This is it! The final week of my study abroad trip in Madrid, Spain has arrived. Most people think that five weeks seems to be an insufficient amount of time to become “fully emerged” in another culture. I am here to tell you to never underestimate your brain’s ability to absorb massive amounts of information in a relatively small time frame. If you read my classmates’ blogs about their experience in this program, you will read about castles and cathedrals. This blog post deviates from that slightly as I am concerned with giving some advice to those who plan to study abroad, but who also feel a bit of uneasiness toward the unknown.
|Me outside The College for International Studies. While we were learning Spanish, there were other international students learning English in this same building.|
Before I dive into my experience in Spain, I want to talk to the introverted, slightly neurotic individuals for a moment. When I got accepted into LIHC, I grappled with the fact that one day I would have to board a plane by myself and be dropped off in a country where I wouldn’t have the capability to even order a meal. The time leading up to this trip was filled with frantic thoughts. I am a planner, but there was no way for me to plan for such a novel experience. All I could do was brush up on some Spanish, pack a small suitcase, and begin my ambitious endeavor. There are many practical reasons to study abroad: It gives you a slight advantage in the job market as it makes you appear more culturally competent. I feel that most introverted individuals slow down and think of the practicality of what they are doing; however studying abroad is worthless if you can’t value the experience beyond its function on your resume. It is vital to package this experience in way that will make you competitive for a job or a graduate program, but remember to slow down and embrace the moments that will become treasured memories. Traveling as a student is an opportunity everyone should experience. You will not only learn about another culture, but you will learn to see the culture through the eyes of a local. Nonetheless, there will be a few bumps on this path to cultural wisdom.
|The Aqueduct in Segovia.|
Most people around me did not experience culture shock…I did. Like I said before, I am a planner. I take great comfort in knowing exactly what is going on around me. Unfortunately, my Spanish skills did not stretch beyond a 102 level. Most of the students who lived in my house were Spanish minors. Needless to say, they were fairly comfortable talking to locals and could easily communicate with our host mother. I felt incompetent and juvenile as I sat silently at the dinner table while the “grown ups” engaged in meaningful conversation with our host mother. It was even worse when I tried to speak to locals. There were times when I just froze midsentence, indicating my lack of Spanish fluency and my failure to conceal the fact that I stuck out like a sore American thumb. This all sounds unpleasant….it was. As time went by, I broke through that awkward, uncomfortable silence to reveal that I could speak a lot better than I thought. The trick is to talk despite the fact that maybe your accent muddies the clarity of your speech or maybe you asked the lady at the market for “trash” instead of “bag.” In my defense, “bolsa” and “basura” sound very similar.
|The view from our host mother's balcony!|
Aside from the obvious language barrier, the cultural differences were very manageable. Nonetheless, there are some worth mentioning for anyone who is thinking about going to Spain. For one, get used to the metro. Like any big city, the metro is the most practical method of travel, so it is normal to see a herd of people hopelessly packed into a tiny corner. As a southern American, I was raised to embrace the concept of “personal space.” In America, pushing your way through a crowd of people can lead to confrontation. In Madrid, there is a universal understanding that being pushed by someone does not indicate aggression, rather a genuine effort to get from point A to point B.
|The view from an overlook in Toledo|
Additionally, Spaniards’ paradigm of food deviates greatly from our American mindset. A meal is only for a moment. In other words, you sit down and eat all of your food at one time; there are no to-go boxes. It is not that people here take pleasure in dumping out food; they simply do not see the quality in a leftover meal that demands to be thrown in the microwave. Not every person thinks this way, but this mindset is fairly common.
|Stopping for a picture as we walked through the streets of Segovia.|
Making the decision to study abroad takes bravery and independence. Naturally, with bravery and independence come anxiety and fear…for some, at least. There are some people who never think twice about questing on a new adventure. They can board a plane and land in a foreign place without knowing where to go or how to speak the language. It is okay to feel scared and to shy away from locals at first. It is okay to crave that American familiarity. It is okay to feel out of place among people who belong. Earlier I talked about some individuals’ tendency to think about the practicality of their actions. This is such an adaptive strategy, but only in the right context. The art of adapting in a foreign environment requires you to ditch that safe practicality. Do things because you want to experience them (Nothing illegal). Who cares if locals are staring you down? Jump into a conversation with someone. Let go of the fear of appearing stupid when you don’t know exactly how to respond. Take the initiative to ride the metro somewhere new by yourself (during daylight). Explore. The moment you choose to untangle yourself from worry is the moment when you start to adapt to your new surroundings. In the last few weeks, I have started to speak Spanish more and more. I feel somewhat competent having a conversation with my host mom or asking for directions. I even mustered up the courage to explore the city on my own. I have realized studying abroad is not so much about how well you can fit into a culture; it is about how well you can adapt to the culture. Letting go of my anxiety of being viewed a certain way by locals has granted me amazing memories with some pretty awesome people. I am pleased to say that I have made the most out of my international experience. I hope all of you receive the opportunity to do the same.
UNCG in Spain