As someone in their early twenties, the question I am usually asked first and foremost when I meet someone is, “Are you a student?” followed by “What do you study?”
Here’s a snippet from an average conversation:
“Hey, so, you’re a student?”
“What’s your major?”
“Spanish. Well, technically Hispanic language, literature, and culture.”
“Oh, um (brief look of confusion) cool … so what do you plan to do with that?”
And then there’s the extended look of puzzlement on the other person’s face as I also tell them, no, in fact, I am not Hispanic. Actually, I’m half-Japanese.
There have been several subtle, yet formative experiences that have informed my decision to major in Hispanic Studies. In high school, my best friend’s family was from Colombia. Although my best friend’s father (Papo) was a tough man, he seemed to have a soft spot for my old-fashioned politeness towards him, and he also got a kick out of the fact that I was studying AP Spanish with his son. He often made me crispetas (popcorn) whenever I was over and gruffly prodded me to speak with him in Spanish.
I also worked at a small bakery near my hometown throughout high school and part of college. It was located in a building alongside other small restaurants and eateries, where the cooks were often recent or not-so-recent immigrants from Central and South America. They would frequently drop by to buy snacks during the day, and I began to form a bond with one cook – Ray, from El Salvador. During the slow hours between lunch and dinner, we would chat in Spanish, and he would tell me about his family and his former work as a government-hired tailor, and I would talk to him about my studies.
When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and lived with a host family for five months. By that time, I had studied Spanish for almost ten years, and had been able to build up my fluency. My host family was unique in that there were several other students who lived there, usually from European countries such as Norway, Germany, and Switzerland. I felt like my host mother, Nora, could confide in me about her worries as a host mom because she knew at a very basic level, I could understand and that I wanted to listen.
In these ways, learning a language separate from my native tongues has sparked connections and helped me build a community that I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to create. Something curious that I’ve noticed as a language-learner is that if a non-native speaker attempts to speak English, there is a sense of minor irritation, or of exasperation at their seemingly inferior grasp of the language. However, the many times I have stumbled along in my patchwork Spanish, attempting to communicate, I have been met with great patience, humor, and encouragement. In many ways, I’ve felt appreciated in attempting to communicate in Spanish rather than sitting back and expecting others to learn English.
And I feel as though at the heart of SLE occurs a similar exchange, of language, of culture, of opportunities to communicate and a sense of appreciation from both sides for this effort.Regardless of its global economic, social, or political power, SLE believes in the intrinsic value of all cultures. And what I find particularly admirable about SLE is how it creates opportunities for cultural and linguistic exchange unavailable in official college curricula, and facilitates this exchange at a personal, peer-to-peer level.
And finally, to throw in a little holiday cheer, I’d like to thank SLE for being such a lovely addition to my last semester as an undergraduate student at Brown.
Maya is a recent graduate of Brown University. Starting next month, she will be working for an educational non-profit in Bangalore, India. According to her research, they don’t speak Spanish there.
Read more about Maya…
Photo Credit: T.K. Cooke, Buenos Aires Travel Guide