George and I attended a school meeting a few weeks ago and had a valuable opportunity to be in others’ cultural shoes, i.e. “shoe shifting.” The meeting included a group of 6th grade parents, our two classroom teachers and the director of the school and was about graduation and final events of the school year. Considering the importance of the information in the meeting, I requested, a few days in advance, that the English teacher be present to help translate for us. Over the course of the school year, George and I have had some individual meetings with our teachers without a translator but as you can imagine, a group meeting is a whole ‘nother beast as the parents talk way too quickly for us to follow the conversation. I had been warned by Hadley before the meeting that the English teacher was out of town and therefore, not available to help. So, we attended the meeting anyway and hoped and prayed we would get by on our own.
Before I continue, I want to give some cultural context to these school meetings. The teachers and director start but their voices are quickly overtaken by the mothers’, batting back and forth suggestions, ideas, and decisions about the graduation ceremony and the end of year fiesta. The parents talk over one another and the school staff can barely get in a word. On top of that, imagine another mother answering her cell phone and proceeding to have a conversation at full volume. Chaos at its best.
In addition to the chaotic energy of this particular meeting, we felt the heaviness of the language barrier. Because Andalusians “eat their words” (compared to Spaniards in other parts of the country) and speak very quickly, even those with steller Spanish skills can get lost. We were officially lost with very little hope. I started to feel uncomfortable and was searching for eye contact with the teachers and director. Can’t they see that we don’t understand? Surely, they will stop and ask a parent with any English skills at all to help us out. Or, perhaps when the meeting is over, they will distribute written information so we can at least take it home and use Google Translate. Nope. Nada. We were on our own. Throughout the meeting, my discomfort evolved into anger. I even felt on the verge of tears at one point as the social worker in me wanted justice! Meanwhile, George, also felt a strong sense of not belonging but was more inclined to blame himself for not progressing enough with his Spanish or inserting himself more into the Spanish community. When the meeting was over, we managed to slowly exit the room without a single parent or teacher checking in with us or asking us if we needed help understanding what was going on. We were pretty much invisible and this was 9 months into the school year, so we were known, well enough, as the family with limited Spanish skills. Plus our teacher even knew that we needed a translator.
Then suddenly, the light bulb went off in my head. Ah… this, I thought, is exactly how people in America, who don’t speak English or who appear different in one way or another from the majority, feel all the time. Not belonging can trigger both anger towards the majority and self-criticism for not fitting in. My emotions evolved once again but this time into empathy. I thought of all the immigrant and refugee families in our American schools, trying desperately to fit in, be accepted and included while feeling stuck by the language barrier (not to mention, without enough financial resources to learn English). In addition, as we often feel here in Spain, I thought of their exhaustion from struggling with a language and cultural barrier every day.
As we left the meeting, I reminded myself that this is partly why we have chosen to live here. The key word here is “chosen,” recognizing that not everyone gets to choose. Part of me wants to offer the school feedback, to help them increase their awareness of what expat families might need during their time of adjusting and integrating into their school. The other part of me wants to respect their community for exactly how it is and take full responsibility, myself, for making even more efforts to insert myself and speak their language, because I can. Regardless, I feel grateful for this learning. To experience what it is like to be a member of the minority culture (even temporarily), to feel excluded by not having access to information or having my basic needs acknowledged is a sobering one and an experience that I hope will stay with me for a long time as I return to American life.