“The next stop is Fifty-Seventh Street.”
I sit in a daze watching people get on and off a crowded subway car. The day before I had come back from Europe and I felt like how I imagine the characters in the great American novels must have felt when they came back from their journeys: incredibly exhausted.
My first week home has been an extension of how I felt on that subway ride: complete exhaustion and disbelief. I often ask myself was I really in Europe? The leftover euro coins in my bag indeed say yes.
My improvement in Spanish serves as another reminder that the past several weeks weren’t just a dream. One of the strangest moments since I’ve come back was talking to a customer in Spanish—something I never would have had the confidence to do before. I work as a sales associate at a store on Fifth Avenue and most of our customers are international. I was helping a woman shop for jeans and found out that not only was she from Barcelona, but she went to the university I studied at and knew some of the people I met there. Small world!
At the same time, the world gets so much bigger when you know another language. I plan on continuing to study Spanish (I’m one class away from a minor), but I’ve also made a new goal for myself: to learn Mandarin and Cantonese. It might seem surprising that a Spanish study abroad program made me want to learn a completely different language in a different linguistic group, but part of the program was about how language shapes identity.
For centuries, Catalonia, the autonomous community where I studied, has bumped heads with the rest of Spain in an effort to preserve their identity and independence. One way was through the use of Catalan. During the Franco dictatorship, the use of Catalan was prohibited as a means of maintaining power and uniformity. People continued to speak the language in secret and when the dictatorship ended, it became a primary goal in Catalonia to ensure everyone knew Catalan. In Barcelona, I learned how language is a powerful political and social tool that can empower or oppress populations. I also learned that apart from the United States, bilingualism is the norm and that the languages one speaks are closely tied to one’s identity and culture.
For this reason, I’m inspired to learn the languages of my own culture. I grew up in what I learned this summer to be a diglossic context, meaning I spoke English in professional and academic spheres and Cantonese at home. Growing up, I never had much interest in improving my Cantonese or learning Mandarin. My friends spoke English and the people on TV spoke English. I very much wanted to be like them.
Studying abroad, I realized how much I was Chinese as well as American. There weren’t a lot of Chinese people in Spain and so many of the local people were interested in that part of my identity. In my linguistics class, I learned how easy it is for a language to disappear across generations. I want to counteract that. Learning how important the knowledge of Catalan is for Catalonia’s identity made me see how important the knowledge of Mandarin and Cantonese is for my own. And who knows, maybe this won’t be the last time I go abroad.