Cuenta or cuento? Baño or servicio? Con permiso or perdón? In Barcelona, I find myself struggling to say the most basic things.
I look at the tiny blue dot on my Google Maps and it’s hard to believe I’m standing on a different continent. I remember back in October when my Spanish professor first suggested the idea of summer study abroad to me. I didn’t think I was ready for it. Now after nine months of daily Spanish classes, study abroad preparations, and headache-inducing financial aid applications, I’m sitting on the steps beside a muralla romana in the Gothic Quarter, eating a bocadillo and speaking in Spanish to my friend Annie. I’m finally here.
It’s about time.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been five days since I’ve landed. In my short time here, I’ve started classes at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, I’ve attended mass for the first time at the Santa Maria del Mar, a cathedral older than the United States, and I’ve had many café con leches. My calves are perpetually sore from walking all over the Gothic Quarter, Park Güell, and Las Ramblas. My head hurts from speaking Spanish 24/7. I can never express exactly what I want to say.
It’s about time.
Growing up, I was the English speaker in my Cantonese-speaking family. I also grew up in an immigrant neighborhood where English was not the first language for most people. Being fluent in English brought power but also meant responsibility. I remember helping my aunt write her work emails in the fifth grade.
My sister and I would order for our parents at restaurants. I would help my mother’s friend with paperwork. I love to write and I’ve never felt limited by language. While I’ve always admired the people around me and their courage to start a new life in a different country, I have so much more respect for them after coming to Barcelona.
My situation is not nearly as difficult—most people here will speak English if they see you’re struggling, and I’m only here for a little over a month. I can’t imagine how it must feel to struggle to be understood indefinitely, to have to start a new life in a foreign tongue. For the first time, I find myself struggling to order food. I feel embarrassed over sounding stupid or speaking with an accent. I feel the frustration when I want to say something so badly, but don’t know how in the language.
For the first time, I’ve also felt like an outsider. Not only am I American, but I’m also Chinese. I walk into a place and people immediately know I do not belong. This comes with odd stares in bars and sometimes being called chinito. I wasn’t used to such direct reactions about my race. Some things even seem to be outwardly racist, but slide under the radar. The corner stores, for example, are called chinos.
For the first time, I’m experiencing the hardships the immigrants who I grew up with and who raised me told me about. While it’s difficult and unsettling, this experience has allowed me to see the people I’ve known my entire life in a new light. It’s also made me realize that even though I have never felt my ability to express myself limited by language, the language I knew limited the world I saw.
For the first time, I’m also experiencing a lifestyle different from my own. I mentioned the absurd amount of café con leches I’ve had during my time here (my friend and I officially decided to start a count today). It’s not only because my friend and I are avid coffee drinkers, but also because the sizes are extremely small. In Barcelona, meals are meant to be shared and drinks taken slowly.
In Barcelona, I’ve done something I haven’t done in a while: sit in a cafetería with a friend and talk for hours over coffee. In Barcelona, the sun doesn’t set until 10 pm and people go out to dinner at midnight. It’s a city, no doubt, but I can’t help but feel people are more relaxed and happier here. I think it’s because community is valued and emphasized. As a person who likes to be alone and who tells herself she’s happy when she’s most productive, I’ve been taking everything a bit more slowly and spending more time with friends and the people I meet.
And it’s about time for that too.