Tina Fey’s first rule of improvisation is say ‘yes.’ Apparently Tina and I are kindred spirits, because that is my New Year’s resolution and my study abroad motto. I knew when I signed up to go to Spain that I was not cut out for the study abroad life—I like routines and comfort zones, I’m a super picky eater, and my sense of direction is non-existent. But I want to travel the world, so those are traits that I have to make a conscientious decision to work on every day. I’ve said ‘yes’ a lot of new things here: city apartment life, new vegetables and fish (really liking the lentil and vegetable soups; still not wild about the fish, but at I’ve tried), and speaking Spanish daily with people who cannot speak English if I get stuck.
But the rules of improve don’t stop at saying ‘yes.’ Fey goes on in her book Bossypants to say that we need to say ‘yes, AND.’ As Fey says, “… ‘yes, AND’ means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile” (Fey 85). Reading this quote reminded me of Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, who says he’s trying to participate in life more rather than observing from the sidelines. (Aside: One of the best books I have EVER read.). As an introvert, it’s easy for me to be a wallflower. I love sitting alone or wandering the streets, silently observing the people and places around me, just taking it all in. And that is without question a valuable learning experience.
It isn’t the only experience, however, and if you never dive in and participate, then you won’t even know what experiences you’re missing out on. I have a habit of running with my headphones in. It’s a mindless escape wherein I know nothing but my music and my breathing as I continue moving forward. And it’s bliss. But it also means that I’m moving so quickly that I miss the details of my surroundings; I’m not fully participating in the world around me. The other day in Sevilla, however, an early rain made the path so slippery that I had no choice but to slow my pace a bit. I had to be more mindful of where I was running so I wouldn’t break an ankle on the parts of the path made of cobblestone or cracked concrete stones (seriously though, it’s dangerous if you aren’t careful, I’m always happy when the pavement returns).
Down by the Río Guadalquivir where I was running, there are bridges and skate parks filled with graffiti. Usually I just run past them without a second thought; I’ve never been a huge fan of graffiti. Graffiti isn’t in my “cultural script,” so it’s something that for me is “often noticed, ignored, or mistunderstood” (Thomas and Inkson 49). In Spain as well, graffiti is part of a subculture that not everyone appreciates, and like in the US, it can be associated with gang activity. Nevertheless, that day, forced by the rain to notice my setting a bit more, I spotted a quote spray-painted on a bridge that really stood out to me.
“No permita que el orgullo sea quien decida por los dos.” Don’t allow pride to be the one who decides for two people.
It was signed “MBR,” and I do not know who this person is or what story led to this quote. But that’s the beauty of any form of art: Each person who views it brings her own experiences to the piece and finds meaning in it. No one looks at the same artistic work exactly the same way.
For the first time, I didn’t view all graffiti as destructive. Here was a perfect stranger from another culture about whom I’d already made assumptions based on a related subculture in the US…whose words were speaking directly to me. Maybe for some people graffiti is the way that they use their voice to connect with people they’ll never meet, kind of like what writing is to me. Too often I think we focus on everything that makes us different from other people, and while those differences are fascinating and make us unique, we forget to notice how similar we are. Reading this quote made me see that despite major cultural differences, we all share innate human qualities, in this case, the desire to love and be loved and the struggle to balance our pride with our desire to reconcile. We may not always fully understand each other’s customs, but though common experiences and emotions, we can gain a deeper connection with other people as members of one human race.
We just have to listen (or read). We have to slow down sometimes and be mindful of the world around us. We have to participate.
Fey, Tina. Bossypants. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.
Thomas, David C. and Kerr Inkson. Cultural Intelligence: Living and Working Globally. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009. Print.