Making Friends with Locals (Classmates)
I certainly had the highest hopes for this branch of my life in Spain: my social life. Having researched so many blogs and vlogs of high school students who had studied abroad in Spain, I had this magical idea that people would naturally flock to me, given I was the new one. The unique one. There certainly were instances when I first arrived of people rushing to greet me and introduce themselves to me, but I found that this sensation soon wore off.
All the blogs and vlogs I had researched before arriving in Spain provided a very superficial view of study abroad experiences, in that they only showed off the best parts of the experiences (students flocking around with their large friend groups, going out every night to meet their friends, traveling around the country with their local friends, etc.). Part of the reason my first day of school went worse than I had expected was because the reality of my situation did not match the magical ideal that I had in my head of being an exchange student.
In focusing only on my status as a fluent English speaker (a novelty in a small town like Badajoz) and how this would make me the “special one”, I failed to realize that when entering this already-established school community, my classmates were just as consumed by a sense of fascination and anxiousness as I was because of their own expectations. They told me in the days following that I was the first real exchange student in their class. Having had a chance to reflect on this, I realize now that it was not fair on my part to walk into this new world, placing my expectations upon a group of people who hardly knew me and yet took it upon themselves to accept me into their fold. In other words, befriending others and forming friendships was not only up to my classmates; it was also up to me to make the effort to talk to others and step out of my comfort zone to speak in a language that I was not fluent in.
It’s been weird for me to accept the fact that I am the new person who needs to mould herself in order to fit into this new world. Moving to this new town in Badajoz provided me with a sense of obscurity that I lacked back home; no one here knew who I was, which in itself provided me with the blankest of slates upon which to slowly unleash parts of my personality as I grew into the language. In fact, my classmates were only informed of my new status as an exchange student the morning I arrived. The first friend I made here was undoubtedly my neighbor Alberto, with whom I walk with school every day. That morning, as we entered the school grounds, I remember meeting the director at the entrance and staying by the director’s side in hopes that I would be taken to class by him. I remember being really pleasantly surprised that instead of leaving me with the director and scurrying off to class, Alberto stayed behind and offered the director to take me to class. Upon taking me to class, he introduced me to my “tutor” (counselor) here, who gave my a tour of the school.
In class, I introduced myself in English to everyone, and I remember several girls in class crowding around me as soon as the bell rang; a couple tried to speak to me in English while most of them quietly observed and watched. I sit in the back of the classroom, near some of the louder boys of the class, and I remember them having a loud reaction to my English accent when I introduced myself, but as I sat in class the first two weeks, they barely spoke to me. The first friends I made in class were those who spoke English. The whole time I’ve been in Spain, people have been telling me that they really like my English accent and way of speaking, as I tend to speak slowly and enunciate my words thoroughly when I speak here. Sticking with those who spoke English the first couple weeks, I was often in a conflicted state of mind because I could not tell if these people befriended me in order to practice their English or because they genuinely wanted to get to know me; much like anyone, I did not want to be used, but the strong sense of loneliness I felt made me desperate to hold on to any connection I made, no matter how minor it was.
My boredom in class would often lead me to distract myself with other activities such as writing, drawing, or designing (clothes). As I did what I was naturally drawn to, I remember people coming up to simply to observe what I was doing. They would often comment on what I did, but my limited vocabulary barely allowed me to string more than two words together as a response. I started to feel more comfortable around the people who came up to check in on me, and more people (who previously showed some sense of timidity or shyness in talking to me) started conversing with me, even if it was in very broken English. Between their broken English, their perfect Spanish, and my broken Spanish, we were able to form conversations.
This is a compilation of most of the pictures I have with some of the nicest people I’ve met in Spain. I’ve had a conversation with every single one of the people in these pictures, and they have been so helpful towards me, always responding patiently and encouraging me to learn from the many mistakes when I speak in Spanish.
Two of the first people who consistently tried to speak to me were my classmates Lucia G and Elena, both of whom sit close in proximity to me. Lucia has been so helpful in explaining everything that goes on in class, periodically turning around to ask me if I understood everything and if I need any translating. Elena has been one of the most inclusive people I’ve met here, waiting for me to leave the classroom before break and being willing to help me. I’ve made more progress with the boys next to me, as they try to talk to me now and periodically make conversation with me when I feel bored. Of course, Javi, Lucia (the one with whom I went out), and one of my other friends here (Sara) have been instrumental in helping me understand conversation and inviting me to go out with them. I’ve found myself noting all the smallest acts of kindness performed towards me, remembering each and every single one of them, although they may be very small in the grand scheme of things.
There still are a few classmates of mine with whom I have never spoken. I don’t know why or what this is a function of, but I’ve learned to accept that not everything flows as magically as what appears online. This also brings me back to a conversation I had with Miri (the lovely lady who picked me up at the airport in Madrid); she told me that in Spanish settings, the concept of “fake friendships” is less prevalent than it is in American settings. Given Miri studied abroad in California her junior year of high school, I’m taking her word, and so far, it’s proven to be true. People who don’t want to talk to me simply don’t talk to me; they don’t introduce themselves with sweet words while mumbling about me behind my back to their friends.
I always start writing these blog posts with the intention of keeping them short, but it always ends in my own personal revelation that I have a lot to say. Navigating the language barrier has been one of the most intricately challenging experiences I’ve faced. Learning to converse with locals has, of course, brought its fair share of ups and downs. It’s been a very endearing experience to be lovingly “shaped” into a Spaniard by my classmates; my classmates Diego and Dani teach me Spanish phrases while a very helpful Lucia often translates for me. Most of these kids also cheer me on, as if I was a part of their family. I remember taking a test in PE about the history of handball, and the teacher announced to me (and the class) that I had scored a 9.5/10, to which my classmates loudly responded by cheering and applauding. At times, this brings me back to the first memorable phrase said about me in the Spanish classroom: “teneis que cuidarla, vale?”, said by my English teacher and counselor Juan to my classmates on the morning of my first day. Many moments have passed where I’ve felt cared for and incredibly grateful for the people I’m with.
I still feel very lonely sometimes, even guilty. My classmates here already have their own groups, connections, and friendships; I certainly don’t want them to feel obligated to accept me as part of the community. At the same time, I have some hope that that they understand the difficulty of my situation in entering into this new environment with all my family and friends across the Atlantic Ocean; this hope certainly hasn’t disappointed, as people have offered me help in so many ways. I remember coming home my first day of school to quite a few of my classmates privately messaging me, offering me help with any of my classes or things in general. I’ve been very lucky to talk to people who help me without expecting anything in return. So when it comes to making friends with locals, I can say without a doubt that I’ve made friends here, but I’m more curious now to see how these friendships play out and grow. My most heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s made some part of my first three weeks in Spain special.