My journey to Barcelona was uneventful. I packed everything I needed, didn’t forget my contacts and made both of my flights with time to spare.
But one image stuck in my mind.
As I was going through security in the Boston airport, I noticed an older man and his son directly in line directly behind me. They looked confused and spoke in hushed tones. I put my bags on the belt to go through the scanner, took off my shoes and sweater and removed my jewelry. I watched and waited for them to do the same, but they looked hesitant and uncertain of what to needed to be removed. A female security assistant rolled her eyes and pointed at their watches and shoes.
As I crossed through security and put my belongings back on, the older man struggled with the security scanner. He hesitantly walked through, looking at the male security guard on the other side with big eyes, unsure of where to go. Instead of standing beside the scanner until he was cleared, he kept walking. The male security guard was flustered, grabbed the man’s shoulders and guided him to the correct spot.
All of this tension and frustration rose from one thing: a language barrier. The man was scared and embarrassed because he could not understand English. The security guards spoke to him and treated him like they were reprimanding a child. I felt sorry for him, but I was glad I wasn’t in his position and was thankful I would never be.
Or so I thought. I was originally told before leaving for Spain that the majority of people in Barcelona understand English, but that is not the case. Cab drivers, waiters and store clerks are generally not familiar with English. Menus, street signs, metro stations, and ingredient labels are all written in Spanish or Catalan. I am fortunate that I have taken four years of high school Spanish, but many of the other students on my trip have been struggling with the language barrier. It’s hard for them to order at restaurants, to get directions and to ask questions. Not comprehending the language makes you feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, especially walking around in an unfamiliar place.
One of our first mornings here, my friends and I went to buy cell phones. Normally, this would take at most an hour, but it took us three hours because the salesperson could not understand us. It was difficult to communicate what we were looking for with the little Spanish we knew. Eventually, he pulled up Google translator for us. We were thankful, but also embarrassed. We have become the ones who point at objects and speak in incomplete sentences to get our thoughts across to locals.
Stereotypes also accompany the language barrier. In the United States we have many biases of foreigners and immigrants: they are lazy, unintelligent, slow, etc. Americans are no different in Europe. We are characterized as binge drinkers, partiers, and obnoxious, loud and ignorant people. Girls are branded as sluts, and boys as aggressive, fight-provokers. Although many of these characterizations arise from television shows such as “Jersey Shore” or “Bad Girls Club,” it is what we are associated with. On top of not completely understanding their language, we are combating these preconceived notions and expectations.
Before leaving for Spain, I never thought about how being the minority would affect me. I get nervous talking to locals and figuring out my way on the metro. I order whatever is most familiar to me on a menu. Luckily, I am already feeling more comfortable after two intensive Spanish classes. By the end of the semester, I am sure that I will be more confident walking around and communicating in Spanish. I am glad this opportunity is exposing me to not only a different culture, but also to an eye-opening experience as a minority.