Four years ago, I moved to Spain. In the UK, I had wanted to become a teacher. Applying for jobs and schemes usually had the same result though – ‘looking for someone with experience’. How can you get that experience if you can’t get the job in the first place? However, I soon saw a light shining at the end of a tiny tunnel. A conversation assistant in a Spanish school: great! That’ll give me something to pop on my CV. I’ll go back after a year.
Four years later, and there I still was. TEFL-qualified, experienced, and loving it. Barcelona is full of charms, and I am incredibly glad of my decision to move there. It helped me learn a language, blend into another culture, and taught me so many things.
Four years ago, I was also looking down other small tunnels, in the maze of life. One such was the opportunity to teach in South Korea, as a guest English teacher on a state school programme. I applied, and was interviewed. I pulled out because I was scared. I pulled out because I didn’t think I’d be able to be that far away from home, to live in a culture so different to my own. I pulled out because I told myself I couldn’t do it, and I wasn’t experienced enough. There’d always be someone better.
Four months ago, I began again. I believed in myself enough to apply for a position in South Korea, and wanted it enough to know that I could do it. I wanted to live in another place, experience such a new world, learn a new language, and better myself as a teacher. South Korea, an economic powerhouse steeped in tradition, but pushing itself ever forward into the modern world of technology, beckoned me. So off the radar as a tourist destination, I believed it would give me a true glimpse of life on another side of the globe.
Four months later, here I am, back in the UK, after weeks and weeks of preparation. I’ll leave all that for another day – the hoops I’ve had to jump through, and the endless paperwork I’ve almost wept tears of frustration over, have given me enough stress to last a lifetime and even two panic attacks. Four months later, however, here I am with visa in hand (well, it’s on my desk), and a position with the Busan Metropolitan Office of Education. I’m €700 worse off (not even including the flight), but my heart is lighter and sings with happiness: I did it! I got there! I’m still pinching myself over it.
So now you all know: one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet on here recently. I was planning. Plotting. Scheming for my next great adventure.
After three years in this country, I’m obviously getting very used to my way of life here, and enjoying it a lot. I love how laid-back the culture is, the fantastic food, the sociable aspect of life, and the fact that Catalans don’t take anything too seriously…it’s actually quite similar to home, in many ways. However, there are some things that I find, as a Brit especially, difficult to adjust to. One of the mistakes people make when moving abroad is to say ‘why can’t this just be like home?’, because such a thing will never happen, and this is not my intent. I simply wish to draw attention to the differences for storytelling purposes – it’s only my experience. There are some things that take time to become habit, and some things I even find nigh on impossible to accept. There are also many things that my adoptive country does that are better than those my own does, I hasten to add. Why else would I be here? However, I do find it amusing that a country so close to my own can be so different at times, despite only having an hour’s time difference between the two.
Bars, pubs, and clubs are amazing here, mostly because I’m in Barcelona, which is like hipster central and has oodles of cool hang-outs, particularly in the centre, where I’d find myself the poorest person in the world should I decide to ever live there, as such an abundance of places to sip wine and vermut while munching on olives is never going to be good for the pocket. However, if you decide to go ‘out out’ in Spain, beware. Adjust your schedule some three hours later to what you normally follow. In the UK, we start drinking relatively early compared to those here, and I’ve only just started to get used to that. I made the cardinal mistake of starting at UK times, and suffice to say that at 1am I frequently pined for my bed. What’s the problem, you say? That’s not too early to call it a night. The problem is that here, nobody will even be in the club at that time. You don’t go home until about 6am. The party don’t start ’til the locals walk in at roughly 3/4am. I went to a few clubs earlier than this time, only to be met with a wild west style tumbleweed/tense shootout music moment. No amount of Red Bull makes me capable of staying up until 7am, and the exhaustion the next day is intense.
Trying to get your items bagged before the person serving you starts scanning the next person’s is a challenge that is worthy to have been shown on Gladiators. The stress you feel while attempting to shove your items away, paying for them, and getting out the way, is roughly about the same as I imagine I’d feel if being chased by a bear. Yesterday, when shopping, three people were trying to pack their shopping away after having paid, while the cashier began scanning the next person’s. Going to do the shopping is just an intense version of Supermarket Sweep, but only at the checkout, as in the rest of the shop you’re guaranteed to be held up by someone spanning the entire aisle with their trolley, unaware there are about ten people waiting to get past.
Tutting as a general concept doesn’t exist (there isn’t a word for it, so it’s obviously not done if it doesn’t warrant being incorporated into a language), so I’m confused as to what to do when needed to express displeasure at a person’s actions. If I were Spanish enough, I’d probably just tell someone I didn’t like what they were doing, but Brit clammy hands at the idea of speaking to someone I don’t know, let alone reprimanding them, prevent me from doing this.
Aside from being one of my favourite words (look at how many letters there are when all is pronounced is the letter ‘q’!), on another branch of etiquette, the beloved queue is a beast unknown, or at least one that those here are unsure how to tame. I was vaguely surprised to see a queue forming for the bus last time I went back to the UK, before I remembered that that’s how things are done over there. Here, it’s every man for himself. I often end up boarding last due to my ‘no, no, after you’ habits. I must toughen up and barge on in front of pushchair-weilding mothers, and ignore the elderly, if I really want to make it here.
Spaniards tell you how it is, and I respect them for this very much, but I also am not used to being direct with people. The subtle, seemingly polite language used in the UK when expressing disapproval, which everybody but foreigners understands, is something I’ve (quite happily) left behind. Old habits die hard, however, and it’s frustrating that nobody understands that when I begin a sentence with ‘no offence’, the following ideas are supposed to be taken offensively. Or if I ‘respectfully disagree’, nobody understands that I think the person is a fool. Equally, no fights over who must take the last biscuit here would ever break out. The last item on the plate, called ‘la vergonya’ in Catalan (the embarrassment) is taken by whoever wants it, unabashedly. The first time I launched into a ‘no, you take it’ debacle, I was flabbergasted to see they actually took it. Therefore, I can now take the last food item on a plate without feeling deep shame, which is a fantastic feeling.
Even after three years here, I still hate kissing people on both cheeks. A sturdy handshake is favoured, and I am now in the awkward position where, even if I meet one of my own countrymen, I’ll go for the cheeks, leaving us both to wonder what we have been possessed by. I am now in a limbo where I feel bad if I don’t kiss somebody, but I loathe doing it. Going to a party, or a social situation where one must do the rounds and kiss the entire room, makes meeting up with people a nightmare. Ten minutes of kissing is more than I can bear. Stealing away into the night without having to say the typical Spanish/Catalan goodbye is a success story, in my opinion.
These, to name but a few, are some of the things I have most struggled to adjust to. Of course, these things are nothing but trivial, and amusing for the most part. I can imagine if I were to have moved halfway around the world, the culture clash would have been much greater, so I am lucky to only experience such tiny, and oftentimes amusing differences between our cultures. I’d be interested to hear from others living either in Spain, or other countries, what they have found the most difficult to get used to in their day to day life, aside from language and obvious things that separate you from your host country. Ultimately, these differences help me appreciate the country I am living in, and the country I am from, that little bit more.
In the current climate, immigration is an unavoidable topic. As the world seems to get smaller, with people moving more freely and countries in general becoming more diverse, it is bound to come up as a discussion point. However, for me, it seems to be something that people discuss in a more negative manner. I see this particularly reflected on social media and through the Internet, always there to give us the most radical views at the click of a button.
I get compositions handed in from students stating it makes them feel nervous to hear languages they don’t understand spoken on the street, that there are neighbourhoods becoming overrun with immigrants. I have heard this a million times over in the UK – the typical, usual complaint that at one point I thought might have had some truth in it. Being pressured by the news, social media, peers, and general public opinion means you form a one-sided opinion that generally only reflects a small part of the issue.
The message, at least to me, is clear – the word ‘immigrant’ isn’t usually used to describe someone from a wealthy, majority ‘white’ country. Whilst reading what one of my students was writing about immigrants – that they have to get a visa to come here, that they speak their own language in the street, that they take over neighbourhoods, I had to stop myself from writing that I didn’t need a visa to come here, and I was still an immigrant. That I spoke my language in the street, and nobody cared. In fact, they encouraged me to speak in it. They spoke back to me in it. They urged me to speak in it to them, so they could hear me use it, and practise it. I had to fight from writing that large areas in the city have become overrun by English speakers, too, but nobody minds. Nobody cares.
After reading so much about immigration, and hearing so many people complain about what it is doing to their culture, their traditions, and so on, I wanted to write about what it is like to be an immigrant – because it is what I am, even if people don’t seem to want to give me that title.
General Public Opinion #1 – Immigrants Should Learn the Language of the Host Country
I totally agree with this statement. However, I don’t agree with people’s expectations. They seem to think that if a person comes to another country, they should be fluent in the language already and not have any problems with bureaucracy, filling in forms, conversing with the doctor, and all the kinds of things absolutely necessary to become a citizen in the host country. I’ll say this for the UK – I think it is brilliant that they translate government forms and informative leaflets. I don’t think doctors and the like should have to translate, but at least written information can be clear for the reader. The fine print is hard. It’s not translated here, and while I do speak Spanish, I come over weak-kneed when faced with my tax rebate form. I have absolutely no idea what to do with it (Spanish forms are notoriously hard). I’d give up a month’s pay just to have all my forms translated. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to speak the language, it just means I want to understand every little detail.
General Public Opinion #2 – It Unnerves Me to Hear Immigrants Speaking Their Language in the Street
What do you want them to speak to each other in? Can you imagine going home to your parents now, and speaking to them in Czech? Of course not. You can’t change the language you’ve spoken to each other in since day one, and nor should you have to. You want to stop people communicating? As long as they speak to you in the language of your country, why should you care? It doesn’t affect you in the slightest. Learning a language is a slow, complex process. I’m trying very hard, and after three years I still struggle. I speak to my friends in English. I always will. I speak to the Spanish and Catalans in Spanish (something that every Brit expat SHOULD be doing, but that’s another matter). I am not going to switch to incorrect, pidgin Spanish when speaking with my friends just to make you feel that one bit better.
General Public Opinion #3 – Immigrants Take Our Jobs
Immigrants have jobs. This is true. But emigrants also have jobs. All those people that left your country are taking somebody else’s job in another, aren’t they? Or is that different? Immigrants from poorer, more troubled countries, as it were, often take the jobs that people really don’t want to do, and will work at them twice as hard, because why would they want to lose the job that keeps them in the country? A person here once told me they hated the amount of immigration coming in, because the people from other countries were taking jobs away from citizens. That same person employed a Venezuelan nanny. The Venezuelan is obviously the cheaper choice. If you really believe that statement, then pay a little more and employ a Spaniard or Catalan – who won’t do the same job for the same price.
General Public Opinion #4 – Immigrants Cause More Crime
Sure, where there’s poverty, there’s a greater likelihood of criminal activity. The poorest of our communities are often the most desperate (but not always). This statement looks at things in the most basic manner. What about the people who steal from the government? You know, those rich people who bank offshore in order to avoid tax? The worst part of that is that it’s legal. An immigrant steals a wallet and the public clamour for justice, to send these people away. The people born and raised in the country are often stealing from you, but they’re just doing it in a way that’s more difficult to condemn. What about all the university students who took out big student loans and then don’t inform the government where they are, or what they earn, in order to avoid paying it back? Good on you mate, you take what’s yours! It isn’t yours – I’m not saying I agree with it either way, but people do this all the time, and it’s cheating somebody somewhere. You just can’t see it directly in front of you, so you don’t care.
There are so many things that can be argued back and forth across this topic. I simply wanted to give people a taste of what I feel as a person in another country, and hope that you will see my point of view as an ‘immigrant’. Before we criticise, we should put ourselves in their shoes, weigh up all the pros and cons, and not jump on the scapegoating bandwagon, which generally looks at things at face value. Consider what you would do in their position. Consider how you would feel in another country. Consider the facts and figures, before jumping to wild conclusions. Hopefully that way, we’ll begin to actually listen instead of giving a knee-jerk reaction to our sentiments on immigration.
Having lived here for over two years now, it is only natural that I happen to have a Catalan boyfriend. I never once imagined I would find myself in a relationship with someone from another country, let alone be IN that country itself, but what I wanted to explain was how we function, or at least, attempt to. I obviously have seen international partnerships, even lived with one, in my first year here, but I had yet to experience how it was to spend a rather large amount of time with someone who (frankly) didn’t really speak my language, never mind let myself fall for them.
My Spanish has come along in leaps and bounds during the last year. Being with someone who doesn’t speak much English, and not allowing myself to fall back on it has come in very useful, particularly for my grammar, which has always been atrocious (largely thanks to actually learning Spanish grammar being atrociously difficult…subjunctive, anyone?). I learn more and more every day, and surprise myself by coming out with conjugations I either didn’t know, or had just half-guessed at, and turned out to be right. One thing I never wanted to be was someone’s student, and I always thought that being with someone from another country would prove difficult in the sense that you wouldn’t want to be taught all the time, in order to actually be able to communicate with that person. There is that awful cliché that tells us we don’t need to be able to speak perfectly to understand the language of love (oh, please), but I think there is only a certain amount of truth in that. My ability to communicate in another language isn’t altogether bad, but I always start to unravel when I have to explain anything which goes above the daily grind, which causes me to think in tenses that are a little more difficult. You obviously must have some basic knowledge of the language to be able to relate yourself, your being, to another person, and for them to appreciate that and understand it. I never felt myself in Spanish, because I’m largely quite expressive, and I just don’t have the vocabulary to be that person in another language.
However, I feel like I’ve formed a different version of myself, that isn’t really that different, but different enough to be noticeable when I speak to my boyfriend, who knows ‘me’ so well. We spend a lot of time together, so of course he knows my stories, knows my little mannerisms, incredibly well, but speech gives us so much of ourselves, shapes our personality, that the difference is strikingly obvious when I talk to my English-speaking friends in front of him. The first time we went on one of our dates and I was told to speak English that night, by the end he told me I seemed a completely different person. One he liked, but one he had never seen. As I grow with Spanish, I become more and more myself, but I cannot truly do so, because of those moments where I have to stop and pause, I search for the word, or I genuinely can’t explain something that is a very important belief of mine, a momentous occasion, a particularly memorable childhood story.
How is it that language shapes us so? Maybe many would argue with me, tell me that cliché is true, a person loves a person, not the way they speak or the way they express themselves; but I can’t entirely agree. Sure, we can know that the person is good, the person is kind, but you need to have that degree of human, level-minded communication. I know I’d go mad if I couldn’t have that.
I have never been happier. I live in a fantastic city, I love my job, and to speak candidly, I am finally in a place where I can say I’ve been lucky in love – but I am not my true, whole self with this person. I very much like my Spanish-self. She’s funny, interesting, a little silly and stupid; but this is because she has to be, to provide entertainment which is lacking without an ability to make puns, jokes, spin great comedic stories. She’s clever, but clumsy in the way that she speaks, because she can’t find the words to express what she feels. But that part is understood. Although I cannot express my true self, here is where I think the cliché holds true: others can see what we really want to say, what is really underneath – it is only lack of knowledge in a language that doesn’t permit me to do this. That said, one needs so much more than just awareness of another’s personality to truly love them.
I wonder what other international pairings feel about this. I do not read so much about what it was like for them, only soppy love stories of feelings conquering all language barriers, but I would like the nitty-gritty, the deep, real detail. I often imagine what it is like for couples who speak two very different languages, so spoke in English when they first met to communicate; was it frustrating for both of them? Or is it a gift for us, that we slowly get to unfurl ourselves to another person, giving piece by piece of information slowly as we learn how to do so, instead of having that ability to let the other know all about our innermost thoughts and emotions? I had the difficult side; the one speaking in another language all the time. However, doesn’t that mean he has to be the patient one?
I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m learning, and growing with this person, not only in personality, as we all do, but also in language skills. The time will come when I can return the favour in English, We are giving each other so much more than just company and enjoyment. We are earning life skills and making the most of them together. And, the best part really is, that when arguments arise, at least we can both just pretend it was because we just didn’t understand what was being said…