Benchwarming: What I think of as Immersion

Ceci M. is currently a senior at SYA Spain and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Texas.

​​​​​​​My arrival in Spain was surprisingly easy. Everyone experiences the first few days of SYA differently, but my initial comfort with living abroad surprised me. Of course, relating to a new family in a foreign language posed its challenges. Making an effort to constantly be “on”—asking questions, maintaining a positive attitude, and meeting new people—was exhausting. As I adopted Spanish habits, long, post-dinner conversations became routine and short, efficient showers became obligatory. Still, I wanted a more fully Spanish life. Even as American SYA friends and I developed the norm of speaking only Spanish at school, we still spent the majority of our days in an American bubble. I quickly realized that SYA Spain was not a ticket to Spanish fluency and full cultural immersion. If I did not seek discomfort myself, SYA Spain would continue feeling like a Spanish American boarding school. Eager to take full advantage of my unfamiliar environment, I sought friendships with Spanish kids my age. 

The prospect of making Spanish friends was one of the most exciting aspects for me of studying abroad. These relationships, I discovered, were hard to find. I routinely met new people going out on weekends, but there is a difference between exchanging a few sentences on the tranvía and cultivating a friendship. Extracurricular activities, I figured, might facilitate this transition. 

Some background: I did not inherit my mother’s impressive hand-eye coordination. Nonetheless, I joined a Spanish soccer team. I was far from dedicated to improving my footwork but eager to connect with people my age. This pursuit has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my experience here. Trying to relate to my Spanish teammates, I experienced the discomfort I thought I would find immediately on the SYA campus. 

Sports seem to have a way of liberating our most juvenile, almost primitive instincts. Spaniards value order, typically dressing well and behaving in public. The first time I visited the train station in Zaragoza, for example, I was shocked by the way travellers abided by the rules of public transportation. On the escalator, people stood close to the right rail, leaving space on the left for people in a rush to pass by. Shocking. It was refreshing to see my soon-to-be teammates disregard this discipline and return to their wild, childish selves. 

I arrived at the soccer field at El Olivar, a sports club, to greet a group of teenage girls yelling about their crazy weekends in front of their indifferent coach, wrestling each other in the damp turf, letting out guttural cackles. I wanted to be a part of their silly banter, yet I was intimidated. Their register of Spanish, isolated from the Spanish education I have received in school, seemed like another language. I struggled to keep up as they employed nonsensical, irreverent words as verbal tics. Their communication style was unfamiliar, and I had to resist the urge to study it before adopting it. Thinking too much about the “right way” to interact with them would keep me from connecting with them. Instead, I had to focus on my curiosity about their lives. I started by asking questions—everyone loves talking about themselves. If I could express my interest in getting to know them, they might eventually reciprocate this curiosity. 

It took several practices for me to notice any reciprocity. When I asked one girl her name at the second practice, her curt response “no” took me aback but made me laugh. I figured she was joking. I later realized her name was “Noah.” Maybe these girls were not as exclusive as I first thought. 

I kept trying. Every practice, I accepted the inevitability of making a fool of myself and continued to make an effort to integrate myself into the team’s carefree dynamic. Expressions of interest as mundane as “¿que tal?” inflated my confidence. Every practice made me feel more like part of the team. A month into practice, I am just now making plans to go out with members of my team. It will be equally intimidating and exciting. It’s this blend that fills my cup, satisfying what I think of as immersion. 

 

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