The Teacher Becomes the Student: Lessons in Culture from International Colleagues
Looking for a job outside of the world of TEFL teaching, I had a one-track mind: anything that wasn’t that. When my networking scavenger hunt led me to a copywriter and editor position at an online startup in the heart of Seville, the capital city of Andalusia, it was effectively a no-brainer. I would finally be back in the city where I studied abroad, the city I always had my heart set on when I came back to Spain as an English teacher, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. While I was conscious of the fact that accepting this position would drastically change my experience in Spain moving forward, I could never have anticipated just how much.
My life was about to be full of “firsts”: my first time working at a startup, my first time working in digital marketing, my first time working with so many expats from all over the world, my first time creating a style guide from scratch for a business, and my first time getting to learn in-depth the intricacies and oddities of British English, all of which barely scratches the surface. Professionally, I gained an invaluable skill set that I may never have been able to tap into if it weren’t for living abroad (though, I guess I’ll never know for certain), one that has helped me immensely upon diving back into the U.S. workforce.
But personally? Learning how to navigate multiple languages, understand cultural differences, and further develop interpersonal skills to adapt to a diverse international environment was the real win. That, and gaining colleagues who became friends who became a loving and supportive, albeit sometimes dysfunctional, family—as all good families are. The way I move through the world and go about my daily life, even now back in the U.S., has changed because of this experience, and that is en gran parte (sounds way better than “largely,” right?) due to the people I met along the way.
The best(?) of both worlds
I knew working for Glamping Hub was going to be interesting from the get-go. Co-founded by three individuals from three different countries (Spain, Morocco, and the U.S., respectively), based in southern Spain but operated in English, and with a multinational staff from over 12 different countries, one-of-a-kind didn’t begin to describe this digital startup in the travel and tourism industry. Lucky for me, I started with the business in its early stages—the year after it was founded and shortly after it became a fully-functioning booking platform—which meant I got to witness its growth and evolution, in terms of both the business and internal working environment, firsthand.
Learning how to shut both your brain and computer off at the end of the workday to preserve your sanity is a learned skill that took me far too long to pick up.
As a company with its heart in America but its body in Spain, the main office’s working style was a unique amalgam of American and Spanish values. Every day, except for Fridays, we got to start any time between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. as long as our full eight hours were worked, including a 30-minute break for lunch. This was a real win for a non-morning person like myself, but ultimately is just a byproduct of the Spanish way of life, as most businesses in Seville, except for some bars and cafés open early for breakfast, don’t open until 10 a.m. While not characteristic for most in my office, our all-Spanish IT team never missed an opportunity to take a break to go get the ever-so-authentic second breakfast.
In the same vein, the working mindset and mentality during office hours were very much derived from the U.S.—a high-pressure, high-stakes environment, where if you weren’t up to your eyeballs with work, you were definitely doing something wrong. Anyone who has worked at a startup before also knows that things can change direction daily (heck, sometimes hourly), which to say it keeps you on your toes is an understatement. While often exciting, it can be incredibly grueling, and learning how to shut both your brain and computer off at the end of the workday to preserve your sanity is a learned skill that took me far too long to pick up.
Pero, like, how do I explain this?
Once the company began to grow, I’d say our office breakdown was roughly 70:30 expats to Spaniards. At the beginning, though, the ratio was more even, due to our initial small, yet mighty, staff size, and a lot of us found ourselves in an unprecedented work environment where everything was done in English. The website was in English, our backsystems were all in English, our internal communication in emails and meetings were in English. Thus, a native level of English was obviously mandatory for Spaniards and anyone from a non-native English-speaking country, but for the expats, knowing Spanish was neither a requirement nor necessary to succeed in the office.
Rare was the case, however, where an expat working at Glamping Hub hadn’t already been living in Spain for at least a year, if not many years, and had picked up the language along the way, if they didn’t already know it. Fewer would have felt comfortable or been able to confidently participate in meetings and presentations had they been done in Spanish, but the vast majority excelled at the equally as important Spanglish. The Spaniards we worked with found it particularly amusing to hear us speaking in this hybrid language, especially in an American accent, and they’d lovingly imitate us, which would set us off in a fit of laughter in return.
In time, I came to find myself struggling to fully communicate with friends and family outside of that Spanglish circle. It suddenly dawned on me that Spanglish had unconsciously become my new norm for communication, since all of my expat colleagues and friends in Spain understood me without explanation. When speaking with loved ones back home, I’d find myself stopping and wanting to use a Spanish word in the middle of an otherwise English sentence and struggling to find an equivalent that really got the same meaning across. Neither the English nor Spanish language possess a lack of vocabulary, but there are just some words or phrases to express a feeling, idea, or thing that simply don’t translate well.
To put it into perspective, the number of hours I spent and conversations I had trying to find a Spanish equivalent for the English word “creepy” is almost embarrassing. Despite coming up with some close alternatives in later years—i.e., dar grima and horripilante—neither those two nor the dictionary translation suggestions (the Spanish equivalents of disgusting, gross, hideous, and scary) match up. Creepy is all of those things, combined with some others, that are all stirred together to create this unmistakable feeling that unfortunately has no Spanish counterpart.
More disparity lies in the reverse, however, when going from Spanish to English. There are notable gaps in the English lexicon for far more Spanish phrases or words, which, at least for me, is why Spanglish plays such an important role in the way I express myself. A simple one that pops up often is the word guapo/a and its colloquial version, guapi. At its core, it just means beautiful or handsome, but it can stand alone as a generic pet name or affectionate way to refer to anyone you care about, too, be it a friend, a family member, or a significant other. I use it so frequently when texting that I have to catch myself and delete and replace it, because what comes out naturally for me looks like gibberish to others outside of the Spanglish sphere.
If I had to pick just one word that I struggle with not being able to use with English-only speakers, though, I’d have to pick ganas. (I even already referenced it in an earlier blog in this series, sheesh.) Tener ganas generally translates as “to feel like doing something,” which isn’t wrong, but also just doesn’t get the right feeling across or have the right amount of emphasis. You can have ganas for a person, like you want to spend time with them or be with/around/near them, both in a platonic and romantic sense. You can have (or not have) ganas for just about anything—a type of food, an activity, a place—and inserting this one simple word into any sentence instantly implies a desire for something in a way that not even the word desire knows how to.
I say tə-MAY-toh, you say tə-MAH-toh
No sooner had I written the words “language differences aside” did I realize the error of my ways and laugh. Even when you’re talking about different dialects within the English language, to downplay the distinctions between American English and British English would be to trivialize them both. Before moving to Spain and starting this job, I can’t say I had ever had a friend from the U.K. or Ireland before, and I had never truly been exposed to the myriad of different accents that make up the British Isles. We all know Americans love hearing someone speak in a foreign accent, myself included, but suddenly, I was working side by side with people from all over England, as well as a few from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. (An honorable mention must go out to Australian English and South African English, as well.)
I’m not sure what was more difficult, whether learning to process and understand all of the different accents or figuring out the meaning of the surplus of new vocabulary they were teaching me. Saying “I like your pants” takes on a whole new meaning in British English (pants = underwear). I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get onboard with the way they pronounce the letter “h,” both on its own and in words like “herb,” nor prevent myself from laughing at the pronunciation of “aluminum” and “oregano.” And I will never be able to seriously call a cookie a “biscuit.” But I write that with a “cheeky” smile on my face, thinking of all of my non-American friends so fondly and wishing I had the time to fill 1,000 notebooks with all of the things they taught me.
We didn’t just share words—we traded different customs, types of food and drink, music and shows, and holidays and ways to celebrate them, too. Being a business with so many foreign employees, we had our company holiday party every year on Thanksgiving instead of Christmas to ensure that everyone could attend, and year after year, this celebration was the most talked about event and the one everyone looked forward to. Our Thanksgiving with a twist was celebrated potluck-style with all of the classic Thanksgiving staples, like turkey and pumpkin pie, nestled alongside fresh gambas (shrimp) and tortilla (Spanish omelette) and other foreign delicacies.
Inside and outside of the office, we never stopped teaching and teasing one another about where we’re from, and I loved every second of it. I learned how to make a cup of tea the British way. I got to constantly enjoy snacks and sweets from all over the world whenever anyone came back from a vacation or had a birthday or work anniversary. I figured out how to watch (or tolerate watching) “the footy.” I found out I love grime, British sitcoms and reality TV, and Australian comedy. I even started naturally using some British words and phrases in conversation, which my friends back home loved to point out and give me a hard time about.
10 points for lifelong friendships
This is the side of working abroad that is far-less-often talked about. It’s not just the thrill of living in Europe, the countless opportunities to fulfill your deep-seated wanderlust, and the thought of finding your very own Paolo ala Mary-Kate and Ashley in “When In Rome.” Human connection—with the people you work with, the owners of your favorite café, your next-door neighbors, other expats and travelers you meet on a night out—is what brings the most joy and one-of-a-kind experiences.
Far from home and without your web of longtime friends and family members to fall back on, you’re in a unique position to create a whole new type of relationship with other people. I’m not saying it’s a snap-your-fingers, instantaneous kind of thing (although, in some cases, it can be), but it’s an incredibly special type of bond that doesn’t go away when someone changes jobs or moves to a different city, country, or even continent. Even now that I’ve been back in the U.S. for almost four months, I’ve exchanged countless texts, video calls, and cards in the mail with friends I met in Spain.
We didn’t just share words—we traded different customs, types of food and drink, music and shows, and holidays and ways to celebrate them, too.
I never imagined that a job abroad would subsequently bring into my life some of the strongest friendships I have to date—relationships that make me feel so utterly fulfilled, happy, and understood in a way I didn’t know was possible. If you’ve contemplated moving and working abroad, would you ever have thought to factor that into your visions of what it’ll be like? I know I certainly didn’t. And yet, it’s precisely my attachment to these extraordinary people that made my decision to move home such a hard pill to swallow.
AUTHOR BIO: From Wisconsin to southern Spain. Bilingual writer, editor, and translator. Never not looking for a great cup of coffee. That friend who stops to pet every dog.