Coping With Culture Shock
The recognition I receive from others in my way of taking on this drastic shift in my life is truly one of the things that keeps me going everyday. I know the recognition is not something to dwell on, but even the smallest words of encouragement change the course of my day. I wake up so many mornings still floundering to grasp the whole concept of a semester abroad. The irony in feeling lucky for being able to live through such a demanding experience is the pinnacle concept I struggle to wrap my head around. When I first started writing this blog, I wanted to share a true account of my experiences as a foreign exchange student because what I found documented online was a collection of only the best and most marketable moments that other students had experienced.
Referring back to the words of encouragement, I want to share a story of a special moment in my Spanish classroom. Of all the Wednesdays I have been in school here, there was one that completely changed the course of my journey in Spain. I had spent the whole day asking my friends and teachers to explain to me the subjunctive mood of the Spanish language (a grammatical formation commonly used to describe events/feelings of uncertainty, doubt, and desire). I had studied the subjunctive in school through our many grammar lessons, but I found that natives used the tense in more situations than the rote textbook examples I had memorized. The irony of the situation, however, was that none of my friends could explain to me what the subjunctive was; in their defense, I was unable to explain the difference between “will” and “going to” in English grammar. I know this seems like an easy explanation, but if you think about it, there are places where both forms of the future tense are interchangeable and places were they are not.
Given most people did not know what to tell me when I asked for help, I turned to my Spanish Language and Literature teacher Pedro. He pulled me out of one of my classes and generously gave me a private lesson. When I told him most of my classmates knew nothing of this subject, he decided to go over it in class. On this Wednesday, literature was the last period of the day, and my classmates, who had expected to receive a lecture on the Romanticism period, were confused when Pedro started drawing a verb conjugation chart on the board. When asked what he was doing, Pedro told the class that he was taking advantage of both the fact that I was learning Spanish and the fact that none of my classmates knew concretely what the grammatical forms were (although they obviously use it conversation all the time). The class was in a more bantering mood and did not take the lesson too seriously. I expected Pedro to take that as a hint to move on and continue with the lesson because I felt guilty of robbing class time for something everyone around me was already adept at applying in conversation. When my classmates expressed to Pedro a sense of annoyance at being taught something they were already extremely familiar with, he stopped writing on the board and looked at the class in silence.
A minute passed before he said: “En mis treinta años como profesor en este colegio, nunca he conocido a una estudiante tan interesada o persistente en aprender el idioma como Vismaya. Mira, hay tres cosas que son muy difíciles para ella aquí: el idioma obviamente, la gente, y la cultura” (“In my thirty years as a teacher at this school, I have never met a student as interested or persistent in learning the Spanish language as Vismaya. Look, there are three things here that are very difficult for her: the language obviously, the people, and the culture.”) He said more, but these two sentences verbatim are forever engraved in my mind for many reasons. I could not have been more overjoyed to hear that from my own teacher. I don’t mean to share this story in a bragging light, but rather to share the power recognition has played in my journey here as an exchange student. Knowing that others understand what you are going through is quite possibly the greatest ally in helping one cope with the ongoing feelings of disorientation, anxiety, doubt, and sadness.
Never did I think that others would consider the depth of my difficulties here, and Pedro truly hit the jackpot. The language has obviously been the biggest challenge; my lack of fluency has engendered a myriad of situations where I’ve found myself flailing in the deep waters desperately awaiting a lifeboat. One of the most salient shifts in my life has been the expansion of my network of family, friends, acquaintances, and contacts. Over the past two months, the mere number of people from different backgrounds and places I’ve met has galvanized within me the strongest desire to travel more and fall in love with the world. What I’ve realized in my many encounters with others is that I am a first for them as well. Most of these people have never met an exchange student, let alone an exchange student with a dual heritage. So many of the things I’ve heard through my many conversations do not align with the values, ideas, customs, and concepts I have spent my whole life accustomed to. I’ve had my fair share of days when I come home and just lie down on my bed replaying a conversation that did not go well; possibly a disagreement on a cultural topic or erroneous assumptions made by both parties, these moments have proved to be the best teachers.
Culture is quite possibly one of the most beautiful things the world has to offer. The general pattern that has prevailed through my experiences is the stronger sense of fondness for a specific culture that arises through more exposure to said culture. What makes culture so beautiful it its ubiquitous status as a presence in almost all communities, yet the diversity in the plethora of customs, thoughts, beliefs, practices, and values. I am still getting to know Spanish culture; what poses itself to be one of the hardest parts of being a foreigner in a new country is the sudden label you are attributed with. I never asked to represent the United States before I embarked on this journey, but to many people, I come as a representative of the United States ready to answer their questions or defend my country (neither of which I came to do). Comparisons are abundant, yet necessary. While I don’t like having to answer as an American ‘delegate’, I see no other way of understanding the Spanish culture without using another culture as a benchmark to note the differences and similarities.
So many things about Spanish life and the general way of thinking here have greatly surprised me. Owing to the fact that many of these are delicate subjects to dance around, I want to avoid going into much detail in an effort to avoid instigating animosity or debates. Many things I have heard while here have been quite a shock for me. The perspectives on historical events, the beauty standards, the regional views on other nationalities, and the perceptions people have here of other countries have all completely stunned me, contributing immensely to the wave of culture shock.
One thing that this experience has really taught me is that there is such a difference between visiting a place abroad and living abroad. Visiting a place gives you insight in a more superficial tone of the best things a region has to offer, and it provides you with a sense of adventure fueled by the planned escapades and the inevitable return back home when you check yet another place off your bucket list. Living abroad requires you to dig deep to plant your own branches in foreign soil that may not prove itself to be a perfect fit right away. The most beautiful difference I’ve come to notice is that living abroad teaches you more about your own country than the one you’ve moved to. Visiting a place or ‘travelling’ to another country teaches you superficially about the said country while living abroad opens your eyes to so many new perspectives and I am able to see the United States through a different light.
Being away from home has been both hard and rewarding. I have never lived away from my parents nor do I have any family in Spain. As I continue to get accustomed, I remind myself of all the blessings I have in my life. While I’ve lost touch with many back home, so many people have lovingly accepted me and have gone out of their way to do things for and with me. I feel five again, wandering through the streets of a new city feeling absolutely enamored by everything. Part of me wishes to stop moments of time when I am so blissfully engaged by the ongoings of my new life only to completely soak in the feelings before I am whisked back home. It’s absolutely crazy to know that I am living one of the hardest dreams I ever prayed for.
This is a picture of the beautiful city Badajoz that has adopted me. I have learned so much in the short time I’ve gotten to know this city. It breaks my heart to know I’ll be leaving soon.