Episode 77 │ Culture Shock & Canastas (HANGZHOU/MADRID)
"I think studying abroad can be an amazing thing... I'm so grateful that I had that opportunity, but I also wish that I had had the tools to enjoy it more. [If] I had prepared myself beforehand, talked to more people, talked to my mentors, and set up an established support group... I think we need it more than we like to think. " (Concepción, Episode 77)
We've got another writer in the guest's chair, so to speak! For this episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad I had the pleasure of interviewing Concepción de León, a reporter for the New York Times who spent an entire academic year abroad as an undergraduate student. Rather than spending that year in one country, however, she split it half-and-half between Hangzhou, China and Madrid, Spain.
Concepción has called New York City home for the vast majority of her life; she was born in the Dominican Republic and then raised by her dad in Queens from a very young age. For college she moved to Iowa, where she double-majored in Spanish and Chinese at Grinnell College. Being Dominican, she didn't need to learn Spanish because she already spoke it fluently, but taking literature-focused Spanish courses at Grinnell proved to be surprisingly comforting during this period when she missed conversing with her family. Consequently, majoring in Spanish became Concepción's way of alleviating homesickness. As for her interest in Chinese, that began in high school when she took two weeks each of Latin, Spanish, and Chinese before choosing which one she wanted to study. Chinese seemed like a "fun challenge", a language that she could grasp and potentially use in the future. Her dad always hoped that she would become some sort of international businesswoman—Concepción hadn't discovered her talent for journalism yet—so he was excited for her to study a language that could get her closer to doing that. After three years of high school Chinese, she double-majored in Chinese at Grinnell so as to not lose the progress she'd made in developing her proficiency.
Even though neither of her majors required that she study abroad, Concepción was very intentional about spending a semester each in China and Spain for her junior year. For the first semester she stayed in Hangzhou, living on campus and taking Mandarin classes at Zhejiang University of Technology (ZJUT) through a program organized by Middlebury Schools Abroad. Concepción already knew how well-known Middlebury College was for its quality of foreign language instruction, so she was greatly looking forward to participating in one of their summer programs. In addition, she chose Hangzhou specifically because it was a relatively mid-sized city (a population of 10 million is "mid-sized" in China), which she figured would both force her to be immersed in the Chinese while still being a manageable place to live in.
Concepción's only regret about Hangzhou is that she didn't get to stay longer. She hadn't anticipated being hit so hard by culture shock and the loneliness that can come with being in a new country. And despite her best intentions, trying to perfect her language skills by watching Taiwanese dramas and studying in her room before she felt ready enough to go out and converse with people didn't help. She didn't start feeling comfortable in China or speaking Chinese on a daily basis until about halfway through the semester, and just as her confidence and proficiency were expanding, the semester was ending and she had to leave. Yet and still, Concepción filled her time with memorable moments while she could. She became well-acquainted with the Chinese students who lived in her dorm (which intentionally roomed international and Chinese students together), took in the beauty of Hangzhou's West Lake, and discovered how much she loved Chinese food, "It was like I saw stars. Like everything opened up around me." Outside of Hangzhou, she and her American classmates also went on excursions to rural areas and other cities, including hiking Mount Sanqiing in Jiangxi Province, having a 'The Hangover'-style night out in Shanghai, and staying at a high-altitude hostel in Hong Kong.
After returning to the States for winter break, Concepción was off for her semester in Madrid through IES Abroad. This time she lived with a host mom and one other student while taking courses at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. In contrast with the language-focused program she did in Hangzhou, her Madrid program involved students taking subject-focused classes based on their interests (literature, theatre, etc.), with all instruction in Spanish. During our conversation, Concepción touched on instances of "racial insensitivity" that she experienced from local people in both China and Spain. But though she generally acknowledged these instances as being rooted in curiosity or confusion in China, something about them felt more pointed in Spain. Most Spanish people had no malicious intent when responding to her Dominican Spanish, like when she went to buy a basket and no one understood what she wanted because she was asking for a "canasta" instead of a "cesta". However, there were some individuals who did actually look down on the way Concepción spoke. And on top of that, her first time ever being followed around a store was in Madrid. Coming from diverse enclaves of New York where she wasn't used to standing out or being "exposed to people who might be suspicious of me", it was strange for her to see how much attention she got for being foreign in China and Spain. Thankfully, however, none of the behavior she observed carried enough weight to ruin her overall experiences.
While there were parts of Madrid that Concepción appreciated (like El Retiro Park), she truly got the most out of her semester in Spain by traveling to other cities and countries. Within Spain, she witnessed the massive fire festival in Valencia, the Alhambra palace and more Islamic architecture in Granada, and the beauty of northern cities like Bilbao and San Sebastián. Outside of Spain, she visited the city of Lisbon and small fishing towns in Portugal, as well as the Italian locales of Venice, Pisa, Rome, and Cinque Terre. Funnily enough, while at the Vatican in Rome a friend had to help Concepción recognize the Pope when he passed by them, because she hadn't realized that her spring break in Italy coincided with Holy Week. Over the course of this semester she developed a fondness for Europe because of the centuries' worth of history that's available to be explored. And because her concept of what a city is was so limited before—she used to think that every city looked like New York, and Des Moines felt more like a suburb—she cherished the opportunity to see for herself how different cities are constructed and what they each have to offer.
"I wish that I had had someone to speak to me about how these things go and what to expect."
Although Concepción had grown up somewhat sheltered due to her dad's strictness, she felt incredibly supported in her decision to go to Hangzhou and Madrid. Because just like when she started taking Chinese in high school, her dad viewed studying abroad as another opportunity that could move her forward in life. Little did he know that rather than the international businesswoman he imagined, Concepción had her heart set on a career in publishing. She wanted to write books but feared that that would be beyond her abilities, so she pursued what seemed like the next closest thing: book editing. After applying to publishing jobs with no success and working at a Chinese consulting company for a bit, Concepción gave her dream another try and enrolled in a postgraduate program at Columbia University (Columbia Publishing Course), which encompassed both book publishing and news media. This program is how she got started with journalism, as she found that the media side of things felt more dynamic and exciting than spending a year and half editing a book. From there she worked for various publications as an intern, and then an editorial assistant, and then a freelancer before eventually landing at the New York Times, where she's been a reporter for about four years now. So it turns out that she actually did have what it took to become a writer.
Outside of her professional life, Concepción has traveled to Colombia and London but aspires to visit even more places in the future. As someone who enjoys being outdoors, places with lots of nature like Alaska and Iceland are high on her list of priorities. She also wants to explore more of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and generally cross off all the big-name destinations she hasn't been to yet so that she can get to more of the fun and perhaps smaller unique getaways. Reflecting on her experience studying abroad, she believes that having more support to guide her through it would have made a huge difference, "I wish that I had had someone to speak to me about how these things go and what to expect." Because of this, she encourages people who have mental health challenges or difficulty adapting to change to seek information and advice from others who have already studied abroad. She also insists on the importance of setting up support systems and communication plans with family and friends. Concepción and her work can be found on Twitter (@bycdl) and Instagram (@missconcepcion).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Culture Shock & Canastas (HANGZHOU/MADRID)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
El Retiro Park (Madrid)
The Alhambra (Granada)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.