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When I was in high school…

My last post reminded me of something that would have been a perfect example of stereotypes and judgement and what it can create.

When I was in high school, we had to write both a work of fiction and of non-fiction for our English exam. I had no idea what to write about. My teacher said writing about something I felt passionate about would be a good idea. Something that made me very angry or sad would probably make a nice piece of work.

We were not allowed to write about the typical topics such as abortion, euthanasia and such. After coming up with a few ideas and some examples from my teacher, he thought that my coming to the U.K. and joining high school at a late stage would be something I should have something to say about. And I did, which looking back feels really stereotypical in itself.

We came up with a couple of topics because there were so many things I could have talked about that I had to focus on one to stay within the word limit. This one topic I chose was the language barrier.

My teacher was naturally surprised to see that in my essay, I didn’t talk about how hard it was for me to adapt to an environment where everyone spoke a different language to my mother tongue. I didn’t talk about misunderstandings or feeling lonely or homesick in anyway. Instead, I mainly complained about people who assumed I couldn’t speak English without even talking to me. I was angry about the way I was patronised or ignored by people who assumed I couldn’t understand or speak their language properly. I wrote about situations when I’d been talked to just as a native would talk to another native speaker by people who didn’t know me and when they had found out that I was Spanish, they would immediately change they way they spoke to me making it noticeably slower. I mentioned how angry it made me that when other kids didn’t know how to spell something they would never ask me or ignore my answer and double-check with someone else and how surprised they were when they realised I got it right.  How a typo from me would be seen as a mistake rather than a simple typo or that if I forgot a word it would automatically be assumed that I just didn’t know enough English. How being shy was interpreted as not being able to talk. And how a native student who failed her English paper because, and she said that, she hadn’t really worked on it hard enough, wanted to appeal when she saw I had passed it saying she thought the teacher hadn’t been fair and asked to be changed to another teacher.

This irritated me in so many levels as it could be imagined, not just because I had attended a bilingual school in Spain so I could speak English even before I arrived but because it was simply not fair that even when I showed I was good at English, it just wouldn’t be recognised!

As I worked on the drafts of my essay and more examples of these judgmental attitude and annoying situations came up, I grew angrier and more passionate about it. Just as I was about to get to the final draft to submit it to the exam board and my teacher had checked it and was very pleased with it, he said it was ready to go if I was happy with it but I could  have a final look at it in case I saw something I wanted to change.

I wanted to make it perfect so I thought I’d ask for a third opinion. I showed it to some of my classmates who liked to call themselves my friends depending of the situation. They were good at English and that was all I cared about at the moment.

At first, they were surprised. No spelling mistakes, no awkward sentences.. It was a actually a nicely written piece of work. One of my friends congratulated me and showed it to this other girl. She felt really offended. Outraged would be more accurate. She, a purely Scottish girl in Scotland who had mainly lived in Scotland and spoken Scottish English, just simply couldn’t understand what it was I was complaining about. She thought if I didn’t like Scotland I should go back to Spain. She also thought that saying we don’t all dance flamenco and cook tortillas was offensive because it implied that Scottish people were ignorant and thought all Spanish people did that.

Honestly, I think she totally missed the point. I have loved Edinburgh ever since I went to live there and anyone who knows me, knows that, which was also clear on the essay. I  can understand that to someone who has never suffered these stereotypes finds it hard to identify with them and understand them properly and that doesn’t make that person ignorant. And in no way do I mean to imply that people who fall for them are ignorant either. It is hard not to fall for them nowadays with such a massive influence from the media. We all do, in one way or another. I really did appreciate all those people who tried their best to speak slower and clearer so that I could understand them better just in case. I think it is a nice and well meaning gesture. I also do understand that sometimes, when something has been accepted as the truth for a long time, it is hard not to fall for it.

With all of that in mind, I do want to ask, in my name and that of many other people like me, to please do remember that foreigners as we might be, with a funny accent, a different skin colour or a completely different culture, we are all people,.with a heart.

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