Excursions: My Sister and Me

El Tratamiento de Silencio, The Silent Treatment

After a full day of arguing, my sister and I hit an impasse. I had been anticipating her arrival in Madrid for months now, and it was immediately apparent that she wasn’t enjoying herself. Maybe it was her passive-aggressive mentions about the weather and the people, maybe it was her full-blown breakdown at breakfast, or maybe it was the fact that our argument had reached the point where she decided to walk back to her hotel alone – I had lost her in Spain.




We had misread each other’s intentions and expectations in twenty-million ways. Immediately I felt guilty for making her ride the metro to her hotel because slowly but surely she grew more impatient and tired walking from the metro. I thought she would like Puerta de Alcalá. For someone who was infatuated with Paris, I thought this neighborhood would be more her speed. Right across from the largest park in Madrid, with one of the oldest gates in Europe, people eating outside and enjoying the weather – I figured it was perfect.

But it wasn’t. She wasn’t happy with the restaurants in Spain, the way waiters don’t check on you and water isn’t a given, especially with ice. She wasn’t happy with the food either, with it being either bland or over-salted. She wasn’t happy with the schedule that Spaniards ate on either, with her wanting a heartier breakfast to start the day and Spaniards just. not. doing. that.

Traditional Spanish snack, churros con chocolate, a doughy fried bread meant to be dipped in chocolate


It was her birthday visit, and I felt helpless. I also felt a little trapped, because I wanted to show her my side of the world; the city that I had gotten to know so well, the places I spent my time, the restuarants I loved. She had no interest in that, and I didn’t know how to fix it. So I just got quiet and stayed that way. She got quiet as well and then pretty much we… stopped… talking…. to…. each… other.

Daily Reminders of Foreigness

I’ve mostly travelled abroad as a student, so I’m hyper-aware of my thought processes when I do so. Each time abroad is a learning lesson, an extended classroom. While I enjoy my life and times abroad, it isn’t always easy. In fact, every day is full of small annoyances or inconveniences that remind me that I am not at home and to which I don’t know if I can ever fully adjust.

  • Using Spanish international keyboards at work and having to press certain keys twice, or having to look for keys that I memorized when I was 8 years old.
  • Spanish people aren’t polite pedestrians by many American standards. Cutting people off, not moving out the way when people ask for permission to cross in front, or blatantly staring at you is standard procedure in Spain. These are all rude to fight-worthy offenses in the United States, and despite knowing its a cultural thing, it’s like a daily dose of swallowing my pride not to do or say anything about it.
  • Poorly translated documents, from government forms to banking contracts to restaurant menus. When you’re not fluent in a language and have to rely on translated materials for everyday life, you will encounter tons of misunderstandings that run the gamut from mildly inconvenient (“Oh, they called this meal a sausage when really it’s like shredded sausage and tomato,”) to disastrous (“Oh my God, I can’t renew my contract now because the form said I only needed X form when I also needed Y”).
  • Browsing websites online in another country cause many popular sites to default to the host language. Every day when working from my laptop, cellphone, or work computer, typing in popular websites like Gizmodo or CNN will have the site default to not only Spanish, but Spanish content. I’m not looking for Spanish news, CNN, I want to keep up with the latest American political scene!

These little annoyances build up and weigh on you. From mild dissatisfaction to absolute culture shock, and it can make a time abroad miserable sometimes. But I’ve never experienced culture shock. Never have I been in a place where I found it so intolerable I couldn’t console myself. But here my sister and I were – together but miles apart on our understanding and acceptance about where exactly we stood in that moment.

Perhaps it was because much of my adult education has been hell-bent on studying culture, geography, history, and human nature. I’ve always wondered about how societies and later, nations work, so I approach nearly every experience with the same wide-eyed curiosity (and some might say naïveté). While watching my sister seek refuge in American restaurants and institutions (and having my friends mediate our arguments and act as sibling buffers), I was reminded of a theory I read about while applying for my PhD program: the Transfomative Learning Theory.

Transformative Learning Theory

In the late 1900s, sociologist Jack Mezirow described what he called, “Transformative Learning.” After observing how female students and teachers behave, he considered that one way that students truly learn is triggered by a “disorienting dilemma,” an event that causes a student to realize that the way they perceived the world is not entirely true, and that they must adjust their way of thinking to move forward out of this moment (for further info, look into Constructivist sociological theories, it was always one of my favorite schools of thought in sociology). Transformative learning is thus

learning that transforms problematic frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, reflective, open, and emotionally able to change.

In later interpretations of Mezirow’s work, sociologists applied it to theories of culture shock, it in itself being a disorienting dilemma for many. Culture shock, defined as “a form of anxiety resulting from the “misunderstandings
of commonly perceived and understood signs and symbols… often manifesting in feelings of panic, anxiety, alienation,
frustration and helplessness.”
Mezirow had ten stages for what the typical process of transformative learning is like for an adult:

  1. Disorienting dilemma: This would be a distressing event, sometimes triggered by travel to somewhere new, or starting something new
  2. Feeling bad about how this event makes you feel (feelings of guilt and shame are typical)
  3. Reevaluating what you thought you knew
  4. Realizing that you’re not alone in needing to change and adapt
  5. Looking into making new connections to your world and the people around you
  6. Making a plan to work on yourself
  7. Learning about ways to do things differently
  8. Actually trying to behave differently
  9. Getting more confident and competent
  10. Continuing your life with a new perspective

But like all theories, there are gaps and oversights. Some people don’t go through these phases, some people skip stages, and for some people they don’t happen at all. It also operates under the assumption that people always act rationally, when people are… people. To go through such a transformation also requires you to be vulnerable, courageous, and disciplined. Admitting you were wrong and then following through on a plan to do better seems like a rarity for a reason – it’s really, really hard.

I like this theory for a few reasons though. When faced with evidence that we’ve perceived the world incorrectly or incompletely, we can either ignore this realization because it makes us uncomfortable, or we can choose to self-assess and reevaluate. It’s really a theory with hope baked into it. When you know better, you do better.

While my sister and I were in the middle of our silent treatment, all I could think about was –

She’s choosing not to change and adapt. I am ashamed of her. Why can’t she be like me?

The Metamorphosis

On her last afternoon in Madrid my sister, my friend Anisa, and I went to the Zoo and Aquarium of Madrid. Together we marveled at the patrons freely feeding the animals popcorn and chips from their hands, the confusing layout of the zoo overall, and the strange selection of animals.

[videopress kUk1Bbpr]

There were moments where, for my sister and I, it was as if we were both okay and nothing was wrong, and somehow our signals reached each other. In the moments Anisa captured of us on her camera that you see in this post, we were joking and happy, just like we normally would be back home.

Later, over dinner at an American themed restaurant, my sister lamented that all she wanted was to spend time with me, not Spain. I couldn´t understand this, and unwittingly was trying to show her Spain the whole time. She said she thought that me being in Spain had changed me, an assumption that didn´t sit right with me. At the same time though, I was hoping that would be the case for her – change. I wanted her to leave Spain better than she came to it: more open, more patient. I didn´t think that would happen at this rate. I worried she would come and go the same person.

My sister and I caught a cab to the airport and bid each other goodbye. I walked away feeling terrible. It was that bad at timesand I felt guilty for making her feel inadequate, burdensome, or unwanted. And on her birthday!!!!

But then I got this text message,


It’s been weeks since my sister visited Madrid, and as I pack up to get ready to join her back in Maryland, I’ve come around to my theories on people, travel, and feelings about both. My sister and I are different, and those diferences are beautiful. Our worlds are different, and right now as I type this, literally so. I want her to be like me, she wants to be herself – only one of us is wrong in this, and it’s me. I expected her time here to transform her in this one way, she had other ideas.

She texted me that she would come back to Spain one day, but on her own terms. A hotel experience that was more familiar to home, a list of restaurants and activities she could do that wouldn’t push her too far out of her comfort zone. I told her that if she was willing, I’d tag along, more confident in being her ally and friend instead of her teacher.

In a way, our time together transformed me as well. Our time together forced me to reevaluate how I see the world and my relationship to others in it, especially my sister. Knowing that I have these feelings about what perspective is the best, I now have to do the work in doing better. More than one way of seeing and experiencing the world is just fine and I myself was being closed-minded in my response to my sister. I can do better, I can learn this.

We’re still learning how to be sisters, friends, and daughters together.

Madrid changed us both. Culture shock and all.




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