teaching English

Your Spain Experience—Interview with Erin

I don’t remember when, but a few years I got a notification that someone new was following me on Twitter. I used to check everyone’s profiles to see why the person was following me of all people. The new follower’s name was Erin, apparently she lived in California, and she loved … Real Madrid? Odd, I thought, but I decided to follow her back. And what a good decision it was! Erin has definitely increased my love for Real Madrid, and she has shared her experiences in Spain via her blog but also via Twitter.

Erin has a much more unique perspective on her time in Spain than most blogs. Why? Simply put, she’s not white. A lot of the “Expat in Spain” blogs are written by people just like me, and that can get a boring and monotonous, don’t you think? After reading one of Erin’s most poignant blog entries on racism in the classroom, I thought about interviewing her, because you people must get tired of so many white-chick-dating-a-Spanish-dude stories. So here you are; I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I do.

Erin titled all her photos "Me with ____". This is "Me with Hat".

Erin titled all her photos “Me with ____”. This is “Me with Hat”.

Describe how you first got interested in Spain.

Two words: Real Madrid. Haaa, no, just kidding.

I studied Spanish in high school and I loved learning the language, minus my inability to roll my R’s. Before she died, my grandma and I also made a silly promise to visit Spain together (she’s here in spirit) since it wasn’t part of her only trip to Europe. In college, Spanish art history became a huge part of my academics. Maybe had I grown up a Boca Juniors fan and my school offered classes on Argentine art history, things would be different, but after a certain point it seemed like all signs pointed to Spain.

How good was your Spanish when you first got to Spain? Do you feel like your level of Spanish affected how people treated you?

According to BEDA’s tests at orientation I was at the B1 level, which seems about right. In Spanish conversations I mostly nod and say “vale” a lot.

At school, my coordinator and teachers knew I spoke Spanish and were very grateful for it. In general, at bars or grocery stores, people tend to assume I speak Spanish, so aside from a moment of awkward staring, I’m treated like any other stranger.

But in other situations, if my level were any lower, I think things would be extremely difficult. People look at me and assume my native language is Mandarin or Japanese instead of English, and that throws them off. When I was at an appointment to empadronar, the funcionario let out a very audible sigh while I walked up and pretty much stared lasers into my soul, speaking to me as quickly as possible. His demeanor completely changed later, when he asked for my passport and saw that I was from the U.S. He even spoke slower for me.

What did you know about Spain’s diversity and treatment of POC before going there? Did you read anything specific (blogs, articles, books) to help prepare yourself?

If someone has suggestions for all of the above, I would love to read them. I saw quite a few articles about Chinese immigration to Spain, and one about Colombians, but my research fell short after that. I do know a bit about populations in Córdoba pre-Reconquest due to thesis research, but that wasn’t particularly helpful to my situation.

Interestingly, a blogger who taught English in Taiwan probably helped me the most. Formerly “Black in Asia”, he now blogs at Owning My Truth and his experiences were really eye-opening, and I encourage everyone (especially people looking to teach anywhere in Asia) to read some of his posts.

Me with sports

Me with sports

What’s different about racism in Spain vs. the US?

In the U.S., and California in particular, I mostly suffer microaggressions and the street harassment explicitly involves my race maybe 60% of the time. In Spain, and Madrid in particular, it’s 100%.

People are very open with their racist thoughts. They’re not afraid to tell me about the stereotypes they hold against los Chinos, nor do they differentiate between the many countries in Asia in making these comments. This isn’t “harmless ignorance” as some people like to see it, and it goes beyond the typical blunt manner of speaking. I’ve been told more than once that “my people” are causing la crisis because they’re taking business away from honest Spaniards. I’ve been physically assaulted, and while all of these things have happened to me in the U.S. as well, it’s happened with more frequency here.

I’m not saying one is worse than the other, and before the #NotAllSpaniards brigade comes in, I’m not saying all Spaniards are racist either. It’s just different.

Did any aspect of your experience surprise you?

In my experience, if the person is over 65, they barely acknowledge my race, or do so in as complimentary a manner as possible. In the U.S. we have that stereotypical idea of a racist, grumpy old grandpa stuck in his ways, but most abuelos have always treated me with extra kindness. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I look young enough to be their grandchild’s friend.

What have been some positive experiences you’ve had? Negative?

The cutest family in my school must be the Madrileña mom, Catalan dad, their 8-year-old Chinese and 3-year-old Ethiopian daughters. The mom is the biggest sweetheart and she was so happy I was there for her children, because “they don’t get to see a lot of successful women that look like they them.” Whatever tiny role I played in helping shape their confidence, I am forever grateful.

I mentioned some of my negative experiences in previous questions, but the worst was probably the last day of La Liga. Atleti was playing for the title, but Real Madrid also had a game that day, and I was at the Bernabéu. Afterward I went to meet up with other friends for dinner, still in my jersey since I hadn’t had the opportunity to change, and I am not exaggerating when I say that was one of the most terrifying walks of my life. I was not making eye contact with people, focused on texting my friends to provide distraction, yet I was stopped on every block (and in the metro). At one point, two girls got into my face and started yelling obscenities I wish I didn’t know in Spanish, telling me to go back to China and take my team with me. She reached out her hand and had her friend not pulled her away, I don’t know what would’ve happened. Immediately afterward, a large group of guys surrounded me and I had to push my way out and pretty much started running.

People are going to say it was my jersey, not racism, but that’s only half the picture. I saw plenty of people still wearing their shirts without being harassed the way I was. These people singled me out because I was alone, I was female, and I was foreign. Their insults weren’t just about my team, they were about my gender and race (the group of guys asked how much a China would cost for a night, if I trabajar como un chino in bed).

I know, this isn’t limited to Spain. I’ve been harassed for wearing San Francisco Giants gear in the wrong cities. But this was another level, and it’s not something people think actually happens with frequency in Spain.

Me with babies

Me with babies

Did any of your coworkers treat you differently because you weren’t what they expected?

There was definitely an “Oh…huh.” moment when I arrived, especially because the auxiliars were shifted around on the first day of school. Some of my teachers have been sweet and welcoming since the beginning, and I will never forget their kindness. Others took a while to warm up to me, skeptical that I could teach English (Funny enough, these were the teachers who didn’t really speak English at all). A few parents were always surprised when their children introduced me as the English teacher. It took a little convincing, and teachers I didn’t work with were less than friendly all year, but the ones I saw every day ended up being great coworkers. I was really lucky.

What have you learned this year?

That I have the right to be upset, angry, and hurt. Anyone who has met me knows that I am very calm (exception being sporting events); one of my teachers asked me how I could possibly look so feliz all the time. When I talk about the racism I’ve experienced, people tend to picture me as a perpetually angry woman getting offended about everything all the time, but I’m really not. I rarely react in any of the situations I’ve been put in, except to get away as quickly as possible, and I’m extremely non-confrontational.

But it’s a relief to have my feelings validated, to realize that I am allowed to be upset that someone screamed, “Ni hao!” in my face as I came up from the metro, I am allowed to be angry that someone grabbed my ass and told me he’d never been with a China before, I am allowed to be hurt that my students mock me and pretend to speak Chinese when I’ve only ever spoken English and Spanish with them. I have the right to expect respect.


Any advice for future WOC (and/or POC) who come to Spain?

This is a hard one. It took me a while to understand that what was happening to me in everyday life wasn’t fair and that microaggressions are more than what they seem (Chuks, the blogger I mentioned, has a great post on this topic), and not every POC has turned this corner. Beyond that, POC is a really broad category, and what I experience as a Chinese American is not the same as a Black American, or a Mexican American, etc. Some people may never run into the things I have, or they may not process it the same way. I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s experiences; what deeply offended me might not even register in someone else’s mind.

But if I could go back and give myself advice? Whether or not I want to be, I am an ambassador for my race and my nationality. When I want to, I can turn an awkward encounter into a teaching moment. But I also have the choice to run. I am not obligated to listen to someone insult my race because of social etiquette; no one is.

Me with my mom

Me with my mom


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School’s Out—A Reflection on a Year in a Madrid High School

School’s out for the summer. Weren’t those the sweetest words when you were a kid? Summer meant possibilities, everything open and waiting for you: swimming pools, summer camps, driver’s ed, athletic conditioning (wait, was that just my school?), endless days when all you did was eat popsicles and jump in the sprinkler. Ah, summer. It’s too bad that summer, at least the idea of it as a three-month-long break, had to end—for most.

For teachers, there’s still Summer with a capital s. Teachers may not see summer the way kids do—they’ve got responsibilities and bills to pay. But summer is still there, and the idea of summer motivates us from February to June. School’s finally out here in Madrid. Most of the exams are finished; most final grades are being handed out as I type this. Camps start next week here in Spain. Done! Finished! Terminado! 

This school year was a fun one for me. After having lived through a rather unpleasant experience last year (and that’s putting it rather mildly), I came into this year with low expectations. But my low expectations were met by great teachers. Teachers who cared, teachers who worked with me rather than against me, and teachers who spoke English well. (Weird, isn’t it, seeing as they’re English teachers?) We had a great year together, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to have worked in one of  Madrid’s most historic educational centers, where the alumni have names like Lopa de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, and even Juan Carlos I. The classrooms were old, certainly, but for the most part my classes were conversational in nature, and we worked with what we had.

Teenagers are teenagers everywhere, though, so of course my efforts to speak English were met with some resistence. Nonetheless, at the end of the day (year), I can say that I left with them knowing more English, with them having a better perspective on my home country than they started with. A simple goal, yes. But a goal achieved is a goal achieved.

They say that the auxiliares de conversación program is the luck of the draw, and I’ll have to agree. After two years at different schools with not-so-pleasant results, this year it was my turn to finally work with great coworkers, even if I also had to put up with the sometimes surly attitudes of teenagers. I did a lot of fun activities, spoke mostly in English, and felt fulfilled. You can’t really ask for better.

Here’s to the Crazy Ones: Teaching English in Spain

Last year (well, last school year), I thought I found the perfect job:

  • I was working in a primary school.
  • The school was bilingual, and the kids could understand me.
  • The kids were mainly wonderful, and I loved working with them.
  • The school was fairly close to my house. (For Madrid standards)
  • I felt confident and happy.

Too good to be true? In my experience here in Spain, yes. Way too good to be true. I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop, but when it did … it made a bang!

About a month after I started working, my co-teacher disappeared. I was working with sexto de primaria, the last year of Spanish elementary school. The kids in sexto take an English exam (Cambridge), and they are very serious about it. Thus, I was working with only two classes, which is rather unusual for an English assistant. It didn’t bother me, though, because I really enjoyed them. The teacher, however, was quite another story. Let’s call her Teresa. (Helpful hint: Her name wasn’t Teresa.)

Teresa was an odd bird. She didn’t know much English, which is perplexing, since she taught English. Afterwards I would learn that she used to be a Spanish-language teacher, a fact that cleared things up. Every day, upon entering the classroom, she would bark, “Raise the blinds!” to the children. There was just one problem: she pronounced blinds as “bleends,” with a long /iː/ sound. Thick of the word bleeds, and add an N. Many of the kids knew this proununciation was incorrect and would ask me why I didn’t correct her. (“Because she’s bat-shit crazy, that’s why!” I said in my mind as I just smiled vaguely back at them. She also told them shooting stars were rockets, another thing they approached me about.) After the ceremonial blind-raising ceremony, I would take a group of students with me. The students were divided up into groups based on level, A to D. The A students were my favorites (I know, I know, I’m biased) because we could have actual conversations, and they were mostly well behaved.

Well, one day Teresa fell or something and hurt her knee. She wasn’t elderly, so I didn’t expect this to keep her out for more than a few days. NOPE.

Teresa was gone for a month!

She left no notes or lesson plans. She never really told the directora, the principal, when she would be returning. So they never got a substitute. May I repeat? They never got a sub. They just left me there to my own devices. Sometimes a teacher who was de guardia(on call, so to speak) would show up and observe, as though I were running a mildly-interesting clinic on the English language. But mostly I taught the class by myself. For a month.

It helps to keep in mind that I am not a certified teacher—not in Spain nor in the U.S. I did have experience, but still—this crap isn’t supposed to be allowed. I made the best of it. We did lesson after lesson. We played “Around the World” with past-perfect verbs. We did a few science experiments with magnets. I taught the class. Me. And I did a good job! The principal (who in Spain also teaches) observed the class and told me what a great job I was doing. Other teachers remarked that I seemed to be handling myself well.

One day a substitute finally came. He seemed sweaty and nervous, and he asked me what he was supposed to do. The certified, qualified, Spanish teacher of English asked me. “Um, teach?” was what I wanted to tell him. But instead I showed him what we had been doing. And then I led the class as he watched from the back of the room.

The next day Teresa returned, in all her glory. By glory I mean terror. Teresa stood about 5’7” tall and was constantly moving her legs, as though she couldn’t help herself. I don’t know why, but it seemed like a nervous tic that, in turn, unsettled me. The electric-blue eyeliner she wore day after day served to accentuate her face, caked with ghost-white foundation. (Do they sell that? It seems that she found the whitest shade possible.) I admit to being relieved that the real teacher was back, even if she did scare me.

Soon after, Teresa got crazier. One day I was on a break and popped a piece of gum in my mouth. Teresa barged in the room and berated me for chewing gum, because the kids aren’t allowed. I happened to be using my phone to look up some exam-prep questions. She told me in no uncertain terms that I damn well better have been using that for schoolwork. Not that I had anything to prove to her, but I told her that I indeed was using it for work. Harrumphing, she left. There were several more instances of her making me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, including making me teach in front of her so she could criticize my every move.

Then one day a student’s parent came to pay her a visit. The parent was angry because Teresa wasn’t including students from groups C and D in the exam-preparation sessions. Quite reasonably, the parent thought her child should be allowed to at least try. Well, Teresa and the mother got into an angry shouting match, and Teresa said the mother followed her down the street, yelling all the while. Her story didn’t quite add up. This led to Teresa having a time out in the principal’s office.

After all this controversy (and the sharp reprimand from the principal!), Teresa decided that I was out for her job, that I wanted her fired. Ridiculous! I couldn’t care less about her employment status so long as she left me alone. She told me she wanted to work with some other auxiliar, one with more empuje (drive). This enraged me. I don’t have DRIVE? After teaching the class by myself and preparing all the lessons? That was a bit rich. The principal didn’t want this. So I wrote the principal an email expressing my feelings and saying I wished to work with another teacher, that I couldn’t work with Teresa anymore. Teresa found out about this email and sent me to the computer lab, so I could print it out—so she would “know what had been said.” I felt so nervous, almost sick to my stomach. Again I talked with the principal, who insisted I didn’t have to do anything of the kind. So I told Teresa that I wouldn’t be doing it.

Wrong answer! Her eyes were like daggers as she stared me down at the break table.

I ended up going to the Madrid education office on Gran Vía to complain. They tried to work it out, but nothing could be done. Curiously enough, they told me that, because of what Teresa had done to me, they were looking into getting her removed from the school. This was of little comfort to me, but I appreciated the effort.

This year, I am working at another school—this time a high school. The students have a bit more of an attitude, but the teachers make all the difference. So far no crazy. So far so good.

If you’re an auxiliar, have you had any unpleasant experiences at your school or past schools?

Teaching English; Forgetting English

It always irks me when Americans, after spending three whole months in Spain, say they’re forgetting English. How adorable! You’ve spent a total of 90 days here, and you’re already losing your native-language skills.

Or not. Because you’re not. No, really, you aren’t.

That’s why I won’t be claiming anything of the sort. Nope, what I want to talk about is overanalyzing the way you say things. You must know what I’m talking about. Have you ever read or said a word over and over again until it seemed like it wasn’t even a word at all, just a jumble of arbitrary letters and sounds? Let’s try an experiment:

Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. I don’t know about you, but that word is weird. I even had to refer to Google to make sure I wasn’t spelling it wrong. And I was a sixth-grade spelling-bee champion! Squirrel. Ugh, is that even right? Okay, yes. Yes, it is.