Name: Stephannie (Luna) Herrera Gomez
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Study abroad semester and location: Sunderland, England, fall 2013.
What was the best meal you had abroad?
One rainy Monday, after my Fine Art Skills module, I decided to walk the mile back to my flat as opposed to riding the bus like I had done every day for the past month. On my way back to the flat, I stopped into a pub I’d always passed but had never walked into called the Willow Pond. I sat down at a little table on the corner and thought about how much I missed home over a pint. In the middle of my slightly nostalgic thought, a British lad named Gary sat next to me and through my most noticeable accent we began talking about why I was in Sunderland. Needless to say, one pint turned into many more and after countless hours of conversation I got incredibly hungry and decided I wanted to try the most British thing the Willow Pond had on the menu. I didn’t have much to choose from because the pub had two things to offer: Fish and Chips and Toasty. I’d had traditional English fish and chips before so naturally, I placed an order for the ever mysterious Toasty and then waited in great anticipation for it to arrive. To my surprise, the Toasty was ready in less than five minutes!
It turns out that in all of my excitement, Toasty is just the British name for a grilled cheese sandwich… the most familiar food I could have found in England! In the end though, it was nice to be brought home in my mind through food and that is why it was the best meal I had during my time abroad.
How were you able to get involved with your host culture while abroad?
The way in which I was able to get truly involved with my host culture while abroad is a strange one because it wasn’t until my last three weeks there that I was able to fully appreciate it. The full story, however, began in October.
One month into my stay in England, I had gone out to the city centre with my flatmates, all of whom were German and American. Admittedly, it was a Friday night so we’d been on the drink for a while by then and when it came time to hit the clubs and the pubs, I wasn’t feeling very up for loud music or dance. Unfortunately for me (or so it seemed) by the time I realized that I wasn’t feeling the vibe of the night I had already ridden the cab to town and so as I often did, I separated from the group without saying goodbye and instead started the mile “solo” journey back to my flat on foot.
About 500 feet from where the cab dropped us off, I saw two fine looking lads, one of whom was smoking. I stopped and asked the one smoking for a drag and even offered to buy a whole cigarette if I could. Dave laughed a bit at my request, took out a pack and gave one to me without any hesitation. If my memory serves me right, it was my accent again that brought on curiosities as to why I found myself so far from home to which I replied “the music!” Turns out that Dave and Gary are two of the biggest Beatles fans I have ever met in my life and the fact that they are British only heightened my excitement (they were among the first two I’d actually met). The rest of the night we spent having conversations over pints inside the pub my flatmates had just gone to, feet away from them to be exact! By the end of the night I had also found myself walking the streets while singing loudly to the Beatles with my new found friends and dancing, which is exactly what I wasn’t anticipating to do. Instead of dancing to club music, however, Gary and Dave had directed me to another pub in a more hidden street of Sunderland where the music was more of my taste, playing songs by British bands Oasis, the Smiths, and Arctic Monkeys.
When it came time to call it a night, Gary kindly accompanied me on a cab ride to my flat but before it drove away from my door we had made plans to meet in two Mondays. Regretfully, I never showed up to our appointment in the Life of Riley and since we hadn’t exchanged any contact information, I thought it was the last time I would have seen the people who showed me the best time I’d had in England since my arrival. The universe has strange ways of working, though, and two months later, weeks before my departure, we met again unexpectedly at a Sunderland football match!
Gary and I made plans for that weekend and from then on I spent a lot of time around his British mates. I realized then that I had I spent way too much of my time around the things that I already knew like cooking my own Mexican and American dishes at home, or watching football teams that I already supported from Mexico on the computer instead of making my way down the pitch, which was literally less than 15 minutes away! Through meeting Gary and Dave I got to see a true British flat and drink a proper cup of English tea. I also got to see places so close to Sunderland that I could not have gotten to know without knowledgeable company or transportation. I got to see the differences between the attitudes I find in people at home (U.S. and Mexico) and the attitudes I found in people who have grown up in England. Needless to say, I fell in love with England far too late into my stay but not too late into my lifetime because come September 2015, I plan to make a move to the lovely city of Liverpool but not before stopping in Sunderland to pay my friends a visit.
How did your identity as a minority influence your experiences abroad?
My identity as a minority influenced my experience abroad because for starters, I am a minority here in America but not as much as I was in England. Consequently, being a minority in the U.S. felt nothing compared to how I felt in England. In England I felt liked and accepted for my background more so than here in America. Perhaps it was because there are far less Mexicans in England than I could have ever imagined but to say the least, I was treated with interest and somewhat as an exotic human being. I spoke Spanish once while I was there with an Ecuadorian merchant who’d been travelling the world selling things that he had made but apart from that, I met people who were genuinely kind to me everywhere I went and the conversations almost always started because of curiosity. I mean, I physically looked foreign!
Apart from the kindness though, the only time I can say that I actively felt like a minority was when I ran out of money and tried to find a job. American or not, without a visa you are not allowed any employment, which made me realize that being from one place over another means almost nothing and in a lot of ways, that made me real happy.
What was the biggest challenge you faced with the study abroad experience and how were you able to overcome it?
The biggest challenge I faced, I think, was the fact that I was not financially ready to take a trip such as this one. There was a time where I literally did not have more than 2 pounds and 60 pence in my pocket, which I spent all at once on a scone and tea. While this may sound discouraging, I’d say it was a valuable thing to learn at age 21 because through this experience I have come to recognize the truest value of a single unit of any currency. Every dollar, pound, what-have-you counts! When I learned this, I put to use my musical talents for income, bought myself a guitar with my last 60 pounds and filled the streets of Sunderland with music in return for joy and money. I started making about 30 pounds in two-hour shifts and started spending it very wisely. When I learned how to not blow money on senseless things, I started saving for large trips to Liverpool, London, York, and various other locations in England. It’s good to know the value of work and self-earned money.
Some words of advice for other minority students who want to study abroad:
No matter your financial situation, get a visa just in case! Once in the chosen country, explore as much as you can! If possible, detach from the culture you already know and only use it as a point of reflection. Indulge in the culture around you for you only get to experience it limitedly. Give people a chance to get to know you despite differences. And above all, do it! No hesitations.