In many ways, I think everyone is aware of the peering eyes on the metro, in a cafe, or walking down the street. Sometimes those stares may be genuine curiosity, sometimes an accidental thoughtless trance, but other times, often recognizably so, these stares can be judgment. I am not one to think the worst of people. I tend to give a lot of chances, allow forgiveness, chalk offensive or offputting comments off as ignorance and try to move past pettiness into a new day, but I have noticed some changes within myself while living here, a slight slipping away from my culture, reverting to introversion or shyness to avoid standing out. This slipping away can create some dark days that feel never-ending at the time, but it can also help us to reflect on what needs to be shifted in our environment. Therefore, I think it is important to know that the dark day’s end and sadness is impermanent. There are ways to feel a strong sense of belonging even when several thousands of miles away from comfortability.
I have been in Spain for four months now. I can walk around the city without a map. I have my favorite cafes and bars. I know where all my local grocery stores are and what stores I need to go to to get the different things I need. I have met and spent time with locals, tourists, and many other teachers, but I am still for all intents and purposes a visitor. I am not fluent in Spanish or even close, and I do not know all the customs and cultural norms that a Spaniard knows. Therefore, in many ways, feeling judged and like an outsider are inevitable to an experience such as this.
There are times when I will sit in the English lounge at my school feeling invisible because of all the Spanish conversations going on around me. It is easy to feel useless at these times or even unwanted. I find myself wishing so badly that my Spanish was better, feeling embarrassed that it’s not, and wanting to stay silent because of it. I wish that I could truly fit in and keep up with conversations or even hold friendships with people who aren’t fluent in English. I wish I wasn’t afraid to go on dates with guys who say their English is bad, but I still have things to learn, I still have cultural barriers to navigate around.
On particularly bad days, I will imagine that everyone knows I’m American and thinks I’m stupid because of it. There are all types of stereotypes against Americans: we don’t know geography, we all own guns, we are too enthusiastic about everything, and we get too drunk when we go out. Of course, these stereotypes are not held by everyone, and there is a good majority of people who know that it takes actually getting to know a person to really understand them, but sometimes simply knowing these stereotypes exist, makes me wearier to avoid fitting into them. It is important to remember that stereotypes are not only present for Americans but for every country, every culture. Day by day they can be overcome by continuing to learn and decrease ignorance. I believe that it helps to understand that every foreigner in Madrid is in relatively the same boat. We all worry about the judgment cast against us as we try to fit into a new culture. Kowing and experiencing this for myself has helped me alleviate my fear and feel more at home here, but it wasn't always like this for me.
During a period of culture shock, I closed myself off to the outside world. I spent most of my time in my apartment, and when not in my apartment, I hung out with only Americans who I thought would help me feel not so alone. During these days, it felt like I had never left my country. I avoided Spanish as much as possible and went to as many English-speaking places as possible. I was not happy because I was not truly living in Madrid. So what changed?
One day I was faced with the vast amount of time I still had left here, and I decided that continuing about how I was living would make me truly miserable so I decided to become uncomfortable. I began practicing my Spanish online with native-Spanish-speakers, growing more comfortable with my ability to understand and reciprocate a response. I expanded my social circle and began talking to more people, more non-American people. I planned more trips to help me have things to look forward to. I began walking around the city more and avoiding public transportation as much as possible. I took things in, I noticed more, I fell more and more in love because I began to get less and less afraid. There is a beautiful thing about starting over in a totally new country… a chance to reinvent and embrace true honesty, embrace a true self-identity. The past doesn’t matter, past mistakes don’t exist. It is you: whoever you want to be, however you feel inside, whatever beautiful true self you want to show to the world.
Lately, I have been discussing cultural stereotypes with the non-Americans I meet, gathering their opinions on these labels, and finding out some of the labels that are put on their cultures. To me, this helps me to truly grasp the complex and broad range of labels that exist globally and not just against Americans. I have found through these conversations how accepting most people actually are towards Americans, how amazing they think our country and culture are, and how much they want to visit if they haven’t already.
I have found the cultural fluidity in Madrid to be the most beautiful part of living here. There are quite literally people from all over the world living in this massive city, and most of them are all looking to make friends and expand their cultural circle. One of my favorite things to do in my free time is getting tapas and drinks with someone completely different from me and just talking about our lives, our countries, our cultures. It’s crazy how easy it is to build friendships this way, and if not friendships, then to have meaningful, inspiring conversations that help reshape a reality that previously felt incomplete. I would recommend that any newcomer to Madrid, check out Intercambio events through Citylife Madrid, become a part of Facebook groups such as Auxiliaries de Conversacion en España, start a conversation with someone new at a bar, or join an app like Bumble Bff or Tinder. It can be easy to stay in a little bubble with only familiar people, friends from home, or even people who share the same native language as us, but I believe it is so important to not do that. My greatest stories in Spain have occurred when I was not feeling completely comfortable, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.
This whole process of living abroad and ultimately starting a new life away from home is about growth. There is not a single day I am not growing here. I know English auxes who absolutely love their job, their school, their flat, the people they surround themselves with and are trying to make a permanent home here. I know others who are homesick, tired of work, and frankly tired of living abroad, but not a single person I have met regrets taking the chance to live here, to face the struggle, and to grow in the midst of challenge. The people who chose to live abroad already know that it will be hard, I think most of us like challenges and thrive in difficulty, but all of us took a risk that the vast majority of people will never take and that in itself is a huge accomplishment. An accomplishment that no one should ever be ashamed or embarrassed by. An accomplishment that is life-shaping and will be remembered for a lifetime to come.