People are often surprised and curious that I am fluent in Spanish. It is a random language for an Australian – let alone an Asian Australian – to dedicate themselves to. We’re a multicultural but otherwise monolingual kinda nation and learning Spanish presents you with just the one job prospect: teaching Spanish.
I enjoy surprising and impressing people with this. I enjoy that it’s a bit unexpected and left-field. Although I could never have guessed things would turn out this way, Spanish as a language took me to Madrid for half a year, then South America for three years. Those were defining experiences in my life.
It’s funny reflecting on how and why this came to be. It’s a secret few have been privy to, but I reveal it publicly now.
Since childhood, I’ve always been fascinated by Europe and European history but my bent was more towards medieval England and Italy. All through school, I studied Indonesian. It wasn’t until later in high school that I made my first forays into learning Spanish.
Why? The short answer is the 2002 FIFA World Cup and a video game called Age of Empires II.
- There were attractive players on Spain’s national football team.
- The Spanish civilisation had mounted monks and horsemen with guns.
Two silly little things. That somehow snowballed into a life-defining thing.
Around the same time as I was watching the World Cup and playing AOE2 with my friends, the opportunity came up at school to take Spanish as a short weekly elective. All I learned was how to count to ten, say Buenos días and ask the time. The following year, I committed to studying it properly.
I struggled through but did well in my first semester alongside classmates who’d studied French and Italian. Conjugation was totally new to me.
But at some point, things clicked (including the subjunctive, eventually), and I went on to major in Spanish at university, teaching first-year classes and writing an honours thesis on collective memory of the Spanish Civil War. This took me on exchange to Madrid, and after uni, to two years in the mountains of Loja, followed by a year in La Paz.
Which, in a slightly roundabout way, brought me to my current job at International Justice Mission, where I’ll celebrate four years in November.
And it all began with the World Cup and a video game.
Raúl González Blanco, Iker Casillas, Fernando Morientes, animated missionaries and conquistadors were like little sparks that turned into a flame. Tiny mustard seeds that grew into a giant mustard tree in which all sorts of birds nested.
So there you have it, the secret’s out.
Since I came home almost five years ago, I’m still “the one who went to South America”, but I barely speak the language anymore and certainly not in my day-to-day. The most I do is read the Bible in Spanish and very occasionally watch a movie on Netflix without subtitles. Every now and then I’ll run into a Latino expat on the beach or overhear a conversation on the train.
It feels like a past life. I don’t follow football anymore and nowadays I play other civilisations in Age of Empires even though they don’t have mounted monks and their horsemen don’t carry guns.
I write this with no small amount of grief. It’s a grief that runs parallel – alongside but separate to – my mourning of my nomadic years. Learning and speaking Spanish has given me a way of thinking, understanding, being that has expanded my horizons in so many ways.
This thing between me and Spanish is still a defining thread in my story yet it’s ceased to be a concrete part of my life. There is some internal tension there, for sure, and I haven’t resolved it yet.
What happens after the spark, after the flames – do they fizzle into embers and then cinders? I don’t think I’m ready to let the fire die on the Spanish language, not yet. It may never return to the full strength blaze it once was, but I’m determined to nurse the embers, keep a candle burning, any way I know how.
Is there anything in your life that began with an unexpected spark but became a significant fire?
On the other side of that, have you experienced the tension when a defining part of your life ceases to be a concrete part of your life?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections 🙂
Header image: Jon Tyson.