While the Erasmus programme is a unique and exciting experience for all, things can be bit more complicated when your link with Europe is a bit more obscure. Let me explain: I was born and raised in Hong Kong to Indian parents and then moved to London for my degree, which includes studying abroad in Madrid for a year. So whenever small-talk leads to the classic “where are you from?” question, you can see how a short answer isn’t always easy. In fact, my study-abroad experience has so far been defined by many “let me explain” situations, ranging from immigration dilemmas to social problemas, beginning even before landing at Barajas.
As a non-EU citizen, I couldn’t just pick up my bags and fly down to study at Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM). Accustomed to visa formalities, I knew that I had to prepare well in advance. In retrospect, contacting and coordinating with embassies in Hong Kong, London and Madrid should be something I mention in my CV. Finally, with one near-sacred email on my iPhone citing my legal right of entry in Madrid, I bravely began my journey at Heathrow. “Where’s your visa?” is a question I was asked in London and then in Madrid as well, only in the latter case I was asked this question in Spanish and in a separate part of the airport, often reserved for those arriving with fake passports. Great. Hungry, tired and hardly speaking coherent Spanish, I “explained” my situation and eventually won my immigration arrival stamp.
The initial few weeks were defined by house-hunting and settling in. Many people decide to rent rooms in large flats of anywhere from four to 14 people, which is a great way to socialise with other young adults from across the world. However, while this is a great way to make new friends it can also be overwhelming for some. I decided to rent a flat with one other person – a friend also studying abroad – and together we became experts in IKEA jargon. So, if you’re not feeling confident about your Spanish, don’t worry because the more opportunities you take to practice, the better it will get! Don’t be scared to make mistakes, put yourself out there and trust that madrileños are some of the nicest people who will help you when you’re stuck. Also, download the SpanishDict app.
Remember the “where’s your visa?” question? Upon arriving in Madrid, non-EU citizens should apply for a Tarjeta de Identidad para Extranjeros (TIE), which authorises your stay in the Member State. I strongly recommend researching and prioritising this because you will need to book several appointments at different offices, all while flexing your constantly improving Spanish and travelling around Madrid, to the infamous Brigada Provincial de Extranjería y Documentación, in particular. Go fully prepared for these appointments because the next one available could be months later. In my case, the officials were often unable to provide a precise answer so there was a lot of back and forth (and missing classes). And while King’s is more understanding of such mitigating circumstances, UCM is not entirely.
So, while the immigration process became a lot more complicated than needed, the silver lining was that my Spanish improved tremendously. Of course, while we all react uniquely to challenges (and some challenges are more unique than others), most obstacles on your year-abroad are universal and the key is to form a support network to help you through it all. I’ve formed incredible friendships over similar shared struggles, which then become more bearable – even funny!
But really, where are you from?
The confusion, fascination even, that Madrid has developed for my identity didn´t stop at the Airport; it followed me to UCM.
As I soon discovered during my first semester at UCM, the Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociología, is a world of its own; full of character and revolutionary spirit. After all, it is the birthplace of the political party Podemos. So, don’t be surprised if you spend all your two-hour classes engrossed in debates on the crisis de civilización.
For me, this activism is inspiring and has helped me feel more confident about my identity. In retrospect, my earlier insecurities manifested themselves in feeling an obligation to identify with only one culture out of expedience, so I condensed my answer to “where are you from?” by responding with “London”. This answer generated fewer questions, as opposed to when I responded with “Hong Kong”. A reaction I can’t forget when I said the latter is “but your eyes…?”, insinuating that everyone from HK should look a certain way. However, by being the only person in my faculty with my background, while studying globalisation and contemporary politics, I embraced my identity and all its intricacies. To the point that recently when speaking with a teacher about this, I corrected his diagnosis of my identity as “confusing” to “global”. This is progress for someone who was publicly singled out by their teacher in-class because, to him, my name was like a “Wi-Fi password” (the teacher-student dynamic at UCM is not the same as King’s, so come prepared!).
What I wish to convey with these anecdotes is that you are the outcome of all your experiences. Cliché, I know, but true. You will be exposed to different cultures, people and ideologies, which can present themselves as challenges or enriching experiences. How you choose to navigate them will define not just your time abroad, but also your outlook on a lot of things in life.
Again, I recommend forming quality friendships not just to support you with adapting to the study-abroad experience, but also to make it more enjoyable! My friends and I took several budget-friendly (basically free trips with the 30-day Madrid transport abono for €20, which you should get) and unplanned trips (spontaneity, am I right) around Madrid. It’s a great way to experience a completely different way of life, practice your Spanish and take cute pics for the ‘gram.