Our last decade winner from our 50 Years of Stories contest shares how she embraced what she describes as her personal awkwardness through her experiences with AMIGOS!  We can all relate!

By Shannon Bull

I’ve spent much of my life as a significantly awkward individual. I’m not especially clumsy or bumbling or socially inept – I just have a propensity for inopportune apologies and unnecessary silences, all stemming from debilitating childhood shyness. While my awkwardness has never been crippling, it’s an undeniable aspect of my character, and one that especially shines through when I’m in new situations. One of the more helpful things I’ve learned in life, though, is that it’s not exactly a unique trait. Awkwardness is pretty much universal, even if the concept thereof is not.

Plug the word ‘awkward’ into a Spanish-English dictionary and a lot of translations pop up, typically torpe (clumsy), incómodo (uncomfortable), and embarazoso (embarrassing). None of these even begin to cover how it feels to be a self-conscious American teenager in a country you can’t claim to know anything about, trying to immerse yourself in its culture while putting together a feasible, useful, and theoretically sustainable service project over the course of seven weeks.

I’m a two-time volunteer with Amigos de las Américas and I spend my Sundays training future volunteers. I have a whole treasure trove of moral issues with the pretentions and presumptions of the international aid industry and at the same time that I’m absolutely in love with the cultural exchange aspect of it and I could just as easily write this essay about how morally awkward it can feel to devote my summers and Sundays to a cause toward which I have mixed feelings.

But that’s not the sort of awkwardness that applies to my daily life, especially not my life as it was in Latin America, specifically in San Patricio, Misiones, Paraguay and Santiago Suchilquitongo, Oaxaca, México. That awkwardness is easy enough to explain in Spanish with the right irreverent tone and self-depreciating chuckle. My experiences were defined so much more by the day-to-day awkwardness, the uncomfortable moments and cultural idiosyncrasies that nobody told me about beforehand because forming a grassroots youth group sounds way cooler than shattering your host mom’s glass table or getting roped into a five-hour parade full of drunken locals.

It’s those moments, though, that define my AMIGOS experiences as a whole, because they remind me that I’m about as far from an adventurous savior as I can get: I’m just a short, bug-bitten teenager in ill-fitting pants and sensible shoes trying to fit in with an intensely new culture. Even though the mural on the school wall in Paraguay is great, I can’t look at it without remembering the time my partner and I accidentally showed a bunch of pre-teen kids a solid portion of a movie we didn’t know was R-rated until it was too late at a fundraiser or how many twelve-year-old boys broke up with their twelve-year-old girlfriends to spend more time painting the mural with us two awkward teenage American girls. I can’t wash my sheets without cringing, remembering how I used up all of my Mexican host family’s laundry detergent because I was pretty sure I had fleas. I can’t peel an orange without remembering the countless nervous phone calls it took to sell about $7000 worth of oranges to fund my trips, or how comically terrible I was at peeling oranges Paraguayan style in a tight spiral with a dull knife. I can’t even think about the word awkward without remembering how many times I tried and failed (rather awkwardly) to explain the word’s meaning to my host families and newfound friends in Spanish.

I think the fact that such a word never quite evolved in Spanish says a lot about the language, its diffusion, and its speakers. Awkward as those moments may have been for me, nobody else really minded. Sure, they probably thought I was clumsy and silly and too apologetic, but in Spanish, those don’t combine to make awkward. I wasn’t pigeonholed into awkwardness, merely foreignness, and culture shock is universally a lot more charming and temporary than oddness. Because of the strange grace period offered to me as a foreigner – because it was okay for me to blush, chuckle, and stumble my way through my first few weeks in community – I managed to grow beyond blushing, chuckling, and stumbling into thriving, laughing, and learning.

I’ve tried to carry that through with me into my life back home, and it’s honestly worked. I know now that I can awkwardly blush, chuckle, and stumble my way through anything and that it’ll all wind up okay in the end. I also know that I don’t have to, and through that knowledge, I’ve grown so much more confident and socially graceful. My awkwardness has no power over me where it does not translate, and where it does mean something, it doesn’t matter now. I know that I’m competent, confident, and intelligent not despite it, but through it, and all because the Old Norse word afugr, meaning ‘turned the wrong way,’ never quite made it to the Iberian Peninsula.