Very late PSA: I’m going to Seoul as an English teacher with EPIK next week…
…and sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make friends with my elementary Korean skills.
After all, so much of our personalities is conveyed through our words. As a writer and English teacher, the very foundation of my career is diction and syntax. It’s a skill that I’ve honed for my entire life and a tool that I use to convey the many shades of Kylie that I have to offer.
A HUGE part of my personality is my ability make jokes or dish out sass like free chicken samples at a food court Panda Express.
I can make people laugh in other languages, too.
Just… not always for the reasons I intended.
FLASHBACK: Kylie’s Last Korean Lesson (via Skype)
Kylie: So I tried to make Korean seaweed soup for my dad, but it came out really watery. I went to H-Mart and there were too many kinds of seaweed so I just picked one. (Shows teacher a picture of the seaweed aisle at H-Mart).
Teacher: (begins laughing hysterically)
Kylie: … What?
Teacher: (continues to laugh hysterically)
Kylie: WHAT, teacher, WHAT?
Teacher: THAT’S the seaweed you used?!
Kylie: It’s wrong?
Teacher: (slams forehead on desk, still laughing hysterically)
Kylie: YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHICH ONE I PICKED. HOW DO YOU KNOW ALL OF THESE ARE WRONG?
Teacher: (starts crying laughing)
Kylie: TEACHER PLZ
Teacher: Kylie-Ssi, those are seaweed sheets for kimbap and rice. (Pastes two pictures into our shared google doc)
What I used:
What I was supposed to use:
Kylie: …. no wonder it came out looking like sludge.
Teacher: (dies of laughter. RIP I need a new Korean teacher now)
… My point is, I am unable to express a vital part of my personality in Korean, at least for now.
So, up until I become fluent in Korean, will the only people in Korea who truly know me for who I am be English-speaking foreigners? Will everyone else only know a watered-down, baby-talking version of me?
At first, my answer was a resounding “YES” that motivated me to study Korean even harder.
But then, I thought about the interactions I’ve had with my students and foreign friends of different English-language abilities.
There’s Eugenia, in my beginner English class. I don’t know her nuanced thoughts on American politics and race relations, but I know that she’s punctual and dedicated despite being the lowest-level student in the class. I know that she’s got a funny side, because she saw me on the train after class and sat across from me, staring aggressively, until we finally made eye contact and laughed together when I jumped in surprise.
Then there’s Jonathan, another beginner student who can’t really pronounce the letters “s” or “z” but sits at his table 5 minutes before class and plays scales on a black violin.
Are my interactions with these people less meaningful because they’re limited by language? Are they less “real” than the interactions I have with native English speakers? Are the things we share with each other actually watered-down and inauthentic?
I think that perhaps, when we don’t speak each others’ languages as well as we might like to, what we see is not a lesser part of each other but a different part. Perhaps we see a facet of someone that we might have overlooked when distracted by all the vacuous words so often tossed in the air. There’s a sort of innocence, or maybe honesty, to paring down our words to the bare minimum. There’s nothing to hide behind.
I hadn’t checked the countdown on my phone in weeks. I didn’t need to anymore, because I knew the little gray boxes labeled “WEEKS,” “DAYS,” “HOURS,” “MINUTES,” and “SECONDS” all had tiny white zeros.
I’d started the countdown almost as soon as I’d come to Spain, back when I sat in bed and stared at pictures of my friends while listening to “See You Again” on repeat and thought please let this be over quickly.
Now I’m afraid that I won’t be able to fall asleep without the sounds of Spanish television from across the hall. I’m afraid that whenever it’s 2:00pm, no matter where I am in the world, I’ll hear Victoria calling “A comer!” from the kitchen, and I’ll remember sitting at a round table with a tablecloth thick enough to be a blanket while she hands me a spoon for my lentil soup. And whenever I don’t have time for lunch and stuff half a peanut-butter sandwich in my mouth, I’ll hear her saying “Es muy poco!” and pushing an overflowing bowl of fruit at me.
Victoria is 77 years old. I know I want to come back to Spain someday, but I don’t have any immediate plans (or money) to come back soon. And it’s possible that by the time I get around to coming back, she’ll be gone.
I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my life. Sometimes it seems like whenever I teach myself how to be happy in a new place, I run away. I left my family and high school friends in Massachusetts, started from scratch in Atlanta, and just when I figured out how to be happy again, I got on a plane to Madrid.
I’ve learned that my happiness doesn’t come from other people, but is something I take with me and can rediscover no matter what continent I’m in or what language I have to speak. I’ve learned that goodbyes are necessary, because if I’d never said goodbye to my friends last spring, I never would have met Victoria. But for all the practice I’ve had, saying goodbye never gets easier.
Whenever I get too caught up in the “last” time I’ll ever experience something, I think about a passage from my favorite book, Einstein’s Dreams. Every chapter is a different theory about time and all the different ways it might stretch and implode. My favorite chapter imagines a world in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”
It describes a woman who gives her dying husband one last kiss:
“She is certain that this was the last kiss. How could she know that time will begin again, that she will be born again, will study at the gymnasium again, will show her paintings at the gallery in Zürich, will again meet her husband in the small library in Fribourg, will again go sailing with him in Thun Lake on a warm day in July… How could she know?”
I think about this passage whenever another “last time” falls on my shoulders. I find it more comforting than any religion I’ve ever practiced or read about – the idea that there is never a “last” time, that there’s no end to your life and no need to mourn the things that are lost because eventually you’ll find them again.
The idea that when I wave goodbye to Victoria from the bus, I don’t need to be sad because one day in August we’ll meet for the first time again. She’ll be waiting for me on Fonseca street, then we’ll take the #4 bus back to her apartment. She’ll take me to my room with two tiny beds, then leave me to unpack while she makes paella for lunch.
I’ll ride my bike in the rain again, take salsa lessons again, get lost in the gardens of a Moorish palace again, look down at the Guadalquivir river from a ferris wheel again, and finally come back home again to eat seafood soup with Victoria. And just like every night, she’ll say “A pasar buenas noches” as she stands at the sink washing dishes, and I’ll say “Hasta mañana.” See you tomorrow.
“We’re in Portugal,” I said. “We can’t get burgers.”
That didn’t stop me from staring lustfully at the burger stand in the Lisbon food court. From twenty feet away, I could still smell all the salt, grease, and diabetes. I looked over at Bethany and Amanda, who wouldn’t look at me because they were hypnotized by the word “BURGER” printed in white chalk on the menu overhead.
“Yeah, we can’t,” they agreed quietly, still staring at the burgers.
“Well,” I said, “is there anything distinctly Portuguese about them? Different from American burgers?”
“The meat,” Bethany said. “The meat is different.”
“And we couldn’t eat them in Spain, because we always eat with our host families,” I said. “And we had Portuguese food for lunch.”
Bethany and Amanda didn’t say anything, but looked at me expectantly with eyes that said, Just say it, Kylie.
“I’m going to do it,” I said.
“Me too,” Bethany and Amanda said.
Ten minutes later, we had trays of steaming hot burgers and fries. I had never felt more American, even though I rarely ate burgers while in the U.S. Halfway through my burger, I realized people were staring at us as they cut their burgers into pieces and speared them with forks.
I put my burger down and picked up a fry. “People eat burgers with forks and knives here?” I said.
“Apparently,” said Amanda. “I don’t care, though.”
“Well, we’re the ones doing it right because burgers are American and we’re American.”
“Kylie, be quiet. Everyone here speaks English.”
I stuffed more fries in my mouth before I could say anything else. As I looked up, I saw half the Emory group on the other side of the food court, coming closer to us.
“Shit,” I said, wiping my face with a napkin. “We’ve been caught.”
Bethany and Amanda turned around as Katherine and Jason appeared behind us. Katherine’s eyes locked on my food, which I tugged closer to me.
“How’s the burger?” Katherine said, smiling.
“Amazing,” I said, temporarily forgetting to be ashamed of being so American.
“Yeah, we all ate there half an hour ago,” Katherine said. “It was great.”
“It’s actually not that expensive to ship candy corn from America to Spain,” I said.
“I was serious,” I said. “I’m getting desperate.”
Halloween was coming, and I hadn’t had any candy corn since August.
I’d searched every candy store in Salamanca. I’d tried describing it to my host mother, who frowned before pulling out a bag of triangular cherry candies that some French girls left for her. I told her that no, that wasn’t candy corn, but thanks for trying. Then ate the candy anyway.
Halloween was my favorite holiday. I loved to watch horror movies and laugh hysterically while my friends screamed and hid under the blankets. I loved buying tubs of 2/$4 candy corn from CVS, even when the cashier looked at me and said, “You nasty.” I loved wearing a superman costume under a white blouse on Halloween, then quickly unbuttoning it and saying, “Does anyone need help?” when my friends asked a question about our Chinese homework.
But Halloween had only just started trickling over to Spain. Some kids went trick-or-treating, but the grandmothers still said “How shameful!” at the idea of asking strangers for candy. College students stayed in bars until 9am, like always, except this time in costume.
But there were no jack-o-lanterns, no haunted houses, no bobbing for apples or donuts hung from strings. I planned to spend Halloween night in bed, surrounded by dangerously inexpensive candy from Carrefour, watching The Nightmare Before Christmas on my laptop.
The Friday before Halloween, while walking to the plaza, I got a text from Katherine.
“I have your candy corn.”
I dropped my phone on the sidewalk, scooped it up and read the text again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
I vaguely recalled a conversation a few weeks earlier when I’d seen Katherine in the street and mentioned my search for candy corn (which I talked about to anyone who would listen). She said her mom was visiting from the U.S. and could ask her to bring me candy corn, but I’d half forgotten about it and half thought that she wouldn’t actually do it.
I texted back:
“Literally any time and place that it’s convenient for you to give it to me, tell me and I’ll be there.”
That night, I cut open the bag and sat in bed marveling at the most beautiful, perfect pieces of candy corn I’d ever seen in my life.
I remembered Halloween sleepovers in middle school with bowls filled with candy corn all over my living room.
I remembered buying 99-cent bags of candy corn from CVS when I got out of work at the daycare back in 12th grade and eating them on the bus on the way home.
I remembered my friends at Emory buying bags of candy corn to help me get through study sessions until 2am.
I remembered sealing a half-eaten bag of candy corn with a purple hair tie during freshman year, then giving it to a guy I liked and later texting him to ask for my hair tie back.
I only ended up eating a few pieces of candy corn that night. I sealed the rest in a plastic bag and put in the drawer of my night stand. This was one piece of home that I wanted to last a long time.
“I heard that some people were killed in California,” Victoria said.
I spooned more potato and pimentón soup into my bowl. “Oh, sí?”
“Sí, sí, I heard it on the news.”
I broke off a chunk of bread and starting stirring my potatoes. “A shooting?” I said.
“I mean, I might have heard it wrong,” Victoria said quickly. “There was just something about it on TV right before I went to bed last night. I’m not trying to scare you.”
“It doesn’t scare me,” I said. “Pass the water, por favor.”
I finished filling my glass and saw that Victoria was still staring at me.
“Shootings don’t surprise me,” I said, setting down my spoon. “They happen all the time in America. In movie theaters, at schools…” I paused, wondering how to best translate “Planned Parenthood Clinic” into Spanish. I gave up and shook my head, picking up my spoon again. “It’s easy to get guns, en mi país.”
Almost as soon as I’d come to Spain, I’d started referring to America as “mi país,” or “my country.” Mostly because it saved time, since no one seemed to say “América” in Spanish, but rather, “Los Estados Unidos” and that was a mouthful to say every time I wanted to make a cultural comparison.
But in doing so, I’d unintentionally taken ownership of something that I never realized I wanted.
Sometimes it’s easy to be ashamed of America. I feel that way whenever I watch the news with my host mother and Donald Trump appears on the screen, or when we hear about yet another unnecessary shooting.
Yet, when I was suddenly stripped of the food, the ideology, and even the language of the country where I grew up, I started to miss things that I never even knew that I loved. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d said, “En los Estados Unidos,” because the U.S. wasn’t just a country to me anymore, it was my country, where I was from.
My country is massive, arrogant, and a little chubby, but it gave me a good education, a safe childhood, and raised me with the audacious notion that I can achieve all of my dreams. We have far too many guns and cheeseburgers, but America’s problems are my problems to fix. I can never wash America from my hands just by fleeing to Spain, nor would I want to. I will accept the amazing public education, the terrible health care system, the autumn leaves in New England, the rampant heart disease, the pumpkin pie, the xenophobic politicians, and the American Dream. Give it all to me. I’ll take every piece of it, good or bad.
I thought about this while sitting in my Spanish linguistics class as my professor played a campaign video from the 2012 U.S. elections, complete with “God Bless the U.S.A.” blaring in the background.
“I want to cry,” I whispered to Emma. “I love this song.”
“Kylie,” she said, “this is the cheesiest American song ever.”
Foreigners in Salamanca are called guiris. I don’t know if guiris give off a particular smell, but everyone seems to know that we’re not Spanish.
My host mother once described my complexion by holding up a porcelain plate, and combined with my Asian-ish eyes, I’m not surprised that people don’t mistake me for a local. But some of my American friends seem to attract English-speaking tourists without even opening their mouths, and none of us can explain why.
But there are more benefits to being an “outsider” than I thought. Namely, being able to decide when to play the foreigner card. Which happens mainly…
In situations where my social etiquette is questionable
Even in America, I’m spectacular at doing things the wrong way in public: going in through the exit door, using the wrong bathroom, etc. In Spain, it’s even worse. You seat yourself at restaurants MOST but NOT ALL of the time, so standing in the doorway looking confused will usually get you nowhere. The male and female bathrooms are labelled with creative drawings and sometimes “S” and “C” which is confusing because both “Señores” (men) and “Señoras” (women) start with “S.” TL;DR: life is complicated.
So whenever I feel like I’m doing something wrong in public but don’t know how to fix it, I make my foreign-ness as obvious as possible.
Like when I went to a trial Latin Dance class, entered the building by slamming the door against the wall, and stepped into a room of Spanish people staring at me.
I turned to my friend Amanda.
“Let’s just stand here and speak in English so everyone knows that we have no clue what we’re doing,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Amanda. “It’s better to look like a foreigner than just an idiot.”
“Yeah, then maybe someone will help us. Hahaha. I’m so confused. HAHAHA someone please help us.”
At which point a woman at a desk in the back smiled and asked if we needed help, and no one that day died of embarrassment.
This tactic also works when people try to sell me things or hand me brochures while I’m walking back from class. I loudly say, “I DON’T SPEAK SPANISH I’M SORRY” and run away. The same applies for when creepy guys talk to me. So far this method hasn’t failed me.
But there are also times when I feel like I have a good handle on the situation and get irritated (maybe unfairly so) when people treat me like I don’t speak Spanish.
This happens a lot when I ask questions.
While in Santiago de Compostela, I sat down in a restaurant with three other Americans and started reading the menu. I saw caldo gallego under the first course. I knew it meant “Galician Broth,” but that could mean anything from chicken noodle soup to the boiled blood of Galician pilgrims, so when the waiter came over, I decided to ask.
“A quick question,” I said in Spanish. “What is caldo gallego?”
“Una sopa,” the waiter said. “Soup.”
“Sí, sí,” I said, frowning. [Whenever Spanish people offer unsolicited English translations, they seem to pick the least helpful words to translate. One of my program directors once said, “Los romanos, sabéis? The Romans!” because clearly no one could have guessed that]
“I know what caldo means,” I said (still in Spanish). “I’m asking what’s IN the soup.”
“Fish and vegetables.”
“Sí, sí,” I said, “pero qué pescado?”
“Codfish,” he said in English.
I considered telling him that I knew that word in Spanish, thank you very much. I’d eaten fried bacalao with my host mother every week since I’d come to Spain. It was the same fish hanging in every window in Santiago de Compostela with giant, terrifying eyes. This whole region of Spain was famous for its bacalao and I would have to be blind not to see it written on the chalk boards outside of every restaurant. So I appreciate the fact that even though I haven’t said a word of English to you, you’ve been insisting that I can’t speak Spanish. I came thousands of miles just to speak English with you. I’ll tell you where you can shove that codfish.
Instead, I closed the menu.
“Vale,” I said. “I’ll just have the toast and ham, thank you.”
As hard as it is to live abroad and be forced to speak another language to get by, being a guiri is a unique kind of in-between world. As a biracial person, I’ve navigated gray zones my entire life. This is just another case of learning the rules of the game, and having fun even if I can’t always win.
The best day started at 5:00AM. I had to catch a 7:00AM bus to Galicia, so I crammed my clothes into a duffel bag, grabbed the “snack” (two sandwiches, a banana, a chocolate bar, and two juice boxes) that my host mother had insisted I needed to eat before lunch, and headed out.
At 6:30AM, the only people on the streets in Salamanca were college students who hadn’t finished their night out. Girls walked past me in mini skirts and high heels while I shuffled away because I felt thoroughly unpretty in comparison in my glasses and sweatshirt, lugging a duffle back up a hill before sunrise. Two guys at a traffic light said something to me about the bus station and patted me on the shoulder when I didn’t understand. I thought that 6:30AM might be the best time to find attractive guys in Salamanca. Then I walked past one guy screaming a sequence of vowel sounds that didn’t sound like they belonged to any language while throwing bottles at a building, and changed my mind.
The bus was big enough that everyone could have their own row, so I wrapped my scarf around me like a blanket, lay down across the seats, and ate my nutella sandwich (called nocilla in Spain) while watching the Spanish sunrise through the bus window.
Six hours later, we stopped at a hotel with no wifi, one outlet per room, and bathrooms the size of closets. After a hot shower and a handful of candy from the front desk, none of it bothered me anymore.
After lunch, we drove to a winery.
The last time I’d been to a winery, I was 17 and also in Spain. But back then I was averse to anything other than pumpkin iced coffee and salted caramel hot chocolate. This time I had an entire glass of wine and felt thoroughly adult afterwards, even if I didn’t really like it and ended up eating almost the entire bowl of peanuts that came with it.
Afterwards, we all boarded a boat to see how Galicians catch mejillones. A waiter put a giant plate of mussels and shrimp in front of me. I turned down the extra bottle of wine and received a huge bottle of lemon Fanta instead.
I picked up a mussel and turned to Amanda.
“How do we eat these?”
She shrugged. I cracked the shell open and poked at the orange meat. It looked like a baby heart.
I looked over at Amanda. She had already eaten two.
“They’re good,” she said. “Salty.”
I looked at Bethany on my left. “On three?” I said.
“Okay. Uno… dos… tres!”
They were very good. As long as I didn’t look at them, or think about what I was eating.
“Maybe if we eat enough of these, we’ll turn into mermaids,” I said, cracking the head off a piece of shrimp. Bethany and Amanda agreed.
Bagpipe music started playing from the speakers in front of us (Galician culture has a lot of Celtic influence). I took off my sunglasses and looked out across the harbor. The air smelled like salt and fish. Suddenly, I felt like I was in Boston again.
Maybe it was the sunshine, the familiar ocean smell, or maybe it was the shot that I accidentally took because I thought it was a tiny cup of coffee, but for some reason I felt incredibly happy.
Later, we found a staircase that led down to where mermaids lived. I started singing “Part of Your World” for the rest of the night.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a beach to see the sunset. Amanda and I took off our shoes and stepped into the water, which was cold enough to make you scream but not give you frostbite. I thought about how lucky I was to be on that beach at that exact moment to see such an amazing skyline. I thought about how wonderful it was to have friends that let me sing Disney songs for hours and took off their shoes to run through freezing salt water with me. I thought about how when I first came to Spain, I wasn’t happy, and how silly that all felt now.
After dinner, Bethany, Amanda and I walked around the city until we found a 24-hour convenience store and bought 1-Euro chocolate bars. We sat on the beach and watched the lights twinkle across the water from all the houses and boats across from us.
I heard someone speaking English from the stone wall up above us and looked up at some of the other people from our group walking by.
“Let’s wave!” I said.
“Let’s not,” said Amanda, “because they’re probably going out while we’re sitting in the dark eating chocolate on a Saturday night.”
I thought about this while they walked by, putting another cookie in my mouth.
“Well, I’m happy with my life choices,” I said finally.
Bethany and Amanda nodded. We turned back to the shore and watched the lights again, even after it was too cold and windy and we really should have gone back to the hotel. I refused to let the best day so far come to an end so easily. I stayed until I memorized every pinprick of light on the water, the smell of albariño and salt water, and the feeling of something that I had lost finally coming back to me in one freezing cold wave of salt water against my bare feet.
“My neighbors don’t like birds,” my host mother said, tearing up another piece of bread and throwing it onto the patio. “But I do, so I feed them and blame it on the man next door.”
She smiled as she tossed more bread crumbs onto the porch. A tiny gray bird swooped down and started pecking at the red tiles.
“Mira, it’s so cute!” she said.
A tiny moth fluttered around one of the pink flower pots. Victoria scoffed.
“I hate these mariposas,” she said, grabbing a dish towel and stepping onto the patio. She started viciously whipping the flower with the towel until the moth flew away and purple flower petals fell everywhere.
Victoria turned around and smiled as if she hadn’t just destroyed her own plant.
“There,” she said proudly. “No more mariposas.”
“Do you like salchichas?” Victoria said one night.
“What are salchichas?”
Victoria walked to the fridge and took out a package of what looked like hot dogs.
“Oh yeah, I like those,” I said. “We have those in America.”
“Bueno,” Victoria said. “I’ll make them tonight with some patatas fritas?”
“Patatas fritas?” I echoed. “French fries? Like in America?”
“Yes. Do you like them?”
“Well…” I paused. I was always careful when telling Victoria what I liked. If I ate more of something than usual, she tended to give me bigger portions and cook it more frequently. And as much as I liked pasta and fried eggs, I didn’t want to come back to the U.S. 10 pounds heavier having eaten very little actual Spanish food. I also wondered if french fries were part of her normal diet, or if she was making them because I was American.
“Yes, I like them, though I try not to eat them too often,” I said finally.
“Sí, sí,” Victoria said. “Every once in a while is fine.”
At 9:00 she called me back for dinner. I sat down at the counter and poured myself a glass of water. Victoria placed a large plate of french fries in front of me, then scraped six hot dogs onto my plate. I looked at them, then at Victoria, with sheer terror in my eyes.
“I can’t eat all of those,” I said.
“They’re small,” Victoria said, picking up a kiwi and peeling it. “You can do it.”
“We’re traveling to La Alberca tomorrow,” I said, “so I won’t be here for lunch.”
“La Alberca!” Victoria said. “You know they have a little piglet running around the streets?”
“Sí, everyone feeds it bread and it gets really fat.”
I imagined a little pink piglet with a red collar bouncing up and down the streets of a cute Spanish village. I decided to bring some extra bread with me to La Alberca just in case. Then I realized I hadn’t been listening while Victoria kept talking.
“…And also sausage,” Victoria finished.
“They feed sausage… to the pig?” I repeated slowly.
Victoria looked at me for a moment, then bent over laughing. “No,” she said. “They feed bread to the pig and it gets really fat. Then then they make the pig into sausage.”
I spent the next day searching for the legendary piglet. An hour before leaving, I finally found it. Though it wasn’t as tiny and pink as I’d imagined.
Cuando me vaya
“I’ve only had one other girl who didn’t like to go out,” Victoria said, putting plastic wrap around half a melon. She turned back to the sink and the mountain of dishes that she refused to let me help her wash. It amazed me that two people could dirty so many plates, but she insisted on giving me a separate plate for every type of food.
“But all the other girls I’ve had went out. The American girls went out every night, even when they had class in the morning.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. I’d heard it from enough people that I was somehow “doing it wrong” by sleeping at midnight every night. All my friends said their host mothers expected them to go out and were accustomed to students coming back at 7AM and sleeping until 4. The host mothers acted surprised if we woke up before lunch on Saturday and wondered what was wrong if we stayed home at night.
I’d made a valiant attempt at going out the night before, dragging myself to a Taiwanese girl’s apartment at 11pm to hang out with other international students. I didn’t know how to buy good wine, so I brought cider that no one drank. I had some good conversations and a decent glass of tinto de verano, but I was exhausted, my head hurt, my throat hurt, and my Spanish was getting worse by the minute. A drunk Chinese boy asked if me and my friend Amanda were sisters, even though she was white and blonde while I was half-asian and brunette. I came home at 2:30 while everyone else went to the plaza to keep drinking.
“It’s probably better that you don’t,” Victoria said. I looked up.
“You came here to study, after all,” she said. “Most of these girls never study, they just go out all the time. I don’t understand it, because they’re paying to be here. But you can do whatever you want, just don’t come home drunk.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” I said. We sat down together and started eating our sopa at the kitchen counter.
Victoria had hosted girls for over ten years, and said she couldn’t remember how many. She never said their names, but she remembered certain things that they did. One American girl liked to sit on the patio and tan. One Korean girl refused to eat rabbit meat because she had a pet rabbit at home. The French girls ate bowls of plain lettuce every day.
Even if I was somehow “doing it wrong,” I liked the idea that maybe Victoria would have a reason to remember me as well.
I hear this a lot in Spain. Translated in the most literal, anal-retentive way, it means “Nothing doesn’t happen.” But because Spanish is a wonderful language where double-negatives frolic freely without canceling each other out, a better translation would be “Nothing happens.”
But just as “What’s up?” does not actually mean “What is physically above us in the sky at this moment?”, “No pasa nada” has a deeper meaning, which took me a while to figure out. Here are 5 times I encountered this phrase:
1.When I thanked my host mother for the 1000th time after she prepared a 3-course Spanish lunch that I couldn’t finish.
This time it was lentil soup, a delicious-yet-bony fish, salad drenched in olive oil, a fresh baguette and bowl of fruit on the side.
Spanish food practically explodes with flavor; I could eat three plain bagels at home, but one chicken cutlet drenched in my host mother’s magic Spanish sauce was so rich that I could barely eat half.
“You didn’t eat very much,” she said as she cleared the plates.
I disagreed. At Emory, I would have had a fruit smoothie and granola bar for lunch. This was twice as big and twice as healthy.
“I’m sorry,” I said. She definitely believed that I hated all her food and was too polite to say so. “I like it a lot, I just can’t eat anymore.”
“Well, if you’re hungry later you can take yogurt from the fridge,” she said. “No pasa nada.”
2. I was locked outside.
I needed exactly 3 keys to get into my apartment, and the key to the lobby wasn’t working. I tried all three keys and then tried each one again, looking around me to make sure no one thought I was breaking in. A pair of old men stared at me from across the street.
Then the door swung open and my host mother’s 36-year-old son came out in his jogging gear.
“Oh, uh, gracias,” I said. My key was still stuck in the door. I reached for it but realized he was standing in the way and I’d reached towards his stomach. I pulled my hand back and scratched my neck.
“No pasa nada,” he said uneasily, sliding past me and jogging down the street.
3. I stood in front of a gelato stand in the Plaza Mayor, trying to pay for my “Vainilla con Cookies” gelato using coins that I wasn’t familiar with.
(Side note: pronouncing English words with a Spanish accent is bizarre; “Cookies” becomes “KOO-keys” and “Oreo” becomes “oh-RAY-oh”) I pulled out my wallet and realized it would be stupid to break a 20 for 2 Euro ice cream, then proceeded to dig around for my coin purse, drop it, collect the coins from cracks in the sidewalk, and then carefully examine each coin to make sure I was handing over the right ones to the cashier.
“Lo siento,” I apologized to the cashier, glancing at the line behind me.
“No pasa nada,” she said, smiling as I finally dropped the coins in her hand.
4. I sat in my daily 2-hour Spanish grammar classnext to three other kids from Emory.
Across from me sat two Taiwanese students who preferred the names “Julia” and “Moises,” a Saudi Arabian man, a Brazilian man and woman, and a girl who was ethnically Peruvian but grew up in Japan.
I liked sitting next to Ricardo because even though we both went to Emory, he grew up in the Dominican Republic and usually knew the right answers when he wasn’t doodling “BORED” in different fonts across his notebook.
We were doing a worksheet on the different ways to use the present tense, because apparently in Spanish the present tense can sometimes actually mean the past and sometimes the future.
“I have no idea what number 5 is,” I said to Ricardo, chewing on my pen.
He shook his head. “Yo tampoco.”
I knew it was bad when even Ricardo didn’t know what to do. I chewed harder on my pen cap until pieces of it started breaking off into my mouth. But Ricardo just shrugged.
“Eh, don’t worry,” he said. “No pasa nada.”
5. I sat on the steps of the Sancti Spiritus church at night.
The plaza was crowded because of the festival and big crowds/alcohol had never been my thing. I wanted to sleep, but if I went home before 8, I would have to tell my host mother another excuse for why I didn’t want to drink tinto de verano and eat tapas with everyone else. Was jet lag still a good excuse a week after I’d landed in Madrid?
I knew that good travelers were supposed to stay out and experience Spanish night life until 7:00AM, but the thought of stumbling half-awake through crowds of drunk people, trying not to get pick-pocketed, and ordering drinks that were 95% soda while everyone else did shots and danced made me depressed.
So I sat in front of the church which was relatively quiet, seeing as only one couple was making out nearby. I tried to send Wechat messages to my friends back home but there wasn’t any wifi. I wondered how I was going to make friends in Spain.
I felt the same way I did when I first moved to Atlanta, a place that I now loved and missed. I remembered that I hadn’t considered Emory home until Halloween of freshman year, when I came back from a small party at Bread Coffeehouse with green cookies and music that I actually enjoyed dancing to. I’d sat down at my desk, bitten into one of the cookies I’d taken with me, and thought, “I’m home,” before realizing what that actually meant.
I didn’t know if it would take more or less time for me to get used to Spain. On one hand, it was another country and language. On the other hand, I’d done this before. I had no longer “lived in Medford all my life, in the same house,” as I used to tell people. This time I knew that things were hard, but then they got better than I’d ever imagined.
A woman stopped and looked at me on the steps. I realized I’d been frowning into the distance for a while now.
“Are you okay?” she said.
I nodded and tucked my phone into my purse, giving up on trying to contact my friends in different continents. They would still be there for me tomorrow morning.
Victoria, my Spanish host mother, pushed a stool up to the kitchen counter for me. She’d laid out a box of what looked like Spanish-knockoff chocolate Rice Krispies, rectangular semi-sweet biscuits with “TOSTADOS” printed on the front, a bag of pre-toasted mini slices of bread, raspberry jam, a box of orange juice, a plastic-wrapped pair of donut sticks, and a giant container of Colacao (a ridiculously popular chocolate drink powder).
She smiled while I sat at the stool and stared dumbly at the food.
“Spanish breakfast usually consists of toast and coffee,” my handbook had said.
I picked up the knife and put it back down again. Slid the napkin out from underneath the silverware and put it on the other side of my plate. Slowly uncapped the jam.
“Take whatever you like,” Victoria said. “I’ll get your milk.”
I tentatively took a piece of pre-toasted bread from the bag. It was hard, thin, and about the size of a wallet. Crumbs fell onto my lap. I grimaced and wished that Spanish people put their napkins on their laps like in America.
The microwave beeped and Victoria put a gigantic cup of milk on the saucer in front of me, approximately the size of a large salad bowl.
“I can’t drink coffee because of my blood pressure,” she said. “If you want coffee I can buy some, but all I have right now is this.”
She handed me a packet of decaf coffee mix.
“Thank you very much,” I said. Somewhere around my 1000th “thank you,” since moving into her apartment, I’d started bowing like the Chinese students at my school every time I said it.
Victoria went to the living room and I examined the coffee mix. I’d slept three hours in the past two days, and had been secretly hoping for Spanish coffee to help me survive my 9AM Spanish placement test. Decaf probably wouldn’t do the job, and even though the Spanish put a lot of milk in their coffee, something told me they didn’t make it by dumping a handful of powder in a massive mug of milk with no water.
I examined my other options for the titanic cup in front of me, then glanced around to make sure Victoria wasn’t watching. Was it for cereal? Did the Spanish eat cereal in mugs?
I touched the cup and realized it was steaming hot.
Now I really had no clue what I was supposed to do with the bucket of hot milk she’d put in front of me. Unless I wanted boiled cereal, I had to choose something else. I picked up the Colacao container and read the back, gleaning that I was supposed to mix 1-2 spoonfuls with “un poco” milk, i.e. not an entire bowl.
I looked at the clock and realized I had five minutes to eat before I had to leave for my test.
Screw it, I thought, dumping three spoonfuls of Colacao into my milk.
Victoria walked back into the kitchen as soon as I took a sip of my bowl of breakfast hot chocolate.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling and staring into the cup, “thank you. But… what is the milk for? Is it for cereal?”
“It’s for whatever you want,” Victoria said.
“Yes, but what was your intention? Why is it hot?”
“Do you not like it hot?”
“No, no, está bien. I just don’t understand what it’s for.”
“It’s so it mixes well with the Colacao.”
I took another sip, realizing that I needed more words for “okay” in Spanish. I said “Vale” approximately 100 times per day.
“If you like café instead, I can get it,” Victoria said. “Some of the other girls really liked coffee. Do you?”
“Well,” I said, “actually, yes.”
“Vale,” she said, clapping her hands together and smiling.
I set down the hot chocolate, thinking for the first time that things here were going to be okay.