Putting On The Suit


It’s one of the most common questions you hear as a non-native speaker in a room full of Spanish speakers. Do you understand?”

As somebody who has studied Spanish since the age of seven, and lived in Argentina for a semester last year, that question can get a bit frustrating. Even more irritating is that some people insist on speaking in broken, heavily accented English as soon as they find out you’re an American.

“Actually,” I want to say, “I’d understand you better if you spoke in Spanish.”

This summer, at the Embassy of Spain in Washington, D.C., I found myself in that situation more than once. Ultimately, it didn’t bother me that much, I appreciate that people want to practice English or make the American becario (intern) feel more comfortable. And it’s not like my Spanish is perfect, I still found myself stumbling over words or occasionally asking co-workers to repeat themselves. But I can’t shake the feeling that if I was just a little more fluent, or I carried myself a little differently, I would somehow overcome that barrier and no longer be the americano in the room.

Unfortunately, as I discovered in Argentina and experienced a second time at the Spanish Embassy this summer, it’s nearly impossible to escape that label. Language difficulties aside, the most interesting and exhausting aspect of being an American is tied up with culture and politics. Whether in a foreign embassy on United States soil or in a foreign country, there’s always a sense that you have to be on guard. I described it once to my mom as “putting on the suit.” You have to essentially become an ad-hoc ambassador for the United States of America.

People are going to have a lot of questions, and they can range from the harmless (“Do you see movie stars walking around on the street?”) to the inflammatory (“How is Obama really any different from Bush?”). How you answer these questions is going to reflect not just on you, but on perceptions of the U.S. in general. For me, the trick has been to strike a balance between stating my honest opinions and trying to dispel some incorrect or distorted notions of American life, culture, and politics. It’s an interesting but exhausting exercise in cultural diplomacy.

Fortunately, the employees at the Spanish Embassy are living in Washington, D.C. and clearly have their own firsthand knowledge and experiences of the USA to draw on. I didn’t have to field too many difficult questions, especially because we were usually busy working while in the office. I did spend some time with some of the younger Spaniards outside the workplace, and we talked politics and culture. Fortunately, they had good questions and I felt comfortable answering freely. I didn’t have to “put on the suit.” But it’s always waiting on a hanger for the next time I need it.

And really, having to wear that outfit for a while is a small price to pay for the fantastic experiences I’ve had meeting and getting to know people from outside the U.S.

Jon Ettinger ’13 is a Latin American Studies major at the College. His travels have taken him to Argentina, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Greece. When he’s not busy traveling, he enjoys playing trombone, dancing, and finding chances to speak Spanish. After graduating, he would love to spend a year or two abroad teaching English.

About International W&M

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