SHARING CULTURES MEANS CHANGING YOURSELF
by Bob Lloyd
One of the most interesting things I've found about leaving the UK and starting to live in Spain is how attitudes change. We moved to rural Andalucia two years ago and pretty soon after we arrived, we made contact with other people in the ex-pat community and of course, despite our intention to integrate quickly, to master the language, learn the customs, and participate in the activities of the town, that was harder than we'd expected.
We had some problems with the language despite studying it hard, and the local accent of course was mystifying, as was understanding the local bureaucracy and processes, but we pretty much coped as we knew we would. Of course, everyone who leaves their country of origin has something about them, some strength of character, a willingness to take on a challenge, and confidence in their ability to have a go and get by. And like all the other ex-pats, we knew we were up for a challenge, and we knew at times it would be difficult.
And everyone who moves to Spain also has certain expectations and hopes. Whatever the reasons for moving here, we all had a vision of what it would be like. Gradually though, one by one, those hopes and expectations underwent a quite subtle change as we adapted to the new way of life. There are those of course in any community who will complain that they can't get teabags, or Marmite or M&S ready-meals and they don't like chorizos, but many, if not all of us, are interested in the local food, the local shops, the local ways of doing things. Gradually our attitudes begin to change, sometimes dramatically.
I started an intercambio just over a year ago with a neighbour. It's a language exchange in which we speak in both English and Spanish and both learn together. Through those conversations, I started to experience the range of attitudes of Spaniards towards the English, the perceptions that locals have of foreigners moving into their town. There was a mixture of curiosity, interest in another culture, concern that we should be able to adapt to our new home, and the ready supply of useful information. For us it was a warm and much-appreciated welcome.
I had expected some hostility from local people similar to the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, racist assumptions that often come out when English people talk about immigration and foreigners. Of course, we are the immigrants, we are the foreigners. We were the ones buying up the houses, pushing up the prices, and we were the ones who bundle together in large groups in the bars talking loudly in English, almost incapable of communicating with the locals. It would be understandable if there was some criticism and suspicion.
Ironically, those suspicious attitudes can be most apparent not amongst the Spanish, but amongst the English, even here. The inability to communicate leads to misunderstandings, expectations not met, deliveries that didn't happen, confusion over administrative procedures, and the result sometimes is an attitude that blames the Spaniards for being inefficient, or slow, or disorganised. No doubt, just like in England, people can experience those sorts of problems, but often the cause lies in poor communication. In our experience, when we communicate effectively, we have almost no problems at all.
As the ex-pat groups share their frustrations, such suspicions and stereotypes become more accepted. Mañana, mañana moves from a light-hearted joke to something of a prejudice. As we rely more and more on the ex-pat network for information, we reduce the interaction with locals rather than increasing it. Sometimes, the ex-pat misinformation network, which is highly efficient especially by word of mouth, spreads even more confusion. And unless we work hard at the language, we don't improve our ability to ask for and understand information.
In my intercambio, we have discussed how such attitudes change. As there is more interaction, there are more sources of local information, less confusion, and conversations are more relaxed. As we discussed differences between cultures, we came to realise that what we call our own culture is something formed in us by chance. That being English, or being Spanish, is not some essential component of our character, not some national DNA, but something we learned as we grew up. We are not English through and through, but English only because we were brought up in England. Our traditions are not an essential part of our character but something we learned as we grew up, with values we came to accept. And it's the same in Spain. We could all just as easily have had different cultural values and there is no reason at all why they can't change. Indeed there are often good reasons why they should.
We realised that there is as much variation in attitudes in both populations. Talk of the English character, orthe Spanish character is actually the first step on the ladder of prejudice, helping to establish national stereotypes, when the reality is that we are all different and show the same range of attitudes. What in fact happens, is that we all share in our national culture because that is what is around us. Once we realise that, we can readily share in other cultures too.
There are contradictions in every culture. The UK culturally deplores cruelty to animals and yet for centuries had no problem with hunting; we just accepted the contradiction until something challenged it. And there are contradictions in the ex-pat community too. I once met a rather sad and racist English ex-pat who, without any trace of irony, explained that he had come to Spain because of all the immigration in the UK. Of course, he was lucky not to meet Spaniards with his own attitudes; he regarded Spaniards as warm and welcoming. He completely missed the irony.
It seems to me that recognising that we simply participate in national cultures rather than belong to them, is an important step in integrating into another country. By relaxing our grip on what we often think of as being British, we allow ourselves to participate more fully in other cultures. And that in turn helps reduce our dependence on our own prejudices and stereotypes.
Something a local man, Ángel, told me in the Sacristía bar in the village one night, seems to me quite profound: the strength of a culture is not measured by how much it can keep out to preserve itself, but by how much it can accept and grow. For ex-pats learning how to integrate, that's really important. Andalucia is a wonderful place to live and the culture is rich and open. It has a long political tradition of mutual support with strong communities. To be invited to integrate into such a community is a privilege.
But there are many ex-pats who are effectively living in a bubble, reading only English newspapers, watching only English TV, speaking only English to English people, and they are separated from England. What happens there largely doesn't affect them, and what happens here in Spain also barely affects them. That has a corrosive effect on their attitudes since nothing ever challenges their ideas, their beliefs, their prejudices. Sometimes, their prejudices just grow.
One manifestation is of course, the mañana jokes about lazy Spaniards, and tales about how they never turn up when expected, or never finish a job on time, or do a poor job. Long gone are the memories of that happening in England of course, and the regularity of the joke reinforces the prejudice, and as a result the isolation. With the comfort of an insulating ex-pat community sharing their views, there is less pressure to integrate. With more and more information available in English, there's less reason to learn the language, and as a consequence less opportunity to understand the culture. There are thousands of ex-pats who speak no more than ten Spanish words in an average week and they often pride themselves on getting by.
But they no longer participate in English culture, and they are not able to participate in Spanish culture. So they live in that no-man's land of the ex-pat enclave. For some it can be a difficult life, with regular confusion and disappointment, with expensive dependence on English-speaking tradesmen and translators. Sometimes they return to the UK disillusioned. For others, it's an oasis in which their prejudices are never challenged, and where Spanish culture is only ever encountered transiently in shops and restaurants.
The culture of Andalucia is rich and varied, open and welcoming, sometimes challenging and confusing, but always interesting and stimulating. For those wanting a full life in Andalucia, they will need to study the language but more than anything else they will need to be willing to let go of their caricatures, their assumptions and prejudices, and give themselves the opportunity to participate in, and to share another culture. They won't be disappointed and their lives will be richer.