Embrace your exchange
Last spring I returned from a semester study abroad program in Madrid, Spain. Upon my arrival back in the United States, a friend of mine suggested I write an article in regards to American behavior abroad. I didn’t feel compelled to do so until a recent interaction I had with an American returning from abroad, an interaction which reminded me of all the disappointment I harbored for Americans within my own program.
The location of my destination started long before examining any study abroad programs. It all started when I was 15-years-old. As a high school Spanish class, the thought of having exchange students exhilarated us. We fantasized about our potential exchange students and the ways we would transform their American experiences — a rather challenging achievement, considering they were leaving the cosmopolitan city of Madrid to live with us in the town of Walworth, Wisconsin.
My exchange student was the last profile to come in. I ran to retrieve her profile, examined the photos, the drawings in the margins of her letters — she appeared absolutely stunning, fascinating, and since hosting her, she has become one of my closest companions. She is the reason I ended up in Spain and the reason for my seeking a genuine Spanish experience.
The University of Massachusetts doesn’t provide a program directly to Madrid, though the International Programs Office offered several partnership programs stationed in the city. I settled on Academic Programs International Madrid, a program which would place me with 20 or so other American students abroad.
Before leaving the states, the IPO office requires that students attend an orientation meeting in the Campus Center to discuss exchange criteria and behavior abroad. At the time, I scoffed at the idea, I had already been to Spain, I knew what behavior was expected of me, and I wouldn’t dare make a fool of myself in an already vulnerable setting of living in an unfamiliar country.
We gathered in front of the projector screen, lights dimmed, examining pictures of Americans partying abroad. The presentation encouraged us to examine our public appearance and loudness, cautioned us against patriotism, and warned us of our drinking and partying habits. They encouraged us to use our Spanish as frequently as we could, to build friendship
s with locals and to break away from American stereotypes. I left confident in my ability to maintain good behavior.
I was fortunate to have strong Spanish acquaintances upon arriving in the country. This wasn’t enough, though; I wanted to meet more locals. I put a post on a London blog called ‘London Fixed Gear and Single Speed’ (in reference to cycling, since I had traveled with my bike to Spain). In the post I mentioned that I was a student living abroad looking for people who were interested in riding, since Madrid is an inhospitable cycling city and one that boasts few cyclists. Within several weeks I received a reply. The screen-name ‘Edo’ gave me an address to a bike shop in the city center. He told me to arrive Friday evening for post-work drinks.
I was ecstatic to have received a reply, though naturally a little uncertain of showing up at an address I obtained through an online exchange. My roommates responded rather cynically to the idea, but no negativity was going to keep me from meeting locals who shared my interests.
I navigated through the narrow, winding streets of Madrid, coming to a stop at a two story graffiti-covered building. There was no sign indicating a bike shop. I asked some strangers nearby in my inadequate Spanish if they were familiar with my destination and they motioned to a second floor balcony. I made my way through the building and entered into a room of people who would soon become close compatriots of mine throughout the duration of my stay.
Fellow students responded pessimistically to my method of meeting Spaniards. As time progressed, however, I became one of the few American students in our program who made local friends in Spain.
Other students in the program were concerned with taking it easy, exploring Europe, making it to as many parties, clubs, and European cities as possible. Sure, everyone has different traveling styles, and I can respect that, though the initiatives of my fellow Americans seemed completely counterproductive to adapting to a new environment. Instead of introducing me to locals they had met, students were introducing myself and each other to additional Americans studying abroad. With a few minor exceptions, no one spoke Spanish, nor did anyone feel compelled to.
On Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Americans in our program could be seen and heard on their way to clubs in Madrid or other European cities. Americans took to the streets in obnoxious hoards, scantily clad, on the way to clubs with other Americans, with the intention of meeting other Americans. We were living in Spain to have a Spanish experience, or so I thought. In reality, Americans spent their free time traveling to other European cities and attending Americanized party scenes. Under pressure to bond with others in the program, I occasionally tagged along to these events, yet in retrospect, these are the experiences I am most disappointed by in regards to my own character and in light of our group’s behavior.
I recently had an exchange which caused all of these feelings to resurface – disappointment in myself, in other Americans and immense guilt for meeting the stereotypes that Europeans held us to.
Seated to my left was a girl speaking in a booming voice about having returned from a program studying in Spain. I was excited at the prospect of discussing our shared experiences. I asked her about her travels, about visiting Madrid, and living abroad. She digressed about parties, attending the largest club in Madrid, meeting close American friends and traveling throughout Europe. My smile faded. I asked her if she learned Spanish.
“No, it was such an international city that I didn’t have the chance to. Everyone spoke English”, was the gist of her reply.
So we as Americans (many of us, anyways), travelled to Europe to have a Spanish experience — to be vulnerable in a new city, in a new language, and in a new culture. Many Americans, however, returned home satisfied after making more American friends, having no Spanish language experience and no real understanding of what it is to live abroad. We most certainly gained no respect from the Spanish population, nor made any effort to admonish the horrible stereotypes we were forewarned of during orientation.
I recall American behavior abroad as distasteful, but at times, it was even dangerous. From listening to her experience nothing has changed during the time elapsed between my trip abroad and hers.
I can recall nights where people in our program went unaccounted for while under the influence, had run-ins with club bouncers or underwent physical altercations with locals. Perhaps none of us really felt the graveness of these situations until we returned to the U.S. and our attention was drawn to harrowing news stories. Several weeks after our return, an American student went missing in Madrid. Shortly after, his body was retrieved from the river. He had gone unaccounted for and had fallen in outside a popular club. We all had dangerous habits in Madrid — perhaps we are all lucky to have survived.
Many of my American peers can’t recall local friends and Spanish experiences; I have too many Spanish friends to count, and experiences that I will recall for the rest of my life. Perhaps even more important, though, I have been able to reflect on our flaws and come to an understanding of what composure, self-awareness, and sensitivity means abroad — even if I didn’t always get it right the first time. Coming to terms with these notions is one experience I’m confident my peers missed out on.
Kimberly Ovitz is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.