As I wove my way through the densely packed, smoke filled bar I paused for a moment amongst the madness to catch a glimpse of the television screen and try to take in the historic significance of the night.However, my attempt at holding on to the moment was short lived.The multi-lingual cheers and clinking of pint glasses which followed every spike in the polls drowned out my own thoughts and I was quickly brought back to reality:I was in Madrid, Spain about to witness Barack Obama become our nations next president, and for all the excitement one would have thought Real Madrid had just won the European Cup in an overtime shootout.
Before leaving to go to Spain for a semester I had thought about all the ways the experience would change me.About to be submersed in a foreign culture I knew I would face the challenge of learning the language, adapting to a different way of life, and meeting new people every day.What I did not expect was for it to change the way I felt about my own country.Though I never got around to pinning a Canadian flag on my backpack, after eight years of the Bush Administration it was difficult to tell foreigners I was American without feeling some sort of attached guilt.This self-deprecating type of mentality made me cautious, just waiting to be called out, to be stereotyped and judged.
On one occasion, upon walking into a little hole-in-the-wall cafe in my barrio, I had an eye opening encounter.As is the custom in Spain, I greeted the cafe owner and she struck up a conversation.She told me that she was from Eritrea, a small country North of Ethiopia, but had been living in Madrid for many years.When I told her I was from the United States I watched her face instantly change to an indefinable expression and she started yelling excitedly, too quickly for my limited Spanish abilities to understand.She continued talking animatedly to a group further down the bar while pointing in my direction.Just as I was about to sneak back outside she flashed me an ear- to-ear grin and pointed behind the cash register.Relief swept over me when I saw the shrine of magazine pictures and newspaper clippings featuring Obama, Oprah, and other American icons.“We love Obama! The change for America!” she exclaimed in a thick accent.I smiled, sat down, and realized the world’s perspective of my country just might be starting to change for the better.
Away from all of the political debates and news media that can overwhelm the public in America, I was able to watch the election unfold from a new vantage point.It was interesting to see just how far reaching the election really was.I frequently spotted Obama’s name and face on various Spanish magazines and newspapers, generally praising his campaign.My professors at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid were always mentioning the race and my international friends had no qualms about very bluntly asking who I voted for. Of course it was obvious which candidate was favored in Spain and across Europe.However, it was interesting to learn that there was actually a significant portion of the older generation in Spain that supported John McCain for America’s next leader. Friends of mine would tell me anecdotes about the SeÃ±oras they were living with, how they would follow the news coverage of the election closely and express their distaste for Obama.It quickly became apparent to me how important our election really was, not just for American citizens but for all citizens around the world.
I also found that in general I was still treated as an individual, regardless of a person’s connotation with the U.S. and American culture as a whole.This was probably due my efforts to show respect and consideration for other cultures.An earnest attempt to speak the language really goes a long way.As time grew on and I began to feel more comfortable with the language and way of life I also began to feel more comfortable in my own skin as an American citizen abroad.I sought to live each day exuding the right balance of confidence and humility
The global experiences of studying abroad for a semester are many, both on a micro and macro level.I experienced an unprecedented change in my own country and my view of the national identity changed while I was three thousand miles away, but it is not just the major or fundamental changes one experiences during travel.It is also the seemingly mundane every day happenings that we can use to shape ourselves.Whether it be a stroll down one of Madrid’s narrow city streets during quiet siesta, foot steps echoing against the uneven stones, a conversation with a stranger using only the universal language of gestures and facial expressions, or realizing an unknown strength in your self, there is always more to be gained from experiencing the world.
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