MADRID, SPAIN. “If you presume to love something, you must love the process of it much more than you love the finished product.” ~ John Irving
I never believed in culture shock until two weeks ago, when I arrived in Madrid.
“What have I done to myself?” I thought as they brought out my first Spanish hamburger. “Where’s the ketchup, the lettuce, the bun? And what are these worm-looking things on my patty, which looks like a burnt hash brown? Do they even have hash browns in Spain? Oh they’re the fried onions, vale.”
I had to remind myself of the mantra about life transitions that I have heard as long as I can remember: “Trust the process.”
Moving across the United States for college was easy, so why would it be any harder to move to Spain? I took a couple years of Spanish, I like Mexican food, and Spanish food must be similar…what could go wrong? I soon learned that Spanish food is very different than Mexican food, and that not many people speak English in Madrid, not many at all. While speaking with my friends from the US, I learned that I was not the only one facing this difficult transition, this shock of culture.
So what is culture shock? My school surely educated me on the topic before I traveled to Madrid for my semester abroad, an expanse of time that seems monumental at this point, just two weeks in. Culture shock is when you go to a new place and you are confronted with the differences in culture, reminding you that you are in fact different. Apparently it’s hard at first because you’ll feel alone and different, but then you adjust and come to love it more than you could possibly imagine. It’s a process, and it takes time.
I thought it’d be cool to be different; people love those who are different, right? Everyone wants to be friends with the international students at my school: they dress differently, they have cool accents, they go out seemingly every night.
Sunday, February 2, Super Bowl Sunday, easily one of the best days of the year, in America that is. In Spain this year, of course I went, accompanied by a few American friends. I couldn’t miss this day. I was shocked when during the Star-Spangled Banner, some British guys started singing their country’s hymn instead. I was appalled, never before had I been so aware that I was American, that not being able to hear my country’s national anthem could be so upsetting. To add to this, the game was streamed through a European station, so I missed the commercials, which everyone knows are almost as exciting as the game itself. Needless to say, the experience was different.
The following Saturday, as I’m about to swipe my metro card, these two sneaky Spaniards run into me knocking me off balance, sneaking past the swipe-in area, running off to their free metro ride. Appalled again; “this never happens in the US,” I thought, “and if it does, they have the courtesy to say they’re sorry.” As I learned the next day in one of our intercultural workshops, Spaniards would never consider this rude. The fact that you brushing into someone would offend him does not register with Spaniards because they have a different sense of personal space than Americans do. They are different than I am.
The intricacies of culture shock remain a mystery to me. I like Spain and I am thankful to be able to spend a semester here, but I don’t love it. I miss my friends, my food, English. I miss being able to talk to strangers about anything. I miss my iPhone, telling me where I am and where I need to go at any time, in seconds. Needless to say, I am homesick, not of my home, but of my country.
However, never have I met someone who didn’t say that studying abroad was the best semester of his or her life. Sometimes, you just have to trust the process.