Up-heaving your life to move to a foreign country is not always a no pasa nada situation. Sometimes studying abroad can be overwhelming, and combating cultural differences and language barriers on the daily will challenge you in ways you didn’t expect. Here in Granada, Spain, I am proud to say that every obstacle I’ve run into has helped me to become better prepared for an intercultural career, and to develop a self-awareness I didn’t realize I was missing.
I was introduced to the topics of interculturalism and mindfulness by participating in an Intercultural Development Workshop held by the ISA Granada staff. By watching intriguing TedTalks, exploring psychological and sociological research, and facilitating group discussion, this workshop broke down the awkward parts of living abroad into a recognizable context. These skills helped me to adjust to the rhythm of Spanish life in school and my homestay, where the quirks of eating meals late or going out on the weeknights reflected an integral part of Spanish society instead of just host family quirkiness. Folks in southern Spain schedule their days to include a “siesta” break in the afternoon due to unbearable summer heat, and it is completely normal to see families with babies in tow enjoy a Tuesday night out as a result of a more social approach to domestic life. Learning more about themes such as cultural immersion and emotional resiliency helped me to develop a stronger understanding of the “shocks” a foreigner might experience in a new country, which resonated to my experience in Spain and helped me to approach assimilation with patience and forgiveness for myself and my host culture.
Language barrier aside, the cultural rules and norms are different in other countries and even between different regions within the same nation. For example, there is a great cultural diversity between my laid back hometown of Boulder, Colorado and the hustle and bustle of New York City. Here in Granada, the communal understanding of common sense can sometimes run in opposition to that of my Western etiquette and make otherwise casual interpersonal interactions feel uncomfortable or tense. A good demonstration of these competing cultural values can be witnessed in a customer service exchange between a waiter and a restaurant customer. In the U.S., there is a higher priority put on politeness in customer service, fueled by the presence of tips, yet in most of Europe the emphasis is on efficient service, which might make an unwary tourist feel overwhelmed. Until I understood that distinguishing cultural factor, it was easy to take abrupt customer service interactions as a personal offense instead of just appreciating the server for doing their job effectively.
The Intercultural Development Workshop has helped me learn to put my cultural immersion experiences into context and even pushed me to be more self-aware of my experience and personal growth by practicing mindfulness. Being mindful implies “being self-aware and conscious about your individual role and actions within the greater context of your surroundings.” In a challenge to “unplug” from the constant stimulation available to me on my phone or in relationship to other people, the final challenge of the workshop invited me to spend an hour in silent observation of the world around me and document my experience. From this experiment I learned a lesson that has been consistent with the rest of my study abroad experience: when I step back from being in complete control of my environment (whether that is as big as moving to a new continent or simply unplugging from global news for an afternoon), I can become more thoughtful, considerate and appreciative of my new cultural home.
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