Fulbright U.S. Student Program: Teaching Assistant
Madrid, Spain, 2018-2019
Given my less-than-sparkling Spanish, I am sometimes left to fit a missing puzzle piece (or two) together by reading hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions. I’ve become more sensitive to reading micro-expressions, noticing in greater detail the way faces participate in listening with a flurry of subtle movements. I’ve learned the common Spanish hand gestures and picked up on some quieter patterns too, like the particular way one serves a strongly-held opinion with a slight flick of the wrist, palm facing up. I’ve grown accustomed to the relative frequency of being touched warmly by strangers – kissed on the cheek, patted on the shoulder, nudged, squeezed, my hand reached for – in comparison to my American experience of only touching family and close friends in these ways. Finally, I’ve noticed more so than ever how changing body positions mid-conversation influences the emotional context of the exchange.
These absorbing and informative details aside, I am left wondering of the dialectical relationship between my notion of their expressions and mannerisms as compared to their true intention. Body language is a mix of human physiology, cultural mannerism, and personal idiosyncrasy. During times of communication with incomplete contextual clues, I can’t always be sure what I’m seeing. What if my perceptions are correct interpretations of how human bodies react to stimuli, and which are incorrect interpretations based on my personal value system and cultural worldview? How much does this influence how I relate to other person? And what does this entire process look like from their side of the table?
And – is all of this analysis diverting my focus away from the very intention of communication? To be seen, heard, understood, and to see, hear, and understand. Outside of the limited realm of the analytical mind, I come upon the here-and-now, the tangible world, in which I daily find before me a person expressing themselves in the way they know how and beckoning me to do the same.
Chicken or Egg?
During a lesson in which I introduced some of my life in the US to my students, I explained that I have Sicilian and Belgian ancestry and some smaller percentages of other nationalities. “Oh,” one 12 year-old student remarked, “that is so much. I am only Spanish.” The gitano identity defines a person with Spanish nationality and a gypsy ancestry. Therefore it is not appropriate to distinguish “gitano” from “Spanish” communities, because indeed the gitano are Spanish. This truth we hold in stark contrast to the “us versus them” narrative of oppression maintained by the majority population who gaff at the notion of any sense of shared identity.
The history of gypsy and Spanish cultures are interwoven in such a way that, for example, there is not a total consensus concerning the origin of the widely-held Spanish symbol/identity of flamenco music and dance. Flamenco was developed in 13th century Andalucía, the same era which saw Romani gypsys migrate to southern Spain through Morocco and from the southeast of France. Some scholarly sources claim that flamenco is a distinctly Andalusian cultural artifact later cultivated stylistically by the incoming gitano communities. This, they contend, is the reason why gitano flamenco and professionalized flamenco are so different. At the same time, many gitano advocates and historians maintain that flamenco is distinctly gitano and has, through history, been appropriated and altered by majority society. It is interesting to note that many non-gitano Spaniards consider gitano flamenco to be “authentic flamenco”, despite the overwhelmingly negative attitudes held toward this community in all other areas of life. Whether flamenco came first from the Spaniards already settled in Andalucia or from the gypsy migrants later marginalized by those very Spaniards, we must address the nuances of cultural identity-formation and acknowledge the historical interactions and commonalities between peoples.
In early December, I ventured to the American embassy to meet the newest US Cultural Attaché. In comparison to the Irish and Lithuanian embassies, both of which are suites in larger office buildings I have seen in passing going about my daily life, our embassy sticks out like a sore thumb: it’s a giant compound taking up roughly one acre of premium city real-estate, enclosed by tall iron fences connecting checkpoints shielded with bullet-proof glass. Heavily armed (and I mean heavily) marines patrol the entrance points, the sidewalk, and the public intersections on the perimeter of the compound. Although I could not determine where, I learned there are snipers stationed in buildings around the area. A large grey marble installation embossed with the great American seal looms before the visitor entrance. So here it was – the physical representation of the United States in Spain. Yikes.
After passing through metal detectors, showing my passport at three different check points, surrendering my phone, camera, and USB drive, and submitting my passport for keeping in a 24-hour security station, I was finally welcomed in when the attaché came down to retrieve me. We walked through a large court yard and parking lot, passing the Ambassador’s residence and the defense headquarters before reaching the embassy’s office building.
Still quivering from having been within inches of marines slinging giant rifles with grenades, bullets, and other implements of violence fastened to their belts, I was surprised by the normalcy of the office space. Aside from the Ambassador’s suite, nicely decorated in that dark-wood-brass-knobs-serious-business sort of way, the rest felt in all ways like a typical work space: a bullpen of cubicles were adorned with file folders, knick-knacks, and family photos, a copy machine with a special note posted to direct users through its finicky moments, a water cooler. It reminded me that governments, huge institutions represented by a handful of well-known figures, are really a feat of collective attention and intention born of the minds of regular people who happen to have important jobs. Regular people, who have to get home to the kids and find something to cook for dinner, who have personality quirks, private challenges and bad hair-days.
Over a typical Spanish meal of salad, soup, bread, and stewed lentils, the attaché and I shared stories of cultural exchange, talked at length about my experience at FSG, and traced her journey through Foreign Service (she went to law school, clerked for a senator, interned at the White House, assisted the Chief of Staff, led communications for an elite fashion brand, started a PR company all by the age of 28 – wow – later finding herself moving between foreign embassies over 16 years as a communications director, and now newly settled in this new role in Madrid). Her task is to build mutual understanding between Spaniards and Americans, support the Ambassador in his non-political endeavors (there’s a different department for that), and promote a positive social attitude toward the United States. She admits that her job is complicated by low favorability ratings for the American government around the world. But international relations are more than political exchanges, and her focus spans far beyond politics: she and her team marshal mutual cultural values and interests that Spaniards and Americans share to promote positive human interactions. Both nations have a shared interest in building peace, exploring knowledge, and endearingly, the work of NASA.
I was surprised to discover that the popularity of NASA in Spain cannot be overstated. Students compete intensely for scholarships to attend Space Camp in Alabama. At any time in city center you can see someone sporting a NASA t-shirt. The program schedules of the local planetariums bubble with activity. The embajada saw an opportunity. The attache and her team mobilized to cultivate this Spanish enthrallment through a sixth-month campaign celebrating space exploration, STEM, women’s contributions to space exploration, and encouraging young space enthusiasts to pursue their dream in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Thus we begin the new year building positive intercultural connections on the basis of one strong commonality: curiosity of what’s “out there.”
Who am I (now)?
The self is a process, an ongoing expression of consciousness. Our multi-faceted being is constantly negotiating with and adapting to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Every day, every moment, our cells, thoughts, emotions, and energy – our entire selves – continue the process of moment-to-moment creation, interacting with Life in the most organized and resourceful way they know how.
This fundamental process of the self is bombarded with more than a typical load of changes during such a transition as moving abroad. Somewhat divorcing my previous life to seek immersion in a new place with new people who practice a different culture and understand the world through their unique language offers the challenge and responsibility of expanding my notions of “normal”. Part of “become international” is a direct confrontation with the culturally-defined aspects of your cognition, emotion, and personality. This is inevitable. But each individual must decide to what extent they will consciously grapple with this confrontation and marshal its teachings into personal expansion. When I started to keenly notice how I process and analyze information, the belief patterns from which I emote, how I express myself, my habits and mannerisms, how I relate to the spaces and places around me, how I connect and communicate with the people in my life, and what feels normal and what feels strange. I was fascinated with this gift of self-reflection. And I started to question everything about me.
“Who am I?” is a question without an answer. It is, like a koan beyond the realm of logic and analysis. Spain has not helped me “find myself” in so much that I feel I’ve come upon a new home, but it has helped me “find my self” by reflecting my nature back to me. (Needless to say, I have no shortage of self-awareness material to work with during meditation.) Integrating these immense internal changes has been, in another word that starts with “i”, intense. Even so, I give thanks for the opportunity to capture a broader understanding of my own self-process and how it interacts with the external world.