Memories of an Accidental Journey

By Margot Tsim

Within two hours of leaving London, my plane landed at Madrid Barajas Airport. I was excited and anxious at the same time. After all, my last visit to Madrid was a three-day trip with my parents three years ago. It was a vacation that had left me with a cold impression of the city. It carried an air of arrogance that most capitals possess and lacked the charm and detail of those cities that are overshadowed. Everywhere I looked I saw stately architecture replete with elaborate, ostentatious details that were seemingly calling out for attention. My previous experience in Madrid thus ended on a slightly disappointing note. I never thought I would have the chance to return.

My little odyssey to Madrid began because of an irritating work permit issue that started in New York. I encountered a US visa problem after nine months of working as an architectural designer. This unforeseen situation turned out to be a blessing in disguise and thus began my five-month sojourn in Spain.

Calle Bravo Murillo n.355 was to be my home for the months that followed. Upon my arrival my roommate-to-be Angela, a true Madrileña, greeted me at the gates with a sonorous “¡HOLA!” and planted two awkward kisses on my cheeks–a custom that I was not yet accustomed to. She was warm, friendly and seemingly down-to-earth. She had on loose, pale pajamas, a pair of burgundy-rimmed glasses and long dyed ginger hair that fell gently on both sides of her face. She gave me the most genuine smile as we greeted each other–a welcoming act of acknowledgement that I would be her roommate for the coming months. I felt instantly assured that I would be in good hands.

I had spent the last thirteen years away from Hong Kong, the city that I have always called home. My life abroad began when I was twelve and delivered to a boarding school in Brighton, England for my secondary education. During those seven years, there was a brief period when my mother was transferred to work in Singapore for three years, where we established a temporary home. My sister and I always looked forward to tropical holidays spent away from the bleak, cold and mundane routine of living in a typical British boarding school. My travels took another turn when I decided to venture to the colossal country of the United States to pursue a degree in architecture. The stay lasted for five fulfilling, yet tortuous years in what actually happened to be the smallest state, Rhode Island. After graduation, New York was the next destination on my list. Without giving it much thought, I moved to the Big Apple in the summer of 2005.

And here I am, typing this brief memoir in my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn on a not-so-cold winter day, trying to reminisce about those five months I spent in Spain. I suppose it can now be added to the various cities I have called “home” in the mental map I have. Although the feeling of alienation is not unfamiliar to me, never have I been so aware of it when I set foot in Madrid. I was almost guaranteed to be the only Asian wherever I went, let alone the only Chinese person. Language was the initial obstacle as English has always been a predominant second language in all the cities I have lived in the past. Half the time I found myself scavenging for words, articulating with hand gestures, or just responding with the word “vale” (which means “okay” in Spanish) to get myself out of awkward situations.

Having grown up in Hong Kong, where service is unbeatable compared to other cosmopolitan cities, efficiency is something I have always taken for granted. The tortoise pace at which things function in Spain has made me realize how ridiculously spoilt I was to be brought up in a city of lightning pace. Banks, ticket vendors, post offices, supermarkets–they all seem to operate under a different definition of time. Waiting in line for at least half an hour is common practice and deemed acceptable in Spain, whereas it would be almost unthinkable in Hong Kong. Even in New York, where I believe the service is not quite up to par with Hong Kong, things work a zillion times faster.

Then I slowly began to realize that the efficiency I am used to, has inadvertently made me a less-forgiving and impatient person. Although I often resist the ideas of cut-throat cultures, it immediately became clear to me that I have been brainwashed into developing this mentality over the years! Especially now that I am working as a full-time professional, it becomes a part of life and quite simply, a necessity for survival.

Nonetheless, it is in no way a justification for the lack of patience I have for things. As days passed by, I slowly began to grow accustomed to the Spanish ways. Each time I would mentally prepare myself for the excruciating wait. I used the waiting time as a way to observe people and the surroundings; to simply begin understanding the Madrileños’ custom of living. Sure enough, the waiting became less painful each time and I exchanged it with time for acknowledging and understanding a little more about this fascinating culture.

I also managed to experience another famous part of the Madrileño culture–their love to party and to spend time in each other’s company. I have always felt that people in New York have a tendency to party for the sake of declaring to the world that they are highly sociable and to be accepted as part of the “cool” crowd. Ironically, New Yorkers are probably known to be some of the loneliest people in the world. For the Madrileños it is a way of life, as they seemingly start partying when they are four. Many nights I was amazed to discover children, still full of energy, loitering in the local bars with their parents at midnight, yelling and running around playing catch. All this while their parents and friends are happily drinking beer and gossiping with one another. I was, of course, rather jealous.

I grew up with curfews. It is an inescapable fact of life in a strictly all-girl boarding school. We were not able to talk, walk nor eat after 8:30 p.m., which is when they called “lights out.” This not only meant that all lights had to be immediately switched off in our cubicles, but also that no further activities of any kind were allowed. Should we disobey the rules or be found “dormi-hopping” (visiting other dormitories after lights out,) we would be sent to brush-up the silverware in the dining room or not be allowed tuck for the rest of the week. What horror!

Fortunately, as we grew older we were gradually given more freedom, which meant later curfews, snacks allowed in rooms and no more silverware cleaning punishments. But at that precise moment, while I observed those young Spanish children running wild at midnight in a local pub, I really wished I had grown up in Spain. What I love about the Spanish way of life is that it is less about being ‘seen’ and more about the real joy of spending time with close friends. For me, that is time well spent and the true essence of a fantastic night out!

However, I would be lying if I said I was completely at ease being a foreigner. There were moments when I nearly gave up trying to speak Spanish, because I was not able to convey myself in even the most ordinary of situations. I felt foolish to think that I could master the language so easily. There were days that passed by when people understood me perfectly. But there were also the annoying days when I couldn’t utter a single coherent sentence without feeling lost or confused when choosing which gender or verb ending to use. Those were the days that made me wonder whether I was just wasting my time.

One of the most vivid experiences I had as a foreigner was when I attended a friend’s wedding in Granada. There were about two hundred guests in a secluded, intimate farmhouse amidst the endless rows of olive trees that painted the gentle hills of the arid landscape. Needless to say, I was the only Asian guest and throughout the entire evening, I was stared at in a peculiar manner. I felt like a total wedding crasher. Despite all that, I still managed to have an indelible evening, dancing away with my friends to the sultry flamenco music, under the soft moon-lit sky.

One of the most profound realizations I had in Spain was when I confronted how little I know about my own culture. I was constantly bombarded with questions about Chinese history, customs and heritage. But time and time again I found myself scrounging for explanations and answers, only to find there were many that I had no knowledge of.

I was angry with my own ignorance. I have spent more than half my life living abroad, absorbing other cultures, living as a displaced Chinese person. Yet, I know so little about my own–one that claims the largest population in the world, a civilization with a huge history and a country that occupies one of the biggest land masses on Earth.

My adventure in Spain let me open up in ways that were previously unknown to me. I gained the ability to converse in a totally new language—though I regret to say that I was not able to become fluent after five months of training—and immerse myself in a very foreign environment. Living in such refreshing new surroundings forced me to break out of my comfort zone. I miraculously gained a willingness to talk to strangers, a willingness to walk into a crowded bar alone at an ungodly hour, a willingness to travel unaccompanied, a willingness to explore unfamiliar territories.

I was once the little girl who hid under the table during meal times, the girl who wanted Daddy to carry her all the time so that she did not have to confront strangers, the girl traumatized by having to sing in public at her cousin’s birthday party, the girl who never answered a single question in class. The remnants of that timid personality seemed to vanish temporarily during those summer months.

I have a deep admiration for people who can just travel the world as a lone wanderer. No baggage, no preconceived notions–just an open mind and spirit, ready to immerse themselves in cultures that are frighteningly alien, but yet are willing to accept them whole-heartedly at the same time. Many great stories are created from these accidental adventures. Indeed, my five-month journey in Spain is just one of many adventures that others have also experienced in their own unique ways.

I only hope that more people could be granted the opportunity to live and work abroad, for it can only be an indelible experience–for better or worse. It goes without saying that luck and timing also play an important part, but I have learnt that not knowing where you are going often leads to the best surprises.