Two months ago, I made a huge decision: I was packing up and moving to Colombia for eight months to participate in a teaching fellowship with the Ministry of Education.
A noble choice, that of course, also came with a few selfish motivations (i.e. longing for days soaking up the sun on picturesque beaches, adventuring through this country’s ecological diversity and adding an international perspective to my writing).
Out of all the notices I had to give before my journey, from my job to my cellphone service provider, none was more intense than breaking the news to friends.
My immediate family had become acquainted with my dreams of spending time in Latin America – Colombia in particular – to the point that when I shared I had been accepted into a program, their inquiries were mainly about the logistical details; “Where will you be living?”, “How long?”, and so on. But when I informed others, the reactions were steeped in curiosity and caution.
“Why Colombia?” one friend asked somewhat shocked.
“It’s a beautiful country.”
“Okay, just don’t get caught up with the wrong crowd,” she replied jokingly.
As lighthearted as her comment was, I realized that many Americans still have perceptions of Colombia as a place hung up by drug wars and lawlessness. Living here as an expat for the last month, surely I’m not qualified to give a dissertation on everything Colombia has to offer, but over the last few weeks it’s been interesting to see just how out of touch a lot of these preconceived notions of the “gateway to South America” tend to be.
It’s true that in the U.S. we often live inside a bubble without the ideal amount of international awareness and unfortunately many aren’t up to date on the environmental, economic, and educational triumphs this country has made while moving past the dark shadows of drug lord Pablo Escobar. It’s become the elephant in the room that has blinded people from Colombia’s educated labour force, entrepreneurial opportunities, and regional diversity.
Luckily my time working as an ESL instructor in the States afforded me opportunities to connect with students from South America who also helped put things in perspective and inspired much of my wanderlust to venture here.
Colombia’s reputation back home is often far removed from its current reality.
As a “gringa” I take precautions that I probably would in any other unfamiliar environment; for example, not traveling alone when it’s dark, nor carrying too much cash or expensive items while I’m out and about. But through getting to know people, doing some research of my own, and my brief time living here, it has shown me that Colombia’s reputation back home is often far removed from its current reality.
Growing up in Philadelphia, there were plenty of times I felt unsafe and areas I knew to stay away from. So it’s no shock that the same goes on in Colombia.
As the inaccurate assumptions of others continued leading up to my arrival here, I began to wonder what it would be like if everyone viewed the U.S. through the lens of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the lack of government response to Hurricane Katrina, or more recently, the Ferguson uprisings and growing worries over the effects of GMO foods.
The idealist perceptions of American life would easily be shattered and the bright-eyed teens and young adults students who shaped my ESL classrooms and inspired me with tales of their homeland, probably wouldn’t have been there if the idea of a racially unjust land of militant policing and huge economic disparities was constantly fed through their news screens without balance.
In this case, the question “You’re moving to the U.S?” would probably be posed with more anxiety than excitement. Fortunately, the U.S. has yet to really be put to the task of polishing its dreamy image abroad.
And so, my hope is that after my time here, upon my return home I can impart enough first-hand experiences to hopefully make the question “You’re moving to Colombia?” become filled with the a more fitting balance of intrigue than concern and inspire future expats to have the courage to respond confidently and simply, “Yes.”