I never thought I would say that I’ve taken life lessons from Jim Carrey, but here I am on my last day in Costa Rica, and that’s really all that’s coming to mind. I never really got homesick, I’m not sad to leave yet, but I’m just really dreading packing so I’ve been procrastinating by reflecting on my time here. The strangest thing to me about watching other students go home is that so many of them seem to get back to America with some kind of revelation about how much they changed and how they have a whole new perspective on life because of 3-9 weeks taking basic Spanish classes in another country. Not to say that I haven’t changed over the course of the experience, because that’s not true at all, but I don’t think I’ve changed in that kind of idealized way like I just returned from a year of missions work in the remote jungle in some third world country.
After six weeks in Costa Rica, I still like American food and music the best, I still can’t dance bachata or salsa… or cumbia or merengue or anything else, I’m still going to take a 30 minute hot shower when I get home, I still prefer to dry my clothes in an electric dryer and use an automatic dishwasher, I’m still not comfortable with the metric system, I’m still not tan despite the amount of time I spent on the beach, I’m still going to go back to wearing tshirts and sweats to class every day, I still miss driving a car, I still worry about being late, and I still dream and think in English most of the time.
Studying abroad isn’t going to send me home a totally new person, but I definitely learned some things that Jim Carrey (or his characters, at least) tried to teach me a long time ago:
If you haven’t seen The Truman Show, you should go find it on Netflix right now, because it’s honestly Jim Carrey’s best. The main character, Truman (Carrey), unknowingly lives his entire life inside a dome built for him by a tv producer that holds his hometown and every person and place he’s ever known, and he makes it to 30 years old without ever questioning why he lives there or goes to his same job every day, until some suspicious occurrences pique his curiosity and Truman discovers that his entire life was made up by someone else and he never made any decisions. Obviously I didn’t grow up in a giant television set inside a bubble, but I had never been out of the United States for more than a few hours until I got a plane 6 weeks ago and flew 3,000 miles from home to Costa Rica, and though I didn’t experience the massive culture shock I expected, it’s a lot different than I imagined it would be. Whether someone else set them or you set them for yourself, whether they’re physical, geographical, or metaphorical, go beyond your limits. You honestly just don’t know what’s past whatever borders are around you until you go beyond them.
I admit that I have been compared to the Grinch a few times in my 20 years of life, not because I hate Christmas, but because I usually like to be by myself. Just like Carrey’s comedic representation of the classic character hid in his hole on the mountain with just his dog, I have honestly lived a lot of my life doing the same thing… not wreaking havoc on innocent people from a nearby town, but just being a loner. I’ve never been a social butterfly, but I came all the way to Central America alone, and I’m leaving with who knows how many good friends (“Sol-mates”… their pun, not mine). Traveling on your own forces you to step beyond your comfort zone that is usually defined by a certain circle of family and friends, and your comfort zone doesn’t grow unless you step outside of it. It took longer than a day, but I think my heart may have grown a few sizes thanks to the amazing people I’ve met here.
The most important of Jim Carrey’s lessons, though, comes from the relatively recent Yes Man, in which his character, Carl, joins a program where he has to say “yes” to everything proposed to him, no matter what. The moral at the end isn’t that it’s good to agree to things you don’t want to do, but that saying “yes” opens you up to things you never would’ve done and people you never would’ve met otherwise. (Disclaimer: saying “yes” to everyone in a foreign country is a bad, I repeat, a bad idea… yes, there are drug dealers.) In the United States, I never would’ve tried slimy, seedy fruits whose names don’t translate to English, I never would’ve agreed to let some strange Costa Rican man teach me to salsa dance at a casino, I never would’ve sang karaoke in Spanish at a bar (I admit, it was Shakira), I never would’ve traveled all around the country with people I just met, I never would’ve agreed to take surf lessons because I’m absolutely terrified of the ocean, I never would’ve taken directions from strangers on the bus day after day… after day, I never would’ve hiked through some strange, largely unmarked rainforest to discover a hidden waterfall, I never would’ve jumped off a decent-sized cliff into the pool below that waterfall, and I never would’ve let a strange family take me in and treat me like their own. Fear is the number one thing that holds us back, and when you say “yes” to things that scare you, you take back control of your life and open yourself up to infinite new experiences.
I was afraid to travel on my own, I didn’t expect to open up to so many wonderful new people, I never went beyond the borders of my safe, comfortable America, but now that I’ve done all those things, I have infinite stories to tell when I get home in approximately 24 hours. I’m not going back to good old Kansas a totally changed human being with a new passion for life and perspective on the planet, but my comfort zone is bigger, and that’s progress.
To read more about my study abroad experience, visit my bilingual blog here.