by Natalia Cruz
When I started studying at UT after living in Puerto Rico my entire life, I felt homesick, but could find similarities from my home in Puerto Rico and my new home in Tampa. The first time I came to visit the campus was November 2017, and I was expecting it to be chilly, but the warmth that I felt when I stepped out of the car was a slap to the face, shaking me to my core. What caught my attention as my mother and I were walking toward Plant Hall were the palm trees. Palm trees aren’t endemic to Puerto Rico, but the second I saw them, it was as if I could feel the sand under my feet, and smell the salt in the air.
At the time, it seemed as though Tampa was the closest thing I had to home, and I thought that would make things easier in the long run. But, I wasn’t prepared to face the vast cultural differences I would find when moving to Tampa. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, but the cultures from both places couldn’t be farther apart, even though we have a great deal of influence from the U.S.
I’ve noticed things that are a part of my day-to-day life experiences aren’t the same for everyone else here in Tampa, but due to my upbringing and where I was raised, I can’t help but do the things I’m so accustomed to do. For example, the other day I greeted my friend with a kiss on the cheek. Her immediate confusion and bewilderment set me aback, but it also made me remember where I currently live. This isn’t how you would typically greet someone you’ve just met, at least not here in Florida. I was extremely embarrassed at this encounter and I apologized if I made her feel uncomfortable. I would have never guessed that I would ever have to apologize for simply greeting someone, but these are the day-to-day cultural clashes that I encounter.
Another situation that I didn’t realize would challenge me is the food. I’m accustomed to courses peppered with seasoning and rich in color. Eating Puerto Rican food to me is experiencing all five senses at once; it’s euphoric. Though it’s not just the taste and look that make me miss the food: it’s the memories attached to it as well. I can’t think of fried plantains without thinking about my mother making them, hearing the sizzle of the oil in every corner of our condo. I also can’t think of paella without thinking about my grandfather, ordering a giant cauldron for the whole family, and waiting 40 minutes for it to actually arrive at the table. Sadly, I can’t say the same good things about the food in Ultimate Dining. While it’s not terrible, I wouldn’t say it has the same emotional impact on me.
The biggest struggle out of them all is not being able to speak Spanish. This is the language that predominated my life at home, though I’ve spoken English and Spanish since childhood. But speaking exclusively in English gets a bit tiring, given that I mostly spoke in a combination of both for the greater portion of my life. The one connection I fully have to the language is my mother and the few friends I have here from Puerto Rico.
It’s a tug of war in my mind, a fight between both languages. Whenever someone asks me a question in English, the immediate response in my head is in Spanish, and by the time I’ve translated it and said it out loud, I feel as though the person I’m talking to has lost interest. This isn’t the case, given that this mental war happens in a few seconds, but it feels like an eternity to me.
There’s a similar war that I’m seeing take form in my life, and that’s how I feel as though I’m dividing myself in half. What I mean by this is that when I’m in Tampa, I miss my friends and family from Puerto Rico. When I’m with my friends from back home, I miss the wonderful friends I’ve made in UT. It’s as though I can never win, always feeling left out no matter where I am. I feel bad for taking sides, or neglecting one or the other, but I can’t help but immerse myself into the situation and people around me. I’m left wondering if I’m a bad person, just for wanting to study far from home.
One might ask themselves why I would put myself in such a draining position on purpose, just to study outside of Puerto Rico. But, the opportunity to study in a different country allows international students to fully grow as a person. It would have been much easier to go to college in Puerto Rico, but I wanted to be able to explore who I was in an environment that I wasn’t fully aware of, to better understand how I perceive the world and react to certain situations.
While the culture shock I constantly experience may get exhausting, it is fundamental for my personal growth. Everyone should learn about cultures that are vastly different than their own, for this is the best way to truly understand the world around us. Even if it seems to be exactly what you know, there’s always something more to learn from your surroundings.
Natalia Cruz can be reached at Natalia.firstname.lastname@example.org