From America to China, By Way of Spain

by Natalie

The first time I went abroad for longer than two weeks was the summer after my junior year of college, when I was 21. The decision for me to go abroad went something like this (over the phone, no less):

My Father:  We’re thinking of sending you to Spain for the summer. This is your one and only chance to do something like this. Do you want to go, yes or no?

At this point I should mention that when he was 21, my father studied abroad in Spain. My mother is a Spanish teacher. I grew up thinking it was normal to be obsessed with Spanish-speaking cultures. My parents tried in earnest to impart this love for all things Spanish related, but it turns out that an affinity for certain languages is not a genetically inherited trait. To their complete and utter bewilderment, I wasn’t showing much interest in Spanish. Nevertheless, when I was three, my mother labeled everything in my room with its Spanish name on a 3 x 5 note card.

I ripped them down.

The next course of action was to make Spanish FUN. Which meant that in middle school, my best friend Sarah was recruited to take part in weekly Spanish lessons. Sarah had previously lived in Mexico, which was her first advantage. She already spoke Spanish, which was her second. During her pre-med studies in undergrad, she decided to tack it on as another major. Some people you just want to hate. Sarah loved Spanish. Lessons ended up being her and my mother happily chattering away while I sulked.

I spent that summer teaching myself Pig Latin, in which I am proud to announce continued fluency. For some reason, Sarah has repeatedly told me that I should resist the urge to drop this fascinating tidbit when I go out on dates.

Since I was not inclined to learn from my mother, whom, it should be noted, is paid exorbitant fees to teach other people’s children Spanish, my parents decided to hire a private tutor.


I put up such a stink each week, and as the tutor was a smoker, complained that her breath was having adverse effects upon my health. Lessons ended after a few months.

I chose to study Chinese in high school.

So naturally, it made complete sense to send me to Spain for a summer.

You might be thinking, “Why did you say yes?”

My father has managed sales divisions on a global level. He can be rather persuasive. Plus I had this underlying feeling that I HAD to learn Spanish. I will equate this to Jewish kids who attend Hebrew school, but at least in their case it is part of their heritage.

We aren’t Spanish. Not even in the slightest. I believe we are the first Irish-Italian Spanish-speaking family out there. Whenever I had to take standardized tests in school, when asked what languages were spoken in the home, I was always tempted to fill in the bubble next to Spanish.

Sure, I picked up a few words. My parents spoke in Spanish whenever they didn’t want us to understand what was being said. I figured out that helado meant ice cream pretty early on (I also deduced that Santa Clause was a hoax at age four – go me) and I had the disturbing habit of going out on the driveway after it rained and shouting “Gusano!” as I stomped on all the worms.

I tried to like Spanish (sort’ve) but from a young age I have only found it frustrating, the sounds annoying. Ironically I love Spanish music, but that is probably because I grew up listening to such gems as Los Tres Mocededas.

All of this combined so that when my father put forth his proposition, 21 years of Spanish-Jewish guilt and an intense desire to study abroad led me to say yes.

I literally had no further role in the planning process.

A friend of my mother’s who had lived in Spain was consulted, and it was determined that I would go to Valencia. Said friend must have been quite the party lover, because I ended up in one of Europe’s hot spots for weekend getaways. When I told my family after the fact that I would have been better off on a farm milking goats, my brother declared that he could not comprehend how we are possibly related.

He just cannot grasp how I am that cool.

So there I was, goat milking desire unfulfilled, in a town known for its night life, studying a language I had no desire to learn. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life. In retrospect I have tried, and failed, to explain to my father why he should not persist in referring to Spain as, The Disaster.

Though really, having your car impounded while you are 3,000 miles away truly IS a disaster.

Spain was a challenge. For the first time I was away from my family and friends. I was in a new environment where I knew not a soul. My parents, along with deciding where I would go, figured that it would be a waste to send me with any other Americans, which is how I ended up living in a flat with a multitude of European nationals.

Spain was where I grew up. It’s a fairly interesting situation to be in a place where you have endless amounts of time for self-reflection. Spain also gave me my first taste of adventure. Without Spain there would never be China, which is why I found it so fitting to recently find a list I wrote nearly 3 years ago, titled, “What I’ve Learned in Spain.”

It’s long, so I’ll only list a few, but these revelations and the feelings behind them are what I want to remember and take with me to China, by way of Spain:

Travelling is sometimes better in retrospect.

Bright blue eye shadow is fun, but no good for me everyday (this realisation needed to happen the first day I tried bright blue eye shadow , not 2 years later… c’est la vie).

Other people do not have the right to make me feel a way I do not want to, and it is OK to set boundaries. I do not need to adopt other people’s struggles as my own.

There are other young people who share the same faith, values, and morals as I do in the rest of the world.

Be nice to foreigners. Not understanding does not mean they are stupid (really interesting to experience this from the side of the foreigner).

I need 8 hours of sleep a night.

I need a really good alarm clock.

It’s easy to use hindsight and live with regrets, but better to plan accordingly. It’s also OK to realize that maybe not everything you want to get done will happen.

Everybody needs to know they’re wanted by somebody.