For my STEP Experience, I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain this past May Session. I went with Ohio State students and faculty; we stayed in an Argentinian dormitory very close to the heart of the city. The class focused on cultural issues, particularly Madrid as a melting pot of cultures and the hardships faced by immigrants from a wide variety of regions.
Before I visited Spain, I had never really been out of the country (aside from a weekend trip to Canada when I was about ten). I knew I was travelling to a well-developed European country, so prior to the trip, I never worried too much about many obstacles. I was not expecting the culture shock to be as surprising as it was. I think it first hit me when we were on a crowded metro and I realized I could not understand any of the side conversations occurring around me. The language barrier left me embarrassed many times, particularly when I was trying to ask for no pickles at a McDonald’s and only knew how to say “no green.”
As I stated, our residence was an Argentinian dorm, so most of its occupants were from Argentina. Many of them spoke at least some English; however most did not. We were served lunch and dinner at the residence, usually by two non-English speaking women. They spoke so incredibly fast and oftentimes it was difficult to recognize what exactly the food was. I usually was able to get through mealtimes by pointing at what I thought looked good and hoping for the best. One time in particular however, a group of us opted for some type of fish completely wrapped in foil. When we unwrapped it, we found it was an entire fish—eyes and all. This was another unfortunate result of the language barrier.
It was also difficult to communicate with the other staff at the dorm, such as the doorman. One night, I locked myself out of my room. It took a long, frustrating time to communicate this to the doorman who was eventually able to give me the spare key. Everyone was very willing to help, but it was difficult for them to offer assistance when we could not communicate what we needed. Another example of this is my confusing encounter with one of the cleaning ladies. I was in my bed, working on homework when she came in to clean the room. I tried to politely tell her she did not need to, as I was planning on staying. She apparently did not understand my request because she began to mop the floor and make the beds right around me—which led to a bit of an awkward experience.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone was as friendly as the dorm staff. One night we went out to a restaurant where the waiter actually spoke English, but he was incredibly rude. He treated us as if we were a waste of time and space. He told us multiple times to hurry up, rolled his eyes when we did not pay our bill as soon as he gave us the check, and spilled our drinks on us and our food multiple times. We learned that this may have been partially due to the fact that it is not commonplace to tip waiters, so customer service is not an aspect of Spanish culture the same way it is in America. However, some Spanish people just do not like foreigners—particularly Americans.
After reflecting back on these experiences, I realized how much they parallel the treatment of foreigners in America. I never realized how difficult simple, everyday tasks can be when you do not understand the native language. I was left with a much greater appreciation for immigrants and foreign visitors. I know that in the future I will treat them with much more patience and compassion. Additionally, I realized how hurtful it can be to be discriminated against and treated so poorly simply because I was foreign. I know I will seek to treat everyone fairly and stand up to those who are not doing the same. I have taken some Spanish in school, but being in Madrid has really inspired me to continuing my studies in the Spanish language. I hope to one day become an orthodontist, and I think being able to speak Spanish to my Spanish patients would make them feel much more comfortable and welcome in this great country.