in Costa Rica, it is respectful to leave your hands on the table while eating. In the United States, it’s rude to do that, so this was the first small behavior that I changed to respect Costa Rican culture. This situation also helped me to pay attention to the subtle differences — hand gestures, table manners, daily practices — that were not as obvious as the dramatic changes in climate and language, but still had an impact on my life.
I found out about another cultural difference before getting to Costa Rica. I have friends who have already studied in Costa Rica, and they told me about the big difference between “gringo time” and “tico time”. They told me that, in Costa Rica, the exact start time of meetings and activities matters less, and there are only a few exceptions to this rule — some classes, medical appointments, some religious services, and train schedules. In Costa Rica, I frequently had to ask Heidi if a class or activity was going to start at “gringo time” (exactly on time) or at “tico time” (a little later). In my culture in the United States, I frequently heard the phrase “early is on time, on time is late.” In my high school, during the school day and in my extracurricular activities like marching band and theatre, there were consequences for students who arrived late. As a result, personally, I try to be punctual, so I don’t inconvenience others. It stresses me out when things don’t start on time. Gradually I learned to relax with respect to time in Costa Rica — it’s not necessary to know exactly when something is going to happen. I hope this new attitude doesn’t cause too many problems for me now that I’m going to have more “gringo time” meetings in the future!
In my semester abroad, I also learned a lot about the religious differences between my part of the United States and my part of Costa Rica, which I’ve talked about extensively in other posts. Out of everything I learned about religion in Costa Rica, the most important thing was not something academic — it was very personal. I had often heard that Catholics in Costa Rica did not accept LGBTQ+ people. However, after a few weeks living with my host family, I told my host parents that I have a girlfriend. I was nervous, but everything was fine. My host family is very Catholic and religious, so I was afraid, but they are very inclusive and love all of their “gringa daughters” (as they affectionately call us), more than anything else. The first question my host mom asked after I told her was “well, what’s your girlfriend like?”, showing me that everything was normal and okay. And afterward, nothing changed between me and my host family — we’re still very close, and we love each other a lot. From all of this, it reinforced for me not to judge or stereotype people based on their religion or culture. Everyone is capable of prioritizing love.
Before I went to Costa Rica, a professor gave me the advice to not have any expectations about my experiences: just to observe, learn, and stay in the moment. Even after taking this advice to heart, I still had some basic expectations about how my semester was going to go — introductory classes, travel course, then internship — and these were not met because I had to leave seven weeks early.
But as much as I can sadly reflect, I can also remember my wonderful memories. The most important thing I took away from my experiences wasn’t from my classes, the trips I took, or the Spanish I learned — it was from my time with my host family. I don’t have younger siblings in my US family, so with my tica family, I learned how to be an older sister. I re-learned how to play, how to relax after a difficult day of classes, and how to appreciate the small moments with my little siblings. I cannot express all that my tica family means to me, but one thing I can take away is to value my time with family and loved ones, and to remember to make time to play and laugh, even in the difficult moments.
In Costa Rica, I learned that I am capable of doing more than I thought I was, in both my classes and in my life. I hope that now, I will listen as well as I can, think more critically, not be afraid to try new things, value my time with my loved ones, stay empathetic, and keep asking questions. Moving forward, I will continue to untangle the web of what I learned, what I can change, and what I can stay curious about.