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Kiera Needham, Duke University

10 Sep 2015

Time felt unusually slow as I watched the seconds on the clock run down to zero, when my conversation with Belén would begin. I didn’t understand why my heart was beating so quickly, but I found myself surprisingly unable to calm my nerves. I attributed this anxiety to the daunting prospect of a half hour conversation in a language I had only ever spoken while sitting at a cramped classroom desk.

When the time came, Belén’s face popped up my computer screen, but we were initially experiencing some volume difficulties. For a few minutes, we stared at each other in utter silence, until we began smiling and laughing at the whole amusing situation. By the time she opened her mouth and said, “Hola,” I felt like we already knew each other. As time went by, I found myself finding my words faster, speaking with a more natural ease, and eventually even laughing at funny anecdotes or grammar mistakes. That is not to say that I sounded good. I am sure there were times that Belén found me completely incomprehensible, but she continued to smile patiently, speak clearly and make me feel comfortable.

Never have I gained so much from 30 minutes of talking. You can learn about other countries in textbooks, but not until you interact with someone face-to-face can you truly attain a level of cultural competency that will allow you to more profoundly understand the world around you and the people in it. As a student in a Spanish class about global health, I bombarded my conversation partner with questions about her medical school experience and her encounters with the public health system in Ecuador. Belén told me things that made me laugh, that confused me, that educated me and that challenged me. Everything she said, however, inspired me to continue striving to break down barriers of language and complacency, to add my discoveries to my growing body of insight into the different cultures of the world and to apply that knowledge to further understanding the amazing people that make them up.

All of this happened during my conversation with Belén. After we said goodbye, I went to pick up food and accidentally ordered my meal in Spanish. Thirty minutes did that for me.