When I decided to study abroad, my goal was to improve my Spanish language skills. I have definitely achieved that goal, and in some ways even exceeded the expectations I had for myself, but I’ve also learned a lot of other things that I didn’t expect. Maybe I should have realized it before departure, but travelling across the ocean alone to live in a different country for four months involves acquiring a lot more skills than just speaking the language. An immersion experience by definition immerses all of you—not just the language processing part of your brain. As it finally hits me that my semester abroad is coming to a close in a few short weeks and I get a little nostalgic and contemplative already, looking at photos and rereading journal entries and blog posts from January, I am able to see the tangible effects of just how much more than Spanish I’ve learned while in Spain.
In general, I’ve learned to be more relaxed during my time abroad, which I think has been one of the most beneficial lessons, and something I’m glad to bring back to the U.S. with me. I am type-A and organized to a fault and live a very structured life in Chicago. However, that just doesn’t work in Spain. The culture of free time, drinks and tapas, and valuing friends on the street over punctuality has been a hard adjustment, and I still am not completely comfortable with it—I’m always searching for something to keep me busy, and I panic at the thought of endless empty hours. But I’m getting better about it, and re-learning how to relax. I’m much more open to “wasting” time, being a little late, saying yes to last-minute plans, and trying new things. Being more relaxed also extends to how I react when things go wrong. A cancelled flight that caused us to lose a whole day in the void of the Amsterdam airport wasn’t the end of the world, and neither was a pickpocketing experience that led to my journal of my time abroad being lost. Life goes on even when it’s not according to plan, and the easy- (or easier-) going mentality I’ve picked up in Spain has taught me to roll with the punches in a way that my regimented U.S. mentality didn’t allow for.
I’ve also learned a lot about humor during my time abroad. These lessons have come from two sources: firstly, having no choice but to laugh when things go horribly wrong thanks to language barriers or airport struggles; secondly, realizing that it’s a lot harder for me to be funny in Spanish than in English. It’s hard to translate humor from one culture to another, even if you know how to say the same words in both. Sarcasm, especially, has been tough for me to pull off in Spanish; I end up getting a lot of serious replies to joking statements. Additionally, cultural references are essentially worthless, and usually end in blank stares. However, despite being able to make less jokes, I laugh much more. Laughter is universally understood, and sometimes your choices are limited to laughing or crying, so why not make the best of the fact that you’re unexpectedly going to be spending a night in the airport hotel, enjoy the breakfast buffet that the airline paid for, and smile about it? And, of course, I’d like to think I laugh more because I’ve made funny friends, although with my American sensibilities, sometimes their humor goes right over my head, just like mine goes over theirs.
The pace of culture I mentioned above is also one of the biggest examples of how living in Spain has taught me about the States. I now have a new point of reference, and I can see just how rigid and productivity-oriented we really can be. So much of life in the U.S., from the schedule of daily life, to our ideas of politeness, is structured around saving time and keeping busy. Being productive is highly valued, which isn’t necessarily bad, but I didn’t realize how engrained that mentality was until I came to Spain and realized how not productivity-oriented other places can be. Socio-politically speaking, learning about and seeing firsthand universal healthcare and a more-functional school system in action, along with a more evenly matched ratio of salary to price-of-living, has helped me to understand why Americans are as work-focused as they are. Health insurance and saving for college occupy a huge part of the American consciousness in a way that can’t be found here, and without those anxieties constantly looming, there is room for priorities to shift. This isn’t to say that Spain is without anxieties, as the impacts of the economic crises of the past decade are still widely felt, and about 40% of Spaniards live on less than 700€ per month, but there are key differences that both cause and are caused by the differences in culture as well.
All of the things above have also led me to learn about my own values. Being stripped of the cultural context, social supports, and language I’ve known my whole life left me with only myself. Not having old friends, family, or society reflecting back at me meant I had a chance to look more clearly at my own priorities. I think that self-reflection is the sum of all the smaller lessons above, and also the most important lesson from my time abroad. Whether that be learning to enjoy unstructured time, realizing that I’m capable of organizing a ten-day, three-city vacation with a tiny budget and tinier backpack, or figuring out how to explain being nonbinary in a gendered language, I’ve grown and learned immensely in this semester. I’m sad to be leaving Spain so soon, and am already trying to figure out ways to come back, but I’m also excited to see how I’ll re-translate myself and the lessons I’ve learned back into American culture.
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