Friends, I’ve experienced culture shock in Spain. In fact, I’m experiencing it now. All of my close friends and family members already know that I’m an open book. I like to talk about my struggles and as a highly sensitive extrovert (God that’s the weirdest combo, by the way. You have overwhelming feelings and aren’t afraid to verbalise them … sometimes not in healthy ways either), I always feel the need to talk out my feelings with at least 10 people. You add in the fact that some of these people speak only your second language, and it can feel isolating.
So instead of posting one of my fun travel posts, I’ve decided to push that one back a few days and write about what is actually happening. I promised you all that I would paint an accurate picture of what life in a foreign country is like. And culture shock is a part of that experience. Everyone experiences culture shock, we just all experience it in different ways. And some don’t want to or need to talk about it. However that’s not that case for me. So I figured I would share my experience here for several reasons.
- You may be living overseas and experiencing similar feelings. You are not alone.
- Perhaps you may be living in your home country, but some of your close friends or housemates may be foreigners. This may help you understand where they’re coming from a bit more.
- You may have experienced this in the past … ah nostalgia.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock, according to merriam-webster.com, “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” Now I will say that I’m not sure how much preparing would prevent this. It’s inevitable that you may grow weary and tired of the differences. I can only speak to my own experiences, but I will paint a picture for you of my two experiences with it.
In summer of 2015, I packed up all my things to move to Matagalpa, Nicaragua. In fact, that was the initial reason I learned to speak Spanish. I had the desire to not only live outside of the United States, but live in a culture with a different socio-economic status as the United States. At the time, I thought the only culture shock I would experience or was possible to experience was in relation to the poverty there. People have dirt floors, tin roofs and homeless children wander the streets. I remember thinking “well I’ve seen documentaries about third world poverty. It won’t shock me.” And I was right because it didn’t.
However I still experienced culture shock and I experienced it about three weeks in. It’s after your initial honeymoon stage with the country that you start to notice the little differences and they add up. Personal space and the language barrier are what did it for me. I remember riding the city bus and sitting right up against the side. A Nicaraguan girl sits down next to me and her arm is right up against mine the entire ride. I had no space on my side, so I couldn’t move. Yet it didn’t seem to bother her in the least bit. This would not happen in the US and of course made me a tad uncomfortable.
I also remember speaking Spanish and having a hard time understanding people, or having them understand me. In the end, I had to go back to the United States because my mom went to the hospital, but my time in Nicaragua will forever affect the way I see the world.
So because I had been to Spain once and experienced no culture shock (I was only there for two weeks, though) and had experienced culture shock in Nicaragua, I thought I could again avoid it here. Do you ever just laugh at your past self? I do all the time. While Spain and Nicaragua are both Spanish-speaking countries, their cultures have a lot of differences. I’m sure a Spaniard moving to Nicaragua and a Nicaraguan moving to Spain would also both experience culture shock.
I was completely right that the language barrier and personal space wouldn’t affect me that much. Yes, Spaniards do tend to not say sorry as much when they bump into each other, but overall it’s better than Nicaragua. And after a year working at a bilingual organization, my Spanish is now lightyears beyond what it was in Nicaragua. It’s still not perfect, but it bothers me way less when I don’t understand or need someone to repeat something.
At the end of the day, not all culture shock is the same. Different things in different cultures will wear on you in different ways. And while some may seem small, they can add up and seem bigger. So from now on as I continue traveling, I’m going to except something and not try to guess. Here are some of the things that have been wearing on me while in Spain.
I think I’ve noticed this one because children are a big part of my life here. I work at an elementary school three days a week and teach 12 hours of private English lessons each week and the majority of my students are children ages 3-8. And before I start this, I want to preface it by saying that I truly love working with children and all of my students have been a joy to get to know.
However having worked with children in the US, things are just different here. I worked at an elementary school in the US for two years, and the teacher I was in the classroom with was able to control the classroom calmly and without raising her voice. She set the boundaries and inspired the students to do their best work. Kids need boundaries and good examples for sure. She would use positive reinforcement (praising the kids doing what they were supposed to in front of everyone. Ex: “thank you to Johnny for standing in line quietly. I can tell that he is listening.” It’s magical because the other kids want that positive attention and start listening too).
Here in Spain, it’s not uncommon for teachers to yell. They yell when they are excited and yell when they are upset. One teacher I work with wants the students to repeat the vocabulary words loudly, for example. I think to him he thinks that loud=more engaged? And I don’t entirely think that’s false.
In general, children seem to have less boundaries than in the United States. I remember when I was waiting for my BlaBlacar in the Malaga train station a few weeks ago. There’s a McDonalds on the second floor food court and there was a birthday party happening. The kids were just running around in the open walkway area and the adults were doing nothing about it. As a teacher, I wanted so badly to tell them to stop … but of course that’s not my place, so I just ate and tried to read my magazine. And then one kid feel down and I couldn’t help to think “well, you are running around uncontrollably.” The Spanish Pizza Hut employee’s response was to ask him if he was okay. That was nice … I wasn’t feeling nice. I was feeling annoyed.
One of my private lessons I honestly dreaded each week because the oldest boy was very hard to work with. I will say that a majority of the kids I work with are fine and all of the parents are there to help me. They all tell me to let them know when their kids are misbehaving. That can be a hard one for me to use as I’m so used to controlling classroom behaviour on my own. I also find that I have to break the no Spanish rule I try to maintain and tell them to behave in Spanish. They respond better in their native language, of course.
Overall, though, it has been a joy to work with children and families here. I have gotten to know all my students a little better each week and have seen them all make improvements in their English. That makes me happy.
4. Cuisine variety
Those of you who live in the United States, please be thankful for all the food variety that you have. I can think of at least 25 different Indian restaurants in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. And Cincinnati is not some major city like Chicago. We’re just an average, mid-sized city in the Midwest. We also have Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and so many other choices. I think I always took for granted the variety I had when asked “where do you want to go for dinner?”
Here in Granada, there’s like one Indian restaurant. Furthermore, most Spaniards have not even tried Indian food. That just blows my mind. Every time I go to an Indian restaurant, it’s such a treat to me. The food is so amazing and good for you. You come home full and guilt-free. It’s the best.
So what’s my plan? 1. embrace the Spanish food in my town and 2. when given the opportunity, eat other cuisines and be thankful. 3. introduce my Spanish friends to Indian food.
3. What “on time” means
When planning to go out with a bunch of Spaniards, adjust what your definition of “on time” means. In US culture, if we say meet at 10:30, I may arrive at 10:45 at the latest. However with Spaniards, it’s best to tell them a half an hour or an hour ahead of when you actually want to meet. Here’s a good equation for you:
Time that you actually want to meet – an hour = the time you tell a Spanird to be ready. I need to employ this more.
2. Being the foreigner everywhere
So when you first arrive, you welcome all the “where are you from?” questions. However it does get old after awhile. Furthermore with me, I eventually want to just blend in. Like I would love to get to the point where I speak almost perfect Spanish with little to no accent. Of course that day is far off and when I’ve worked through all of this crap. However I still just am finding that more and more, I just want to blend in. Furthermore with the recent election, I find myself having to explain that crap to people. And sometimes I just don’t want to. So the other night, I was telling everyone I was from France which is CLEARLY not true. I have a very North American accent when speaking Spanish.
What to do? Just accept that you are “la Americana” and that mostly, it doesn’t mean anything bad.
1. Spain has racism too
So I am someone that hates racism with a passion and does all I can to stop it. This change occurred in me about five-six years ago when I was living in Washington, DC. I attended a weekend-long anti-racism workshop. This experience really got me to see how racism in the United States is a systemic thing and that I needed to be aware of my white privilege. Before that, I would have said that I was not personally racist. And that was true in part … I always accepted people with an open mind. However that workshop got me to re-evaluate my way of thinking and address some prejudices I wasn’t aware I had.
With the recent election and what has happened with African-Americans in our country over the last several years in regards to the police, I’ve had some conversations with Spaniards about this. They’re always like “oh yeah, I can’t understand why all that happens. It’s awful.” And now with the recent election of Donald Trump, the reality is that foreigners think that half our country is racist. Sorry, but it’s true.
At first, I would think “wow, they are really progressive. That’s awesome.” Then you see what they think about the Gypsies and the Chinese, and it just feels like it’s all a wash. Let me break down what I’ve seen with both people groups. Also I completely understand that I’m seeing this as a foreigner. However I still maintain the anytime you make an assumption about a person because of their race or where they come from, that is prejudice and it is not good.
- The Chinese: In recent years, lots of Chinese immigrants have been moving to Spain and starting up businesses here. Many of the convenience shops and “everything” type shops are owned by Chinese families. And of course there are also Chinese restaurants. What I hear from Spanish people is that their culture is way different than theirs, they all hang out together and don’t mix with Spanish people (which is totally normal in a foreign country and something Spaniards apparently also do when they are in the UK. Not surprised. It’s human nature to find people from your own culture in a foreign land) and they work hours that Spanish people don’t (through the siesta, on Sundays and on holidays). It’s normal for kids and sometimes adults to pull their eyes back imitating the eyes of a Chinese person. That has ALWAYS been VERY offensive to do in the United States. Bottom line, of course the Chinese have a different culture than the Spanish. However I don’t think one is more right than the other. Both are just very different.
- The Gypsies: In Spanish, the name is “los gitanos.” They are a people group who have been living in Europe for hundreds of years. They are thought to have emigrated from India originally, and their culture is vastly different from the rest of Europe. And so for generations upon generations, they have been discriminated against. There happen to be lots of them living in Southern Spain, and still people don’t have the nicest things to say about them. They often keep to themselves, probably because Spanish people aren’t nice to them. They have kept their traditions, many of which Spanish people don’t understand. And the general stereotype is that they are up to no good. And while some are thieves, many are just normal people living their lives. I will say that I do not have the whole story about them, . However I refuse to treat someone differently solely based on where they come from. I always prefer to get to know them first.
Anyone who knows me would have guessed that this would be the thing that grates on me the most. It’s just so important to me to treat all people with dignity and respect. And that includes the people group you’ve seen your parents and grandparents say mean things about all your life.
I will admit that this one is hard to get past. In the US, a new phrase has come about. It’s called “being woke” and it refers to an awareness of social issues. I’ve decided that instead of getting annoyed when Spaniards cannot focus the mirror on themselves, I’m just going to remember that they’re not quite “woke” on this yet. I will also remember that I’m not always “woke” on everything yet.
And moving forward
So the best thing to do when in the midst of culture shock is to take some time for yourself. It ebbs and flows, so it won’t be around forever. Get lots of rest, sleep and eat well. Take walks and just enjoy life.
Have you lived abroad and experienced culture shock?