June 6, 2017
About a year ago I carried out one of the most difficult and challenging decisions of my life – that sounds pretty dramatic. I was going to leave it all behind, jump on a plane and live in America for a year, living with an American family and attending an American high school through a program called AFS. AFS is a nonprofit organization that works in order to bring cultures and people together and encourages international education through exchange programs. Currently there are 24 exchange students from all around the world in Howard County. And during this year we have all come closer to each other, having made international friendships, that I hope will last forever.
Now, having a month left, I can’t believe how much I have grown. I have changed and learned to adapt to a completely different reality and lifestyle. And even though Chile and America are occidental countries, the differences between them and the American peculiarities are vast. I was amazed by the infinite variety of snacks, I was shocked when I found out about the drinking age (in Chile it is 18), I was impressed when I realized that houses here don’t have fences around their property and houses, I was scared when I noticed that 16 years old teenagers were able to drive. I was even more stunned when everything that I saw in the Disney or Hollywood movies when I was in Chile was actually true. I was living in a movie!
Being in a new country I wanted to try new things, so I thought “Let’s give American sports a try.” And little did I know that playing sports during my exchange year was going to be one of the things that would define it.
Being from South America I obviously play soccer (In Chile we call it football, because you actually play it with your feet.) So when my host family, the Rankins, asked me what sport I wanted to play, it was a no brainer.
It was the beginning of August of 2016 when I jumped on a plane: It started off with a 10 hour flight in economy class from Santiago, Chile to Dallas, Texas. It was followed with a 7 hour wait in the airport, to later hop on on a 3 hour flight to New York. Sadly for me, that was not the final destination and we – exchange students from around the world – had to wait around in a hotel for 10 more hours. After that, I had to endure a 4 hour bus ride to finally arrive to my new home: Columbia, Maryland. But even though I was physically and mentally exhausted after my two day trip, I could barely sleep at all. The enthusiasm was way too much.
I arrived at my new home around 9 PM. And the next day, at 7 AM, I had soccer tryouts. Well… you can imagine how that turned out. I could have blamed the lack of sleep, the nerves, the cultural shock, and so on. But if I am being honest, the reason why I was not even close to making the cut was because I was not good enough. After miserably failing at soccer and having let down all the soccer-loving South American community I tried my luck with volleyball. Yeah… That didn’t work either so I thought “Let’s see how field hockey goes”. I had never played before and went to practice – tryouts were long over – without a mouth guard, goggles or shinguards. Only with a crappy stick that I borrowed from my neighbor. I am pretty sure that hitting the ball was a requirement to make the team and my performance was pathetic to say the least. In all the three sports they offered me to be the manager. What a slap in the face.
With my tail between my legs, my confidence destroyed, and my American dream crashed only a week into the year, I came “home” – then they were strangers, but now they are family – and cried my heart out. I felt defeated and embarrassed. I was all alone in a foreign country, speaking a language that was not my own and I had no one to lean on. I wiped my tears and got back on my feet. I talked to the field hockey coach and begged her – my dignity and pride were things of the past – to let me in the team as a player. I promised that I would work twice as hard and that by the end of the season she would be impressed on how much I had improved. I promised to always be on time, to have a positive attitude, to be responsible. The coach gave me the opportunity and the vote of confidence and I proved her what I was capable of. I promised to give it my all. And I did. I fell, and I got up.
“You are not good enough” That is a phrase that I was not used to hearing. I played a lot of sports back at home but I was never really committed to any of them. And that is the main difference between the American sports culture and the Chilean sports culture: commitment.
Here when you play a sport in high school, you are called a student athlete. But having played three sports – field hockey, track & field, and lacrosse – I dare to question that title. When you are part of a team, the team and the sport become your priority, coming many times before study. And it is really not surprising given that most teams have practice between five or six days a week, and each practice is between two and three hours long. In Chile we would have practice once or twice a week, for only an hour and a half. And it was not even an hour and half of real practice. It was mainly just goofing around with your friends while you were having fun playing a sport.
Here, sports are competitive. You train, you have practice whether it’s 100 F or 20 F, whether it’s sunny or snowing. There are no exceptions. Even when it’s thunder storming – if it roars go indoors – we would have conditioning inside. You practice and train to get better, stronger, faster. You train so you can beat your opponents and be the best. Where I come from, you don’t even have to be good to make the team. There is not even a thing such as “making the team.” There are no tryouts. You want to play? You are gonna have fun with your friends and everyone will receive you with open arms. In Chile it’s so little the regard that we give to sports that we don’t even have playoffs or tournaments during the school year – March through November. We are lucky to have one game per month. Versus the two games per week we have here during regular season.
In Chile, I went to a private school where we wear school uniforms, so we are not allowed to wear our jerseys on game days. But honestly there wouldn’t make a difference, because we don’t have jerseys, and no one cares about game days, because no one cares about the game or the sport itself. Sometimes players included.
In the US we have a “camera guy,” a person who goes to the games and is in charge of recording everything. Out of those videos, players get their highlights and stats. Really useful information for recruiters and obtaining potential scholarships. In the US, we have bleachers so all the fans can go cheer on their team. We even have a visitor’s section, a booster stand, a concession store. In the US you have the head coach and the assistant coach. In the US you have at least two referees per game. All American high schools have an athletic director. Teams in Howard County have up to two managers. In Chile, we don’t have boosters, spirit wear or anything like that. Not even a school’s mascot (Go Raiders!) For “games” we even have to bring our own water bottles because there is no water jug. There is no team locker room or weight room.
Where I come from, there will be no student section or visitor section in the games, because no one goes to games. Not even our parents, because they don’t care about it, and neither do we. We were never taught to care about sports. No one ever gave the importance and relevance that is given here. Students that practice sports in the US are called athletes, where I come from we are called students and we have no special treatment whatsoever.
We don’t have a banquet at the end of the season or rallies. We don’t even have sport seasons. The same sports are played year round.
In the US, we have a JV team and Varsity. Where I come from we don’t have elementary school, middle school, or high school. Kids from kindergarten to 12th grade coexist with each other in the same building, and people from 7th grade to 12th grade can be part of the same sports team.
Many times people here will play sports only because it will look good on their college applications. In Chile, colleges don’t care at all about the sport you played during high school. And if you are hoping to get an athletic scholarship, you better be at the same level of LeBron James, Messi or Usain Bolt, because they are tremendously rare.
Playing a sport, and being part of a team in America is totally different. It requires commitment, endurance, responsibility, and passion. It’s a completely different sports culture, and well, a different culture overall. And although we have a lots of things in common, being different countries we have tons of discrepancies. And after living in both countries and having experienced both cultures, I can say with total certainty that no country is better than the other. They are both different and unique in their own particular ways. But I have to say that Chile can learn a lot about America’s sport culture. I know I have. By playing sports in America I learned and improved so much, not only in the field, but also off of it. Playing a sport here builds, in many ways, your character. I have learned what hard work means. I have learn about perseverance, commitment, responsibility, discipline, punctuality. How to win with class and how to lose with dignity. I have learned that success requires sacrifice. I have learned how to handle pressure and stress. I learned how to be a team player.
Living here has allowed me to expand my horizons and see the world from a completely different perspective. I have burst my bubble and my life will never be the same as it was before. It will be better. Living here has taught me how to overcome challenges, and how challenges can sometimes turn into great memories and stories.
This year has been the most difficult year of my life, yet also the best. It has been a life changing experience that has help me rediscover myself. And I am, and will be forever, grateful for everything that this country has given me and taught me. And if you ever have the chance of participating in an exchange program or living abroad, don’t think about it twice and do what I did. Leave all your fears and apprehensions behind, pack a suitcase full of courage and prepare yourself for an adventure of a lifetime.