A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

So there I was, in Spain for the summer, about to take part in my first ever study abroad, language immersion experience. The Spanish embassy gave away a limited number of scholarships each year to different countries. There were a few hundred students in the program, from all over the world. I was one of two Canadians selected that year. I thought I was prepared for the immersion experience. I was wrong.

A lesson in humility

On the first day, all the students took a placement test. I had just graduated with an honours degree. I had good grades, despite having been hit by a car a few months before graduation. I was confident that I had done well on the placement test.

There were 18 different levels of classes. When I saw that my placement test determined that I would be in level 17, I thought, “It isn’t the highest level, but I guess I can live with the second highest level. Some of these Europeans seem to speak the language pretty well, so there are some people here who are better than me.”

As it turned out, level 17 was the second lowest level. Level 1 was the highest.

I was starting to realize that there were many things I did not know.

Living in an international student residence

Students were divided by nationality, gender and faith in the residences. While my classmates were from Europe and the Middle East, I was in an all-female residence with other young women from North America, Europe and Christian and Jewish areas of the Middle East.

The only language we had in common was Spanish. We found that if we wanted to make friends we had a choice: only associate with other people who spoke our first language (in my case, English) or try to make friends in Spanish.

The result was a linguistic hodgepodge – people ended up communicating however they could, in whatever language they could. We communicated what we could in Spanish and helped translate for each other in whatever language we could… English, Danish, French, Arabic or whatever we had to help each other understand and bridge our linguistic and cultural gaps.

Friendships with foreigners

I quickly developed friendships with English girl, a couple of Danish girls who lived in the same residence and two fellows from Jordan. Having grown up mostly in Canada, I had been immersed in multiculturalism since birth. I thought nothing of chatting with people from other cultures. I had an open mind.

Salim and Imad were the two Jordanians in our circle of friends. Salim was in my class and Imad was in the class of one of my Danish friends who was much more fluent in Spanish. We toured the city, went for coffee and helped one another with our studies and mostly, tried to practice our Spanish language skills together.

Struggling together, bridging the gulf

It was July of 1992. In the scope of world events, the Gulf War was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I remember the day earlier that year when they announced the war. As I watched TV, I thought, “But, there wasn’t supposed to be a war in my lifetime. World War II was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Isn’t that what our parents fought for?” But the Gulf War happened and I was pinned to CNN through most of it, just like everybody else.

In Spain that summer, I had developed friendships with people from “that part of the world”. These were good people. We had shared experiences. We struggled together to learn Spanish and cope in a culture we were not familiar with. The bond that develops when you struggle side-by-side with someone, through an experience that is both your own and shared is unlike any other bond. You can not explain it because to do so would mean explaining the depths of your vulnerability, your fears, your hopes, your dreams and the very process of living. It is hard to explain the process of living, which, if it is done right, includes some struggle.

Near the end of our program, after a few weeks of gaining language skills and solidifying friendships with the people who had come together in our social circle, I summoned the courage to ask Salim about the button he wore every day on his lapel. It was a photo button showing Saddam Hussein’s face.

I was curious about why anybody would wear a button of Saddam Hussein, especially someone who I’d come to call “amigo”. It was strange, really.

After all, Saddam Hussein was a maniac. But Salim wasn’t a maniac…. I just didn’t get it. When I asked him about it, he said, “Mi heroe. Ayuda a mi gente,” he said. We both had horrible Spanish. It took a few tries before I could wrap my head around what he was saying: “He’s my hero. He helped our people.”

From there, the conversation took off, in broken Spanish. We discovered each other’s point of view, the perceptions we had gained from the media, and our stereotypes about each other’s part of the world. It was an amazing conversation that I have never, ever forgotten. It shattered my stereotypes, challenged my world view and got me deeply engaged in a discussion I never dreamt I would ever have.

The conversation took place on the steps of the Muslim students’ residence. The Muslim students were segregated to accommodate their dietary needs and to provide for quiet at regulated prayer times. The males lived on one side and the females on the other.

Foreign students were not allowed in the residence, so if we wanted to visit, we did so on the steps of the building. Some nights there would be students out there with guitars, singing. Other times, there were groups of students chatting and studying. That night, a small group of us talked about war, terrorism, our heroes and our opinions, stereotypes and attitudes.

By the end of the night, none of us had actually changed our opinions, but we did learn a lot about each other and about ourselves, as we gained perspective, listened and shared.

Despicable me

Through the course of that conversation that night, I got another surprise. I had been puzzled about why none of the Jordanian girls would speak to me. They’d speak to my European friends, but not to me. When we went to visit with our friends on the steps of their residence and sit outside talking, the girls would move away from me. I had no idea why.

That night, armed with the courage fueled by an open conversation, I asked Salim and Imad what was going on. They looked away sheepishly.

In the same way I had stereotyped people from a certain part of the world, based on information that I had learned from other sources, so too, had my Jordanian female counterparts. But in their eyes, I was the reprehensible one. It finally came out that they thought I was promiscuous.

Me? Promiscuous? Excuse me?! Where in the heck did they get that idea? I was raised to be proper and respectful, not some tramp.

I was, however, a Canadian first. That summer there was a drought in Spain and the thermometer hit 40 degrees Centigrade. I was melting.

I wore Bermuda shorts and sleeveless T-shirts and sandals to class. My shirts did not have “skinny straps”, they were just sleeveless. My shorts were not “hot pants”, they came to just above the knee.

In the opinion of my Jordanian female classmates, I showed too much skin. I was shameless. They were comfortable in their head-to-toe covering and did not want to associate with someone who “dressed like a prostitute”.

Needless to say, none of them had experienced the harsh, cold climate I was used to. Nor did they seem to understand that I was struggling in the heat.

It was 40 degrees. That’s almost half way to boiling. Humans aren’t meant to be boiled. We are not even meant to be half boiled.

To be honest, I expect that most of those girls had never actually seen a prostitute, either.

The power of conversation

Unlike the boys, the girls we met were unwilling to engage in conversation. The question that started our dialogue about the Gulf War, our values and ultimately, our stereotypes of one another, was “Why?” I took a leap and asked “Why do you wear that button on your lapel?”

There was a willingness to ask, a willingness to answer and a willingness to listen. I learned a lot that night… about the Gulf War and what it meant to these people who had become my friends, about how other people perceived me and the culture that I come from and about what it means to be human.

The Jordanian girls were not willing to ask me why I wore shorts or had sleeveless shirts. I guess I can’t blame them, really. Who wants to have any kind of deep conversation with a prostitute?

As it turned out, I would end up doing just that a number of years later, but that is a story to be saved for another day.

A life transformed

After returning home, I decided to return to university to study Spanish, which my family didn’t really understand, to say the least. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. Graduating from university was an even bigger deal. That I had been accepted into a Master’s program in English was off the charts.

So when I came home from Spain and said, “Actually, I’m not going to grad school, at least not just yet. I’m going to spend a year doing nothing but learning more Spanish,” that did not go over very well.

Suddenly I went from being the big family success story to a “flop about” who had no proper job. A university graduate is someone to be proud of. A “professional student” is a drain on society. My family all but wrote me off that year.

What I couldn’t explain was… why. Like the Jordanian girls, members of my own family were not open to having a conversation.

Immersed in change

My life had changed. I had changed. The immersion language learning experience in Spain had changed me. My head had been blown open. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone whose head is literally blown open by a bomb or something, but intellectually, everything I thought I knew had been shattered.

I had not just been immersed in a new language. I had been immersed in change and in challenge.

That is what is hard to explain to people who have never immersed themselves in another culture or another language… That it isn’t really about the language at all. What changes us is not the verbs or vocabulary that we learn. It was not the grammar that we cram into our brains so we can pass a final exam.

It the connections we are able to make with other human beings because we can communicate with them. We reach out. They reach back. We meet somewhere in the middle. When we retreat back into ourselves again, we have seen a bit of the world differently. Then we re different. Forever. Changed.

Just like our communicative abilities when we are learning a new language, our thoughts and assumptions are jumbled and are not very fluent. As we understand the world more deeply, so we understand ourselves more deeply. We begin to know what we do not know.

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


4 Responses to A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

  1. […] Read this article: A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything … […]

  2. Peggy Nagle says:

    Hi Sarah:
    I very much like your recent posts. Last night, as I was sitting at the bedside of a dying aunt, I recounted to a cousin your silver lining experience and the unexpected results of an accidental happening. It led to our own experience of deep conversation and an evening to cherish. Gracias por haber compartido algo tan especial. Felicitacions tambien. Su blog es muy interesante. ~ Peggy Nagle from Elora, Ontario

    • Thanks for your reflection, Peggy. Your comment took me back to when I was at my Mum’s bedside as she was dying. Some of the conversations that happened around that time were deeply touching. Thanks for sharing this with me. Hugs to you as you and your family are facing a difficult time.

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