Is first-hand experience the secret behind true understanding? Go!

I was about fourteen years old when a Norwegian girl came to study in my school, in Venezuela, for a year. I always wondered why, among all the Latin American countries, she had chosen Venezuela (very patriotic, right?); but I never really asked her. She was nice, friendly, and worked really hard to improve her Spanish. By then, my English was so bad that I used to memorize –word by word – my presentations for English class; so even though the Norwegian girl spoke English fluently, we talked in Spanish. Our conversations were very slow, and after a while, I thought that I didn’t have the patience to teach her Spanish and become her friend. I figured that there were enough people in the school and someone would have the patience that I lacked. She didn’t finish her year in Venezuela for many reasons, but apparently one of them was the fact that she felt very homesick and lonely. Back then, I didn’t really care to think about it.

Little I knew that, two years later, I would be studying at an international high school in Italy despite the fact that my English was so poor; and four years later –still struggling to master the language – I would study at a university in the United States of America. Had I known all that, I would have never been indifferent or impatient towards that Norwegian girl in Venezuela. Because now I know how hard it is to live in a place that you can’t call home, with a language that is not yours and doesn’t allow you to show others who you really are. I wouldn’t be indifferent because now I know what it feels like to deal with inpatient people who don’t want to understand you, as well as kind-hearted people who have the patience to listen and understand who you are despite your accent and recurrent “what did you say?”

I’ve been remembering this story a lot lately, because people keep on asking me what I’ve learnt after all these years of studying and traveling. I think that I’ve learnt that if I had the chance to meet someone like that Norwegian girl again, I wouldn’t be indifferent and I would be more patient. I wouldn’t look at her with annoyance because she’s wasting my time. In fact, it wouldn’t be about “me” anymore. I would admire her determination, help her, and try to discover that courageous girl who decided to come to such an unusual country. I’ve changed a lot, and it took me a long time to understand these changes. I’ve changed because, in the past six years, I’ve been sometimes mistreated and other times well received. And even though I want to believe that first-hand experience is not necessary for these kinds of changes, in my case, it was.

I wonder if the same idea applies when it comes to understanding and helping societies different than our own. My Ukrainian friend just sent to me a short documentary about the Ukrainian political chaos and, despite the fact that I am far from understanding Ukraine, every time I see a broken parliament, centralized institutions and state leaders whose political decisions undermine the possibilities of entire societies, I understand. I understand because I lived for a long time in a place like that, an authoritarian –almost failed– state that constraints me from afar (e.g. Cadivi). It might take me longer to understand the details of Ukraine’s political institutions, but I understand –to a big extent – the frustrations of being a citizen in a place like that. Cadivi (currency-exchange constraints) is to me what the Ukrainian passport is for my friend Darya. And today –despite the long distance that separates our bodies– I feel unusually close to her.

Marcela Colmenares

Here is the short documentary about Ukraine (2012)


8 thoughts on “Is first-hand experience the secret behind true understanding? Go!

  1. Darya says:

    very very true. nothing to add. unfortunately the more i live the more i am convinced that it is experience that allows us to understand each other. probably that is why UWC was created – so that we have a common experience to relate to each other and find ways to live and work together.
    p.s. Tarkovksy talked about importance of experience a lot in his films and writing, “Only through personal experience do we understand life.”

  2. Danielle says:

    This is really great, Marcela. I can understand what you mean here after my own first-hand experience with 2 years in Spain– the difficulty of learning another language and the humility it takes have been really important experiences in my life! I also get to see the flip side of this through teaching English to Spanish kids. Sure, there are always some times where we get frustrated by pronunciation or misunderstandings when someone is trying to speak our native language and they don’t quite have it perfect, but my job as a teacher is to stay patient and encourage others to try. God knows it’s taken me FOREVER to work up the courage to even try speaking Spanish, and lots of very wonderful people have helped me along the way, even though I still have a long way to go! But language exists for us to communicate with each other, which is such a beautiful thing! So I agree with you– patience, determination, and sometimes just waiting for someone to sound out what they want to say in a 2nd language is more like a gift than a chore, letting us help someone else along their own language journey, hehe. 🙂 Also, I hope you know that your English is AMAZING. I never once detected doubt or errors in the whole time I knew you at Kenyon. In fact, I’ve always been really impressed with your amazing language skills (English, Italian, etc.)!! Miss you!

    • Thank you so much for your insights Danielle! I am convinced that you are a patient and helpful teacher. I like what you say about the “courage” to speak Spanish, because a huge part of learning languages (and anything) lies in courage and confidence. Believing that you actually can do it.

      I hope I can get to see you soon!


  3. Anonymous says:

    Marce, I have a similar example about a different point – in fact, your title/question is exactly what my ToK presentation was about, and even though I never really took the academical part of it too seriously, I have carried it close to heart ever since.

    Coming from the same city as you do, my case had to do with political ideology: like many others, I grew up in a conservative, limiting and encapsulated environment where since 1998 all I heard was, that Chávez was evil. Period. I do confess that throughout most of my teenage years I was very much politically apathetic/indifferent, and with little interest in what happened outside of the circle of people I knew. There were recurrent moments were I probed at the outside world through, for example, MUNs, but those always remained a very alienated exercise in “understanding”, because they were nothing more than “discussions”, low-quality theatrical impersonations.

    Two prominent figures I remember from those years exemplify this lack of vision: a teacher I had on the subject of “governmental studies” used to say, “you all have to get in your head that the State is ALWAYS the worst entity to administrate resources”. The best reflection we used to get from the leader of faculties of my MUN team was that, “the best that MUNs teach you is something wonderful and practical, and that is to persuade your mom to let you go out with that girl you like but she doesn’t”.

    So any hope of really understanding any kind of “other” (be it chavistas, imperialists, middle eastern conflict-ridden people…) was not even a question. And I don’t say the following as an empty praise to UWCs, but rather pointing at how important “living together” (first-hand experience, in your words) is the only viable way I have experienced to bring those walls down. Had I not shared a floor and rooms with “revolutionaries”, queers, fundamentalists, etc., I doubt I would have had an earlier chance to realize that all people are people, whether you stand on the same side of an ideological wall or not. Mind you, it might have just been that I came from a rather impervious and extremely short-sighted community, or that I personally am resilient to change, or both, but I think my point is that no matter how much you debate/discuss/read about an “otherness”, words will ultimately take much longer in bringing understanding than first hand experience.

    I’m not saying “don’t read, just live”, by all means read/discuss/share through social media, etc, but no matter how skillful one might be with words, they will always be a longer way to understanding.

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