On the first day of my Civilization and Culture of Spain class, our professor gave us a questionnaire to see what we knew/thought about Spain already and asked us what stereotypes we held about Spaniards. Instantly my mind flew to the importance of meals and familia, the fútbol obsession, and, of course, the siesta that sits in stark contrast to my constantly on-the-go lifestyle. It was the siesta that really gave me pause as I filled out the questionnaire. Did I really want to admit to my Spanish professor that I viewed the siesta as perezosa, as lazy? I opted for slightly less strong wording and went for menos trabajadores, less hardworking, instead.
If I arrived with stereotypes about Spaniards, what stereotypes did Spaniards hold about me as an American? According to two of the students interning with UPO’s International Center, Americans eat a lot of junk food, we always have huge bottles of water, and we’re very patriotic, but when it comes to the rest of the world, we know nothing about geography.
Okay, really, of all the things you could say about Americans, one of the first things that came to your minds is that we carry water bottles? (I couldn’t deny that one and just really found it funny). I’ve spent the last 3 weeks wondering how Spaniards aren’t all dehydrated; I never see them drinking water throughout the day! I began to mentally defend all of their American stereotypes. I love healthy food and I don’t like McDonald’s. I think the patriotism stereotype was meant as a positive observation. But even though I love the US of A, I pay attention to global affairs. In fact, I’ve dedicated my studies and my future career to studying international relations and foreign languages. In short, the stereotypes they held about Americans either didn’t describe me or were, in my mind, justified as “normal.”
Which means, on the flip side, that the stereotypes that I hold about Spaniards don’t describe every Spaniard, and to them, customs that I find odd are perfectly normal. I actually sit down to meals with my family back home much more than I’ve observed in my Spanish host home, yet other students have eaten often with their entire host families—it depends on individual schedules and people, kind of like in the US. My host mom and sister have said that they don’t particularly enjoy fútbol, which is about as sacrilege in Europe as my going to college in Texas and not liking American football (I’ve learned to like it though, go Frogs).
The siesta is the biggest custom I continue wrestle with. Of course as a college student I enjoy sleep, but if I sleep 7-8 hours at night, why do I need to sleep for 45 minutes in the middle of the day? Doing so makes me feel so perezosa and unproductive. I value giving my best effort to every task, and to me, that translates to hours of hard work. If I’m not busy, I feel as though I could and should be doing more, learning more, further improving myself and my community. But that’s my way of giving my best, and values can be expressed in different ways. For the Spanish, the siesta provides a mental health break from work and a time for rejuvenation, which could mean higher quality work later. It also illustrates the important distinction between career and personal life and a value placed on spending time at home, a lesson I could definitely learn from the Spanish.
I think one of the keys when learning about and living in another culture is not to respond to differences with, “That’s so weird, why not do it my way?” but rather to examine the relative importance of values or different expressions of a value to understand why a custom exists. This fits into the recognition stage of the building of cultural intelligence. I’m still struggling with some culture shock, but I am highly motivated to learn more about Spanish culture. I don’t want to get stuck in merely recognizing cultural differences; I want to comprehend Spanish customs on a deeper level. Every culture has its virtues, its vices, its contradictions. Cultural differences keep life interesting. They challenge us to step outside the comfort of the known, and they require us to face the fact that our own way may not always be the best way. In fact, there may not be a “best” way, but rather simply different ways.
My world religions professor at TCU taught us every practice or belief, no matter how strange-sounding, as though it were his own religion—whether it was Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, or anything else. He was so convincing that until he told us on the last day of class, I was constantly wondering which religion was his own. In fact, none of the religions he taught us aligned with his personal beliefs. In this way, my professor taught us that if you don’t look at a belief or custom from the perspective of the believer, then you aren’t truly understanding. That’s a lesson that I’m carrying with me on this adventure abroad and will remember for the rest of my life. Because we have so much to learn about the way humans interact with the world, and we have so much to teach and learn from each other.