One not-so-fun side effect of teaching preschool is being perpetually sick. One day in mid-October, I thought about how lucky I was to have made it a month at my new job without getting sick. Maybe my running and yoga habits would keep me safe even though my students’ favorite game is Let’s-All-Hug-Ellen-At-Once.
The next day, the Three-Weeks-of-Laryngitis began with a little tickle in my throat after my friend’s concert. For the rest of the weekend, I remained a little jaunty. I reminded myself that worse illnesses have disappeared within a few days. Well, that was the weekend before Halloween, and as I write this I still struggle to make it through a full meditation without a cough-fit. I will never again take for granted my afternoon jogs or hell, even a good night’s sleep. Granted I probably haven’t gotten completely better because I refuse to give up everything questionable for my health. I’m an extrovert — I can’t spend more than two days without leaving my apartment!
Functioning While Sick
I can’t, nor do I want to change my job: visible boogers and all, those kiddos brighten my days. So I learned how to get by without raising my voice too much, and bought some hand sanitizer. If any kid under the age of eight so much as comes near me, I use it.
It’s also easier to maintain my social life whilst half-human, half-snot if I have something that might prevent my friends from getting sick. So at the worst of my illness, my hand sanitizer came with me everywhere I went. I never had to think about bringing it; I imagined that if my friends saw some of my worse fits, it would give them some peace of mind to know that I was at least a sanitary sicky.
A Strange Turn
As it turns out, that was a wild assumption. One Saturday afternoon in a café, a private student texted me: “Hey, I didn’t realize you didn’t like shaking hands.” Huh? He had been student-turned-friend for over a year. We shared many a back tap and shoulder touch, as well as a handshake in and out of our classes. This was Spain after all, land of the touchy as I explained to my newly-arrived American friend who was taken aback by how many hugs his students gave him. Here, handshakes are a little informal to me. Confused, I ignored my student’s text and went about my weekend in peace. I had too many plans to devote energy to deciphering this. Plus, my sore throat continued to nag me.
More to the Story
But on Sunday morning, a bomb dropped smack dab in the middle of those plans. “I’m disappointed you weren’t upfront with me,” a new text from my student stated, along with the one from the café the day before forwarded. After some exasperated back and forth, the story came together. I must have used my hand sanitizer during our class. The root of his theory was that I’d “washed” my hands after he’d shaken them. No testimonial that I’d simply not wanted him under the same illness ordeal as I was could convince him otherwise. “Fine, nevermind, no more hand shaking.” No, more hand shaking, I genuinely didn’t have a single opinion about it.
Working Through It
At work the next day, I told some of my Spanish coworkers about the weekend’s ordeal. Most agreed that the interaction felt strange, but one in particular had a perspective that left me thinking. She wondered if the situation was just a cultural misunderstanding gone out of control. My friend hung out with an international friend group, and she explained that this led to confused feelings for all parties in the past. Having been in Spain going on three years now, I can relate. I had confused touchiness for flirting early on in my time here. I had been slow to recognize flirting after becoming aware of the same cultural norm.
Another friend had a similar perspective, yet even more focused because he comes from the same country as my student. At first, he shared the same confounded reaction as my American friends when I told him the story. However, when I mentioned where the student was from, a spark lit. “I don’t like the way [your student] treats you,” my friend told me, “but yeah, I could see someone at home getting nervous about this.”
Misunderstandings Happen All the Time
This is only my latest messy encounter with cultural differences in Spain. My first few months in the country saw a series of uncomfortable situations, from when a younger host brother became upset every time I tried to call home despite screaming at his video games until the wee hours of the morning; to a host dad wondering if the stairs broke, “because they make a lot of noise when you walk down them, Ellen;” and polished off with an old coworker who flatout quit speaking to me without explanation. Dating too became an even more complicated maze of overthinking, when not being culturally abrasive was added to the delicate early steps of getting to know one another.
Culture Differences and Difficulties
Each time I met these culture-tinted difficulties, I’d fill with anxiety and fear. Yet, I never took any action to mitigate them. I was the foreigner, after all. I believed that it wasn’t my place to request natives to the country behave differently. Even as I tried playing nice, the end result was ugly, as anyone who I called in the rain after getting kicked out of my host family’s home ten days before Christmas could attest to. As it turns out, they didn’t appreciate me telling their son to quiet down, especially when coupled with months of stress unleashing when the dad reprimanded me for it.
Fed up with anxiety, I started going to a therapist midway through my first year. I needed to sort through my tumultuous first few months. After explaining why I never stood up for myself before such clashes turned into battles, she gave me the advice that has had the most staying power from any of her sessions: “your comfort transcends culture.” In other words, if I am uncomfortable with some aspect of my relationship, I am capable of having a civil conversation about it. If I word it properly and the other party remains open-minded, it should bring light to these cultural differences rather than offend.
Following Advice and Dealing with Cultural Differences
Yet even knowing this, I thought about keeping my private class even as friends urged me to think otherwise. If it was simply a cultural difference, I wanted to be civil. I could hear him out, I could try and listen to his perspective. No, I didn’t want to miss plans that night with friends who don’t mind my hand sanitizer to do so, but I didn’t want to be the Ugly American.
But I’d already tried opening a conversation, when I explained that I felt sick. As it turns out, the hand sanitizer incident was only the latest misstep that I hadn’t realized I’d committed with him. For months, I’d mistranslated grievances about comments I’d made in class as jokes. How could I have known better when we really had laughed about them together? This wasn’t the first time he’d decided that he could read my mind either. By Tuesday afternoon, I no longer understood what I previously considered a friendship.
I decided that if my student didn’t believe my truth, nothing else I said could convince him. So before I could think too much, I texted him to quit as his teacher, turned off my phone for a few hours, and made some tea to clear my congestion. My well-being comes first, and can be compatible with cultural differences. But it should not be sacrificed for their sake.