My heart is sad today.
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand people here. I don’t mean language, and I don’t mean customs, like eating twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve. I mean the way people are here. I don’t mean to generalize or stereotype, and most anthropologists would guard strictly against making these kinds of statements, but after living here for two years and concurring with people who have lived here longer, I have to say that there are deep, deep distinctions between the way Galicians behave, and the way Americans do.
I mean, more than how we spend our money, how we spend our time, what our political views tend to be, how we view religion, how we celebrate holidays. I mean to say that there are differences in character, in what is right, in what is appropriate, and in what is proper, far beyond which hand we hold our forks with.
For as much as I try to see the subtleties and adjust to them (despite my opinion of them), I am sometimes caught off guard by something so out of the blue that I didn’t realize I had committed a serious cultural infraction.
One of my students had disappeared for a few weeks. He had said he was going to Lisboa, which I understood to be a trip of a few days, a week at most. That was a month ago. Yesterday I sent him a phone message saying that I hadn’t heard anything from him recently and was wondering if he could call me soon. This morning I was greeted by an email so extreme that I was forced to reread my message and wonder, fruitlessly, what I could have said to make him respond so angrily.
Despite the protests of friends who were sure the guy was a complete nut, it doesn’t stop me from feeling bad. With students, I am often more than a professor; I am a psychologist, an ally, the devil’s advocate, a comedian, a friend. Sometimes, when the professional student-teacher relationship goes bad, it is hard not to feel as if you’ve lost a friend as well.
This student’s response came so unexpectedly that it left me wondering how long he’d felt this way; consequently, I began to wonder whether my other students might feel the same way. They say of Galicians that they’re indicisive and vague: one saying jokes that if you meet a Galician on the stairs, you never know if he’s going up or down. Another jokes that Galicians always answer a question with another question. Of course, like any stereotype, it’s too broad a generalization, but is somewhere, deep down, based on a kernel of truth. As a result, I often feel as if I get vague answers to my questions, and when a student can’t make a class because of whatever reason, it’s hard to tell if they’re telling the (whole) truth. This leaves me with constant paranoia which, when occasionally confirmed, as on this occasion, only further deepens my doubt.
Of course, I realize that not all Galicians-Spaniards-Whatever are this way, and that there are people just as flaky and foreign in any country, but I can’t help feeling that, when I leave Galicia, I will be leaving some of this ambiguity behind, and I can’t help but be just a little bit relieved.