Vol. CLIII, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Studying abroad goes beyond “Spanish” to “global” culture

Let’s say you’re a Whitman student preparing to study abroad in Europe. You’re armed with your “500 Verbs;” you can conjugate and express uncertainty (sort of). Maybe you’ve skimmed a few recent headlines about your country of choice, but let’s be honest: You can’t wait to snap that first shot by the Eiffel Tower, or sip cappuccino by the Colosseum. You can’t help it. The “Old World” still inspires that sort of thrill, especially for West Coasters like me who consider 75-year-old architecture more or less “historic.” I arrived in Madrid ready for tapas, flamenco shows and Semana Santa (Holy Week) revelries. I marveled at the tall, palatial structures lining a street older than my state, and was, as many Americans would be, duly horrified to see that some of them contained Starbucks.

Here’s the catch: It may seem like sacrilege that sleazy exports like McDonalds are springing up near renaissance cathedrals, and even in China’s Forbidden City. But it’s also old news, and besides, globalization is more far-reaching than fast food.

That’s what was on my mind the other day during our seminar on la actualidad española, in which my fellow international students and I gather to discuss such topics as the Spanish political system and how not to get our prepaid cell phones stolen on the metro. Its primary function is to teach us how to integrate into Spanish culture, or at least not comport ourselves like complete extranjeros, or foreigners.

“Seventy percent of communication is non-verbal,” the professor reminds us. Pointing to a pie chart with a 30 percent slice labeled “verbal,” he prompts, “How can this be?”

We discuss body language: for instance, Americans have certain inhibitions about personal space that often translate into our speech, as well. I started off making indirect requests like podría tener éste, por favor (could I please have this) instead of using the more up-close-and-personal dámelo (give it to me). Fashion is also a factor. In a city where elderly women don furs and high-heeled boots just to sort through the sales rack and even some preschoolers wear pea coats, you tend to stand out for wearing that college t-shirt.

Students on my program have probably been taking some version of this course for years, swapping advice not only on how to speak: but also dress and act: more Spanish. Yet Spain itself has undergone some radical changes in that time period, and cities like Madrid are home to people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, not simply Spanish (or Basque or Catalan). So just as we study abroad students are trying to acquaint ourselves with what it means to lead an essentially “Spanish” lifestyle (whatever that might mean) Spain is trying to adjust to its own budding multi-culturalism after decades of isolation under Franco.

As someone who appears obviously foreign, I’ve spoken to waiters, taxi drivers, etc. in sentences I know to be at least grammatically correct, only to have them address my native speaker friend as if I need a translator. Among our seminar professor’s favorite expressions is, “no sois turísticos, sois estudiantes” (you’re not tourists, you’re students), but today I sat in a café reading a medieval Spanish epic without a dictionary and the barista still asked me in English if I was finished with my drink.

In the last few weeks as I’ve felt more at ease in Madrid, it has started to dawn on me what an uphill battle new arrivals must fight. Even if you try to blend in here, the attitude many extranjeros still face is one of you’re not fooling anybody.

I may be a student, but I’m really just visiting, not trying to start a new life. Not so for the more than five million immigrants who have settled here over the past decade. And when I think of all the gradients of race and class by which newcomers are so often judged, I guess I’d rather be asked if I’m looking for my hotel than struggle to make a living by hawking one euro beers on street corners, as do some recent immigrants from China.

Spain has undergone a massive demographic shift since immigration spiked between 2000 and 2009 (it has since slowed due to the global recession). During that time, the country’s immigrant population swelled from about two percent to 12 percent. Despite the influx, however, many Spanish cities remain relatively homogenous, with immigrants, many from North Africa and Latin America, occupying the predictable fringes of mainstream society.

Although ethnic tension is comparatively low in Spain, so too is an appreciation for diversity. Even young Spaniards tend to refer to all persons of Asian descent as “chinos,” a term also applied to the corner stores or alimentaciones often run by immigrant shopkeepers.

It’s true that real communication is not only about language, but neither is bias; just ask an immigrant from Ecuador. I’ve had several “native” Spaniards try to explain to me the differences between “good” and “bad” Spanish, implicitly citing the supposedly inferior quality of Spanish spoken in Latin America. A Pomona student in my class whose parents were born in Guatemala said she expected to stand out for being “too brown” in Spain, although she speaks fluent Spanish.

Studying abroad may be all about understanding another culture, but as globalization speeds up, that won’t be restricted to just one. In other words, Spain may be known for its paella, but it probably offers an even greater selection of döner kebab. It’s important to focus not only on attaining a holistically Spanish or other kind of singular experience, but to savor what we’ve long referred to in the States as the melting pot.

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