Language Identity

The house lights came up, and I flipped through my camera. Most of the pictures were blurry, and even my best effort featured a man with a large gray beard in its corner. His face didn’t complement the small black stage; the dancer in a green velvet dress, sweat dripping; or the guitarists with their long fingernails and greasy hair. He did look, however, like he knew the best place in Madrid to buy a tobacco pipe.

I drank the last of my Mahou and turned to Jorge. “I’m surprised he’s wearing jeans,” I said, referring to the male dancer.

“Why wouldn’t he?” He removes his glasses briefly and sips his beer. The waiters shuffle between tables, trading old drinks for new ones.

“Flamenco is traditional, isn’t it? Jeans didn’t exist two hundred years ago.”

“Yes but,” he pauses. He’s smiling, though it’s tough to call it that when it’s his neutral expression. “When you go to the U.S., is every rock concert the same as it was fifty years ago?”

“No,” I say, stopping to think. “No, you’re right. Definitely not.”

“Just like Flamenco isn’t all the same thing.”

I reach down for another sip of my beer, only to remember that I don’t have any left. Just as well; Spanish beer isn’t worth the hangover.

 

Soon after, the lights went back down, and for the rest of the performance I was captivated. The female dancer had the crowd in the palm of her hand, and I loved the multimedia quality of the performance: guitarists collaborating with singers collaborating with dancers. It was ignorant to think all Flamenco is cut from the same mold, every performance an homage to a bygone art form. Why shouldn’t the male dancer wear jeans?

Jorge’s analogy, however, didn’t quite reach me. Not because it didn’t make sense, but because, if I’m being honest, I have no idea what he said. I usually understand Jorge, a native of Madrid, but not always. In this case, I knew that his comparison had something to do with American culture, but the rock concert analogy is nothing more than my best approximation—my stereotype of a stereotype. Since I got the gist of what he was saying, and since I didn’t want him to have to repeat himself too frequently, I went ahead and filled in the gaps myself.

Miscommunication is inevitable here, especially in the first weeks. But do I stop every time I don’t understand what someone has said? When a man asked me directions in the Metro my second day, I had no idea what he said. I asked him to repeat, and again I hadn’t a clue. For that moment, I knew I was a visitor. I knew that I was not fluent in Spanish, that I am not local, and that I do not belong here.

I don’t think the importance of language can be underestimated in constructing a relationship with our surroundings. Language is not just a tool for interpersonal communication; it is a system of symbols that not only allows us to structure our thoughts but also dictates them. According to Jacques Lacan, the shift from the imaginary (think images) to the symbolic leads to a desire for objects themselves. Ultimately, the symbols we use are much stronger than the things themselves, and with their help one can construct a complete identity. As I move from speaking Spanish once a week in the classroom to speaking it daily and always, how is my identity shifting? What happens when I’m caught in the middle between an English self and Spanish self, and is there a solution to instances of miscommunication that doesn’t compromise a full transition?

On the first day of my Cervantes class a couple weeks ago, the professor gave us a lecture on the centrality of Cervantes in Spanish culture. To understand Spaniards, one must understand Cervantes, and to understand Cervantes, one must understand the importance of identity, not just as a simple formula, but as a dynamic question. Take for example Don Quijote: this is a book in which the main character has a voracious appetite for books about knights, gets bored, and decides it would be more interesting to become a knight instead. As soon as he and Sancho Panza set out on their adventure, it is less important what reality is, and more important that, for the two of them, they have made a pact that supersedes it.

One sees here that truth is a construct. If two characters agree on something, then it is true. If two real live people agree on something, then it is true. If a single person constructs a truth for himself…well, in this case, it gets tricky. I know I am not a Spaniard, and unlike Don Quijote, I have trouble flipping a switch so effortlessly. That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t act as if I’m a local, and that at some point conviction will follow action. Perhaps what I need is a Sancho Panza. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always speak Spanish here. When I’m with American friends, it’s tempting not to slip back into a familiar identity. Nevertheless, there have been Spaniards in bars and cafés who want to speak English, and maybe with an equally dedicated American friend at my side, we can pretend that we’re native speakers until we’re either believed, accept, or rejected.

A few days ago, as I walked down the Paseo del Prado, an old man asked me how to get to the Sol Metro stop. I paused and thought. “I don’t know,” I said, “but the Atocha stop is right there, and you can transfer from there to Sol.” He looked at me, half with a smile, half askance, and as I took a step away, I added, “Sorry, that’s all I know.” I turned back towards the Prado, but now I had a bounce in my step. With interactions like these, I don’t always win, but I am stubborn, and that alone gives me a head start towards being a local.

The real truth (and this comes from my professor as well) is that life is nothing without fiction. I am not having my study abroad experiences now. Instead, my experience is waiting for me back home, where it will finally have the chance to snuggle into a narrative structure that I impose on it. As I recall it, as I share it with friends, as I tell it to my family, my study abroad experience will be nothing like it was in reality. How about the Flamenco show? Was my real experience of the show the same as I’ve written it here? I’d like to say that it is, but my representation is so tangled up in the narrative structure that allows it to be relatable that not only does it hardly represent my actual experience, but I also have no idea any more what the real experience was. At this moment I’m reflecting on my time in Madrid, and even though writing a blog removes me from my experience, I’m doing this so that my future self (talk about an identity crisis) will thank me. But there’s a difference between writing a blog and admitting when my Spanish is less than fluent. When I take the time to write, I allow myself the chance to think things through consciously. When I stop and ask someone to repeat himself, I jar myself from my experience. In one instant I become aware of all the levels of my identity, and as they’re shoved into my conscious mind, I have no way of reconciling them.

As I start classes next week and begin to interact with Spaniards my age, there will be times when I don’t understand them. For that matter, there will be times that they don’t understand me, and practically speaking, it makes a lot of sense to admit when these moments are happening. After all, when I try to rediscover my English self in June, I’ll be able to construct a narrative of my experience that omits these embarrassing moments anyway. But theoretically speaking, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens if I read so many books about knights, that I actually become one? It worked for Don Quijote, and not only is he the most memorable hero in all of literature, but he’s also Spanish.

 

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About Adam Greenberg

I'm from Woodinville, Washington, where I learned to enjoy hoops, music, and poetry. In DC, I'm a junior in the College, majoring in English and Philosophy (+ a Spanish minor). I've been obsessed with the Spanish language since I took my first class in the seventh grade. I've finally arrived to the motherland, where I will update unfortunate Americans on all of the reasons it's a bummer they aren't also in Madrid. But they shouldn't worry. Reading my posts will make them feel better, I promise.
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