What kind of traveler do you define yourself as? Do you consider yourself a fearless traveler? What moment in your travels caused you to be the type of traveler you are today? Was there an event? Perhaps you studied abroad, grew up in a military family or it may very well be a family legacy that was passed on to you, just as it was for me.
My paternal abuelito (grandfather) passed away when Papi (dad) was a mere eight years old. By then, my abuelitos (grandparents) had been divorced and papi had little to do with my abuelito. However, what he did hold on to was a trip that he, his brothers and my abuelito took to Veracruz, México. That trip is the lasting memory of shared harmony papi has of his father and his siblings. As a result of that family getaway, papi was determined to create memories and experiences that no one could ever take from us.
It is no wonder then, that from a young age I was exposed to travel. I was initially sent to Guatemala for the summer with my padrinos (godparents) when I was a wee six years old. The preparation for such a trip began long before I boarded the Pan Am flight to the Land of Eternal Spring, as a precocious unaccompanied minor. You see, I was taught Spanish before any other language, despite living in the United States. My parents wanted, at the very least, to have a bilingual child who was connected to her roots.
To further solidify my Spanish and expose me to more of Latin America, I was sent to my mom’s co-worker’s family in México in junior high. Later on, I would return to Guatemala with Papi to experience his homeland through the multiple stories he would tell me as we roamed the streets of his childhood. My maternal homeland of Ecuador, being farther away, would be explored later in life. I made my maiden voyage there as a senior in college. The first time around, I was fortunate enough to go with Mami and then return the following year with my abuelitos. Being able to communicate with my family both in the US and Latin America is something I hold dear to this day. It has given me a sense of self for which I am eternally grateful.
In addition to my mother tongue, I learned English in school while further building my linguistic repertoire whenever we were out and about in our neighborhood. My novice level French and Japanese would transition from practicing with shopkeepers to studying in high school and college. These classes were not in vain, as I would go on to participate in a homestay program in France rather than have a quinceañera. I was paired with a family that lived near Versailles giving me the opportunity to explore the ancient French capital, the City of Lights and the coastal town of Notre-Dame-de-Monts, where I experienced my first topless beach.
The Land of the Rising Sun was my gateway to Asia, long before anime became popular. As a Rotary Scholar, I had two host families during my month-long stay in Japan. Between them, they introduced me to reiki, hot springs and the glory of 富士山 (Mount Fuji). A decade later, after graduating as an Asian Studies major from Mount Holyoke College and finishing my Masters in Bilingual/Bicultural Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, I found myself returning to the very country that set the path for what I would eventually study in college. This time, I was a chaperone. Admittedly, I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking or French-speaking country, but my knowledge of Japanese and previous experience was what ultimately got me the summer gig. Once again, I had a host family. The difference this time was that I was responsible for a group of teenagers, as well as being the liaison between them and the local support team. My Japanese was certainly rusty, but nothing like a sink or swim situation to get me back in linguistic shape.
In my 20s & 30s, I spent a combined 11 years working in Mainland China and Hong Kong, teaching English and Spanish, respectively. A true moment of victory for me was in 2009 when I returned to Shanghai six years after leaving. It was a ladies’ weekend trip and I ended up leaving my electronic dictionary at home in Hong Kong. It turned out, I didn’t need it, I was able to communicate with taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and other locals without issue. My time in Shanghai will always be cherished, as it provided a true home and a circle of friends I will remember fondly.
The immersive nature of my travels has been the catalyst in shaping who I am and the way I interact with a place, its people and its culture. I am much more prone to visit friends, stay with them, live as a local and experience life through their eyes. My linguistic skills have given me that opportunity across 6 continents and more than 40 countries. While accents vary and colloquialisms change from region to region, the basis of the language remains the same.
Where have your languages taken you? Where do you want them to take you?