How to integrate into Spanish culture (or not) – a sort-of guide
A couple of days ago, I went to the police station.
Actually, it was a special occasion: I was picking up my new residence permit.
Yes, I’m officially “legal” again – a loyal, taxpaying non-citizen resident of the Kingdom of Spain, for another 5 years.
The best part is, it’s been 10 years since I became one. Now I can apply for nationality, if I choose to. You know, and become a “real official Spaniard”, at some point.
Actually, the idea of being a real official Spaniard still seems pretty ridiculous to me. And I’ve been here most of my adult life.
If integration even exists, I probably haven’t done it. Or have I?
Today we’re going deep. So deep. Oh yeah. Ahh…
How to integrate / assimilate into Spanish culture and society
Back in the day, there was a teacher at the language school where I worked.
Big guy. Annoying.
He once complained to me about immigrants in the US: “I feel like previous generations were trying their best to integrate. Not like these new people who come in now…”
This statement struck me as more than a bit ironic, given that the gentleman in question was an immigrant himself, and steadfastly refused to move past a “beginner” level of Spanish.
But it got me thinking: what does it mean to integrate? Or assimilate?
Is it even possible – or desirable – to do so?
And if it is, how should one go about doing it?
All questions I’ll try to answer here.
What does it mean to integrate or assimilate into another culture?
If you’re like me, you might have gone through life thinking that “integrate” and “assimilate” are basically synonyms.
And in a way, they are. One definition, from Oxford, even uses the word “integrate” as part of the definition of “assimilate”: to absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culture.
But a lot of people see them as being slightly different things.
Integration, on the other hand, allows people to keep their home culture while also being (more or less) fully participating members of their host culture and society.
But those are just some definitions. A lot of people, like me, use the words interchangeably.
Here’s my usual disclaimer: if you want some deep sociology, click off this blog now, and go read a textbook.
I won’t be making a huge distinction between integration and assimilation from here on out.
So, how do you go about this mysterious integration thing?
Learn the local language
Back in the US, I’d never be the kind of asshole who goes around telling people to “learn English or go home”. That’d be awful.
On the other hand, if you move abroad, knowing the local language will definitely make your life easier on a practical level.
So if you’re here in Spain, it’s highly recommendable to learn at least enough Spanish to get around.
Say a solid intermediate level.
Don’t do it to please the locals: do it to make your own life better.
Because what else are you gonna do? Spend your whole life looking for dentists, lawyers and plumbers who speak English? Rely on friends who have learned the language to translate for you?
Not exactly ideal.
Here in Barcelona, to be perfectly honest, I could probably live my whole life in English if I wanted to.
My landlord speaks English, and my rent contract is bilingual. My local café is run by a woman from Wisconsin, and some Californian brothers run the bar where I get my vermouth on weekends. (Just kidding: it’s the bar where I get my vermouth on weekdays and weekends.)
You don’t really need Spanish to navigate a supermarket or a big box store. And being in a touristy location means a lot of people have some idea of English.
But of course, there’s always the chance of something happening that absolutely must be done in Spanish.
What if I need to call an ambulance? Go to the unemployment office? Talk to the electric company?
They might not have someone who speaks English on hand to help me… in fact, they might just hang up the phone rather than deal with me.
I actually did an experiment about it in Madrid, years ago. I spent an afternoon pretending to speak only English, and wrote about it on my other site. One lady at the Corte Inglés actually just turned her back and walked away from me when I spoke to her in English. But mostly, people had no problem.
(As usual, though, if you don’t happen to speak Spanish or English, you’re probably just outta luck. Try getting around Barcelona speaking Hungarian, or Tamil, or Igbo.)
Unrelated side note: here in Catalonia, people actually tell me to “learn Catalan or go back to my country” with some regularity. Local hospitality, they call it.
Adopt local culture and customs
Okay, let me be real.
I just googled “What is Spanish culture?”
Because even after living here almost half my life, I still feel like I might be missing something.
The first things that cross my mind, when I think of typical Spanishness, are – of course – bullfighting, flamenco, and sangría.
The big three.
The Holy Trinity of Spanishness.
Funny thing is, many modern Spaniards hate bullfighting, most would rather watch The Sopranos than a flamenco show, and no Spaniard EVER drinks sangría.
Facts: bullfighting was very popular decades ago, flamenco is regional, and sangría is garbage.
Other than that, Spanish people (on average) tend to have an obsession with football. Catholicism is popular in some places. And back in the 17th and 18th centuries, they had some really good painters.
But I challenge you to find a lot of enthusiasm, on the street level, for Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco.
Go ahead. Ask around. I bet it’s about 1000 times easier to find a lifelong fan of AC/DC than it is to find someone who can tell you two things about Spanish Baroque art.
And believe it or not, Spanish kids don’t grow up hoping to be the next Gaudí or Cervantes. Word has it they mostly want to be YouTubers.
Another relevant aspect of Spanish culture is food, of course. The eternal debate about what exactly makes it a paella, and what is just an “arroz con cosas”. The vacuous argument over whether onion has any place in a tortilla de patatas.
And that’s about all that springs to mind.
Culture: what is it, anyway?
Many Spaniards work long hours, live in small flats, and spend a lot of time outside.
Is that culture? Well, I guess it is. But I also think that if almost everybody is doing something, it’s probably “invisible” most of the time.
If you live in the US, you might have heard (or even believed) the meme that “Americans have no culture”.
Well, we do.
It’s just not immediately obvious that your trip to Walmart for some Cheetos is a cultural event, just like someone in Barcelona might swing by La Boqueria to pick up some freshly-gutted sardines.
If you see people doing it while you’re on vacation, you think “Oh, how quaintly cultural!”
But if you do it every day at home, it’s just something you do.
Anyway, like I said, I just googled “What is Spanish culture?”.
And according to donquijote.org (the first result on the search page, of course) Spanish culture includes “physical contact during conversation” which “is not considered an invasion of personal space”. That’s literally in the second line of their article.
Other useful information from ol’ D.Q. dot O.R.G. includes little nuggets like these:
- Teenagers in Spain like “water parks” and “going out”.
- Spanish weddings “always end very very late”. And…
- Typical Spanish music “goes a lot further than the omnipresent, unsinkable Macarena, which became a worldwide sensation in the 1990s.”
Interestingly, I never thought of the Macarena as a Spain thing. I guess I figured “Los Del Río” were Puerto Rican, like J.Lo or Ricky Martin. Turns out they’re from Sevilla.
So, uh, feel free to develop a strong opinion about paella, or bullfighting, or cante jondo, if that makes you feel more integrated. Definitely try all the Spanish food you can. And by all means, visit the museums to see the art. Admire the architecture. Learn some history.
Let’s move on to the final option of the day…
Make Spanish friends / sleep with the locals / marry a Spaniard
So. You’ve been living in Spain for a few months. You’ve got a job, a landlord, a water bill, and a local SIM card. But something’s missing.
You’re not quite feeling integrated yet.
Maybe it’s time for the nuclear option: get married!
Or just make friends or follamigos with some of the locals.
Marrying into a Spanish family will definitely get you a circle of cuñados, tíos, abuelos and primos to hang around with. But from what I’ve heard, it’s not exactly a cakewalk. Spaniards from outside the big cities might not be used to dealing with foreigners, and they probably won’t be tuned in to your version of political correctness.
It might be occasionally awkward.
(A friend from the Philippines once told me she was affectionately known as “la china” by her in-laws. Another, from Scandinavia, was “la guiri“. If you can’t have a sense of humor about such things, it might be difficult having a mostly-Spanish family.)
But is it cultural integration? Well, yeah. Or at least the closest thing that I’ve achieved. You’ll definitely be having an “immersive cultural experience” once you’re all naked and sweaty. And if you become more than follamigos, so much the better.
Being the token guiri at a Spanish birthday party can even be sort of enjoyable.
Another option is to make Spanish friends.
Some people (reportedly) have good luck with this, but most foreign people I know don’t. The language barrier is an issue, plus the type of jobs people from abroad tend to get here in Spain.
Also, Spaniards tend to have close-knit groups of friends who they’ve known since elementary school (or at the very least, their first year at university). A group like that might invite you out for cañas, but as usual, you’ll always be the token guiri.
Which brings us to our last point…
Is integration or assimilation even possible in Spain?
Well, maybe. Spain doesn’t have the US’ long history of mass immigration.
But the last 20 years have certainly seen a lot of people moving in from all over the world. I suspect that the next few generations of Spaniards are going to be a lot different than what’s come before. (Walk past a big-city elementary school playground and take a look at the kids, if you don’t believe me.)
On the other hand, I’m a 6-foot-tall bearded ginger.
I’m pretty sure that even if I live to be 100, nobody is ever going to look at me and say “Oh, look, a typical Spanish person!” I’ll probably always look (and feel) foreign, no matter what passport I get.
But your mileage may vary. There are plenty of people out there who look generically Mediterranean (or something) and blend right in. Maybe you’re great at accents. You might even convince yourself, after a while, that you “feel Spanish” – whatever that means.
Hey, you might even be some kind of citizen of the universe. (Just do me a favor and never use that expression in front of me. Thanks.)
In any case, the other relevant question is: should you assimilate?
My large annoying coworker back in the day seemed to think that immigrants in the US should make some huge effort and give up their whole identities to please “the locals” in his town in Missouri.
Personally, I think that’s bullshit.
Just live your life. Most people aren’t judging you much anyway, and if they are, they’re probably morons.
Personally, I’m doing my best here. I’ve got my residence permit, my hefty tax bill, and my C2 level of Spanish. The opinions random strangers might have about my lifestyle matter very little to me.
So, that’s all I’ve got for today.
Hope you’re having a good one, wherever you are. I’ll be back soon, with more fun from here in Iberia. Thanks for reading! Until next time…
Mr Chorizo AKA Daniel.
P.S. What do you think it means to integrate or assimilate into Spanish society? Let me know, right here in the comments…
P.P.S. Thanks to Spanish Twitter for helping me out with a bit of research here. And actually, as they mentioned, some Spanish people do occasionally drink sangría. But it’s not nearly as common as tinto de verano. More on that in my article about how to order wine in Spain. Cheers!