Adios to Assimilation: Embracing Cultural Differences Abroad

After 32 hours of traveling, I finally stepped off the plane and onto Spanish soil. Although exhausted and anxious, I was determined to appear a native Spanish speaker.

Looking the part was crucial, because it would have to make up for a minor complication: I sound like a five-year-old when I open my mouth. But come on, with my Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, how hard could blending in really be? I’d soon find out.

Walking through the metal detector, I was halted by a less-than-friendly voice instructing me, in no uncertain terms, to stop and await further instruction. My initial thought was that I would receive a quick search and be on my way, but the woman returned with a very serious associate.

The two walked towards the conveyer-belt holding all of my personal belongings hostage. My panic began to surface. The officials rummaged through my luggage with pursed lips until they stopped and broke into laughter. I was stunned.

‘‘Qué son estos,’’ she asked the man behind the computer monitor.

‘‘No sé,’’ he responded with a grin. She turned to me and repeated the question.

‘‘Ellos son Cowboy Boots,’’ I replied, trying to mask my embarrassment in broken Spanish.

It was as I’d always known: You can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the boy. Yet here I was, concentrating all my energy on attempting to fit in when I instead should have welcomed the cultural differences of a new country.

Spain was just as confused by me as I was by it. Many initial perceptions and expectations of me by my peers later proved to be inaccurate, like on the first day of my European Union class.  

This class was the source of much anxiety, simply because it was the only class I was taking in Spanish. As the teacher began to call roll, she passed over the Katies, Kaceys and Claires without interruption.

‘‘Juan-Enrique … Juan-Enrique,’’ she called.

The full name was unfamiliar to me, but I assumed I was the Juan-Enrique in question because of my status as the class’ only male and responded, ‘‘Presente.’’

A giant smile crossed my profesora’s face, ‘‘Muy bien, you are the first native Spanish speaker I have had in my class.’’

The entire class immediately dissolved into laughter. Though I’d been in the program for a short time, it was no secret that my Spanish speaking abilities are well below par. All I could do was smile and regretfully inform her how untrue her assumption was.  

The initial travel and introductions aside, perhaps the most strenuous aspect of studying abroad is having to consciously think about your words at all time. This is sometimes the case back home, like during a presentation or an interview. But when the words, phrases and frequency used by others are literally foreign to you, it becomes exhausting.

It’s especially tough when your host family isn’t able to communicate in your native language. If you want to communicate something but don’t know exactly how to say it in this unfamiliar language, you simply can’t without copious amounts of hand gestures and attempts to work with new words.

After a long day of classes and struggles through speaking Spanish, I returned home completely exhausted. One such time, my adorable madre española, Gloria, began a discussion of the U.S economy.

Gloria and I could usually go on for hours about our opinions, likes and dislikes, but today was different. After she went on for ten minutes, none of which I could muster the energy to understand, the phrase ‘‘I do not understand what you are saying’’ slipped out of my mouth.

Gloria responded with polite confusion at my English slip. “Qué?”

I smiled at her and said, with a smile, a shrug, and a surrender: “Dije que su comida es fantástica.’’

Going abroad is a very unique experience, and one that is nearly impossible to prepare for. When you enter a new country, you immerse yourself in a new set of cultural norms, people and ideologies. But these differences are not to be feared; they’re to be acknowledged and respected.

My advice? Don’t even try to assimilate into your new culture—it won’t happen, and you’ll be left disappointed and dejected. Rather, accommodate for, and accept, the present difference.

After all, isn’t difference why you came?

Juan Perez CM ‘17 is an Economics-Accounting major and a proud Stag of the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps football team.   

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