Campus Life vivian’s reflections

GTL Italy Taught Me about Finding a Shared Humanity

Seeking connections as a foreigner

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The sunrise in Breno, Italy, a town in the Lombardy Alps.
Vivian Hir–The Tech
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The sunset in Lovere, Italy, a town by Lake Iseo.
Vivian Hir–The Tech

When people ask me how GTL Italy went, I give them the standard “It was a great time”: I got to explore Italy, my host family was wonderful, and the teachers were friendly. But if I shared my honest feelings, my answer would be more complicated. The truth is that GTL Italy was one of the loneliest experiences in my life, but also one of the most meaningful.

The beginning of GTL Italy was interesting because everything felt new to me. Technically, I visited Italy nearly a decade ago, but coming back felt like a clean slate. At the same time, however, the unfamiliar environment was disorienting. Unlike my past travel experiences, this was the first time I was by myself and didn’t know the native language. 

Ignoring the incredibly daunting bus and train journey on day one, the first week overall went smoothly. Planning lessons at the start was somewhat difficult, but things turned out better than expected. The students were active learners, and the teachers were excited to work with me. Living with the host family required a bit of adjustment, but I instantly grew to love their presence. 

Despite being surrounded by others, I felt isolated at times. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious about being a foreigner, something I rarely experienced growing up and in college. I hated standing out amongst the rest. I simply wanted to hide from the outside world. While the school welcomed me, I felt like an outsider, lost in a sea of voices I couldn’t understand. 

When I talked at school, it was mainly limited to teaching and small conversations with teachers. Besides my host family, I barely talked to anyone. Perhaps that’s why I wrote so much in my Moleskine, filling up more than 60 pages in three weeks. Journaling was the only way to talk to myself. I checked group chats more often to get tiny boosts of social interaction, even though I knew that sending messages could only do so much. 

To be fair, part of this isolation was self-induced, as I stayed in my room most of the time. I entered Mandopop rabbit holes, searching up lyrics and watching music videos as a source of comfort. I missed hearing my mother tongue. My sleep schedule was worse than the semester, as I napped in the afternoon and didn’t feel like leaving my bed. Even gathering the motivation to run again took me a week, as I struggled to overcome the fear of people staring at me. 

Despite the loneliness I experienced at times, I don’t regret doing GTL Italy at all. I am grateful for this experience since I not only learned a lot about pedagogy, but more importantly, myself. There were times I missed the comforts of home, but I knew that this opportunity would force me to go outside of my comfort zone. If I hadn’t done GTL Italy, I don’t think I would have come to realize how to truly immerse myself in another culture, as my past travel experiences did not present this kind of challenge.  

While GTL’s main goal is to have MIT students teach high school students STEM subjects abroad, personally the biggest impact GTL had was encouraging me to think more like a global citizen. To tell you the truth, I don’t know when I will get to experience something like this again in the future. 

What made GTL Italy a once-in-a-lifetime experience was coming across the beauty of people overcoming language barriers to know me better, considering how challenging it is. My host parent’s proficiency in English was fine overall, but the language wasn’t second nature for them. Over time, however, they picked up words of English from me, while I learned a bit of Italian from them. On the other hand, talking to my host sister was hard. Despite the lack of exchange, her actions moved me just as much, like the times she gently knocked on my door at 5 p.m. to give me a cup of warm tea and a plate of biscuits. 

Outside of my host family, the teachers I worked with also tried to bridge this linguistic gap, especially Nunzia, who invited me on a weekend trip followed by dinner with friends. The memory still warms my heart to this day. 

I won’t forget the Saturday afternoon I spent with her in the quaint town of Lovere by Lake Iseo, exploring the twisted alleys and enjoying the scenic lake view. Communication was limited and difficult at times, which meant using Google Translate. Nevertheless, the short and simple dialogue we had was still beautiful. And let’s not leave out the moment we sang along to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls on the car ride back home on the local highway of Camonica Valley. 

The night ended well, as I got to eat dinner with the teacher’s friends, observing various aspects of Italian culture around me, from the rich items on the charcuterie board to their frequent use of hand gestures. While my understanding of the conversations was limited to a friend who acted as a translator, I still had a great time, laughing when the chatter steered towards navigating the world of online dating. 

Rather than letting a cultural gap persist between me and others, I became more open-minded to learning about their lives, which was reciprocated. My life was nowhere like theirs, but I appreciated both the intersections and differences in our experience. More often than not, when I think of “learning,” I only think of learning that comes from academics, instead of experiences like GTL Italy that are just as — or perhaps more — significant. 

From the conversations I had with my host family and others, I have learned that there is so much to learn from people coming from vastly different backgrounds — even facets of their everyday life, like food and language. Over the course of three weeks, I began to realize the power of a shared humanity. Despite apparent cultural differences, I noticed the existence of aspects that are universal to the human condition, whether it is love for a pet or the contagious effect of laughter.

This shared humanity reminds me of the time my host mom showed me the books on the bookshelf, titles I didn’t recognize until she took out the Italian translation of The Kite Runner. Although I read the novel a while ago, I remembered the book quite well for its complex themes surrounding redemption and betrayal. “It’s a good book. But it’s triste,” she told me, using hand motions to signal crying. The memory is a small moment, yet our shared fondness for this book had a deep impression on me. 

Even though we didn’t share similar upbringings or cultures like the characters in the novel, we all could relate to the character’s struggles and the emotional pain that came with loss. Perhaps I had more in common with others than I assumed initially. Literature may be a great way to spark new connections with others. 

I still have work to do when it comes to becoming comfortable with discomfort as a foreigner abroad. Despite this shortcoming, GTL Italy has driven me to engage with people I otherwise wouldn’t have made in the U.S. As I boarded my plane back to Boston, I left feeling more confident about a future travel experience like GTL Italy. While challenges such as culture shock are normal, I am well-assured that interacting with people from different backgrounds will make my life richer.