SFU International Co-op in Barcelona- Protests, Teaching and Culture Shock

Finished scribbling notes on the chalkboard, I turned to face the children. It was late October and the Mediterranean sun still beat in through classroom windows. I caught a glimpse of the rolling Catalonian mountains just beyond the school as the students read what I had written in a language not similar to their own.

“Make sense?” I asked, expecting questions about the terms of grammar.

The kids murmured between themselves in Spanish and Catalan. I tried to read the room, a skill that I had been sharpening from living with a local family and spending the previous semester in Amsterdam. A semester of Dutch and donair born out of sharing a kitchen with students who gossiped in all different dialects. It’s amazing how much can be interpreted from hand gestures and tone alone. The students looked at the board quizzically despite having gone over a similar lesson the day before. The chattering in Catalan took on an increasingly panicked tone.

“Is everything okay?” I asked, prompting someone to translate what was driving the anxious looks.

“Claire, how would you like us to make the cents?”

When I committed to a nine-month co-op term in Barcelona, Spain, I could not have fully anticipated the vastly different cultural experience I would have. I expected the heat of the southern location but not of the political climate, which reached a boiling point Monday, October 14 2019 when Catalonia’s former vice-president Oriol Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Protests erupted throughout Catalonia, blocking off Barcelona’s main airport, causing congregations in front of the town hall and outbursts of frustrated tears in the classroom. Tensions rose throughout the week as I went through the motions of living with a new family, adjusting to a job I had never done before and trying to understand Catalan while studying Spanish but only being able to speak English. Days started with teachers and members of the community conversing in coffee shops about how the movement was progressing and nights consisted of the news blaring footage of fires being lit by protesters.

The protests were mobile physically with a constantly changing location made possible through private Telegram groups and public resistance pages with a strong social media presence. Tsunami Democracy updates its followers daily with information about where the manifestations are taking place: a concert on the border between France and Spain, a march with hundreds on the main highway, or a camp out in front of the governmental buildings in Barcelona. With thousands of active and complying members, I watched as the classes I taught that week thinned to a few in attendance and then none at all as the students took to the streets.

Having studied the organization of political movements, I was fascinated by the way the community was utilizing social media, and the implications that came with using the internet as the public sphere of the resistance. With the flurry of Telegram messages, sending information hourly and the overturning Catalan and Spanish news coverage on the issue, translating the updates to English was not a priority for anyone. I spent those first few weeks as an observer, sitting in on private conversations when people would suddenly code switch to English and ask if I understood Catalan, realize I didn’t and then return to having a private conversation publicly. While I was curious and eager to understand the cultural and historical significance of what was happening in Catalonia, the language gap was deep and I knew I needed to seek out a community to whom I could relate.

When I accepted the position I was confident that I knew how to build a community in a foreign country. I had a recipe in mind from studying abroad the previous semester in Amsterdam and It consisted of finding as many expats as possible. The town I am placed in is in the province of Barcelona, yet is a 40-minute commute from Barcelona Center. The remote nature of the small town resulted in a lack of any apparent international community. Strangers would turn around on the street when they heard English and ask if I knew “so and so from such and such, they speak English and are from India, England, Colombia, France, Brazil. They just moved here too!” I started collecting phone numbers and adding them to a Whats App group. The group grew from 5,10 and then 20 members, and was aptly titled “UNESCO.”

Beyond the community of expats that I willfully forged using social networking apps and the family life of my homestay, my connection to the local culture and community is through the students that I teach. Between the ages of 13–15, students are eager to share the culture of Catalonia with me. I participate festivals and holidays with the school, such as La Castanyada (the halloween of Catalonia in which the entire school hiked through the nearby mountains to a castle and played games for the afternoon) or La Santa (a day of dance in which students learned salsa and bachata in the courtyard of the town and performed inside of a hot air balloon).

Teaching has been as much an experience in sharing knowledge in the form of language as it has been in the form of receiving knowledge about intercultural differences. Students translate words into Spanish and Catalan, share opinions on local issues and the political climate, speak about global issues and broaden their English vocabulary with enthusiasm. With the school being open-minded in their approach to education, I am able to structure classes by having debates on topics and asking students to respond using new grammatical techniques they are learning or by playing creative games using new vocabulary. Teaching classes in this way has been an education in how opinion derives from the cultural context and how thought forms from language. Hearing students speaking in English and thinking in Catalan and Spanish has given me a greater understanding in my education of Spanish and Catalan through observing the mistakes in grammar that are recurring. By students continuously putting the adjective after the noun, by dropping the word “do” or mixing up genders when referring to their parents, I was able to learn how a sentence is structured in Spanish, that there is no word for “do” and that there is no neutral gender when referring to a group of people.

Working in another country has given me the opportunity to bring the framework of international communication strategies that I have been building in class into a professional setting. As I continue building leadership, confidence, patience and public speaking skills in the classroom I am finding that what I am learning by working abroad to be informative to how I will approach my career path and future academic career. With the intention of bettering the world through effective communication, I am now taking the time to understand it.

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