A third-culture kid (TCK / 3CK) or trans-culture kid is "someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more cultures other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."


Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Farewell To Venezuela

After the Caracazo, life did not return to the pace we had grown accustomed to. I celebrated my 8th birthday on March 2, 1989 along with my family and no one else. My friends were not yet allowed by the Venezuelan army and police to come over for my party as the government had not lifted the state of emergency. My mom was very resourceful, managing to whip up a birthday cake from anything we had in our kitchen to honour my day. It was a brownie, but we called it cake. Luckily for me, I had a weakness for brownies (still do but I try to think of cholesterol and fats). I had a vague idea concerning the state of affairs outside of our house walls. My parents were surprised that I had not made a big fuss about my birthday. I am glad I reacted that way otherwise there was nothing my parents could have done. It was magical enough for me to be the four of us together on my day.

The Canadian Claus family, Venezuela.
Our next few months were our last in this country. When we were finally given the green light to leave our homes and take to the streets again, the general environment appeared to be filled with tension and my Venezuelan people looked dissatisfied. The government had now instituted a curfew in which we were allowed out of our homes until sundown. My mother took advantage of this moment as an opportunity to drive down to our local supermarket to replenish our supplies, so we headed down the hill to Circunvalación del Sol. To our surprise, the whole plaza was now crawling with soldiers. Our mall had turned into a real life GI Joe fort, the kind I used to make with my brother, waiting for Cobra to make its attack. On the outside of the supermarket, there were long line-ups to get in and wealthy house wives arguing amongst each other and with the soldiers, all because they needed to buy food.

By the time we were inside the supermarket fort, the aisles and shelves were almost empty. The housewives had moved their argument indoors and physically fighting over bread, sugar, milk, pretty much any basic household supply. I was helping my mom by pushing the cart through the arguments while she tried to gather things that could be useful and non-perishable items. She stepped away for a little more than a few second to get something from another shelf further away and now housewives turned to me with predator's gaze. I was alone, had a cart with food and was small enough to overpower. Knowing I could literally do nothing more then scream, which would not be noticed among all the arguing inside the store, they swarmed the cart and helped  themselves to whatever they needed. When my mother returned, she noticed many things were gone, looked at me and said nothing. I was still in shock about what had just happened I did not know what to say to her. She did not seem to hold it against me as she could easily guess why our cart was practically empty again.

On my first ride back to school, a monumental day,  I could see numerous military patrols and check-points throughout the city. The city morning rush hour traffic had now become even slower. Regardless, I couldn't wait to rejoin my friends at the lycée after such a long hiatus. I missed my close friends, our activities, our camaraderie and even my classes and teachers. It was good to be back in my world of elementary school as this was one of the few things in my life that had remained unchanged. The world outside could be falling apart, but Colegio Francia was here to stay. Through the sophisticated elementary school grapevine, I had found out that one of our school mates, a kid in my brother Brian's class, had been killed during the riots. He must have been at the most 12 years old. The truth was that he was no longer with us but the story was that he had been shot while looking out a window of his apartment during the riots.

The little boxes are the famous "ranchitos" in Petare, Caracas, Venezuela.
After a few more months, nearing the end of our scholastic tour of duty, my parents called a general assembly meeting of the Fab Four. This time the communiqué was that our family would be on the move once again. We were going to be relocating to Santiago de Chile. My brother and I had managed to make good friends over the last three years and we were sad to have to leave them behind. I thought about what Venezuela as a country and its people meant for me at that time. Something one would call after a certain age, my first school of life. In my time there, I identified a world of "haves" and another one of "have-nots", realizing my family was positioned among the "haves". I respected those people and families who were on the other side of the spectrum. They did not live the way they did by choice. I also noticed all my parents were doing for their two boys and how lucky we were to be the Fab Four. I was going to miss Venezuela as the circumstances had taught me so much, and looked forward to our new challenge.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

El Caracazo: The Day That Shook The Country

In November, the excitement and tranquility settled back into our home in Santa Paula: Mom was back. Brian and I had no understanding that she needed time to rest to get over her surgery, but the fact she returned after so long made us appreciate her so much more. I am certain that if the doctor had prescribed love and pampering in her road to recovery, we gave her as much as we possibly could. I remember coming home from school looking for her to give her a big hug and see how she was doing. The Fab Four were finally reunited and back to full-strength. 

Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez
The return to normality in our home life was followed by a massive political carnival in the big city. Elections! The country was going through a major economic crisis, something I had little awareness of, and the president at the time was Jaime Lusinchi. His term was running out and the people were looking for a change. All the fever was around el Gocho del 88, Carlos Andrés Pérez, and his promises to implement wide scale free-market reforms based on recommendations from the IMF. His proposed reforms included privatizing state companies, tax reform, reducing custom duties and diminishing the role of the state in the economy. His popularity as far as I knew was huge, as I had a pin with his face on it. I wore it around the house quite often while sporting my awesome Kung Fu pajamas.

President Pérez was in fact elected in 1988 and began his road to reform. He implemented an economic package that included the elimination of gas subsidies previously allowing Venezuelans to enjoy extremely cheap gasoline prices, far beneath the international level and costs of production. As soon as these subsidies were eliminated, gasoline prices sky rocketed along with the price of public transportation. Many Venezuelans relied on cheap public transportation as they could not afford to purchase a family car and lived in humble conditions, something I had perceived while visiting development projects with my family.

On Friday, February 27, 1989, I woke up to a school day to the sound of panic. I came out of my room to see my mom with Brian in the family room and I could hear chaotic screams coming from the television. The people affected by the newly implemented economic reforms had taken to the streets. I did not understand why my people were furious but I noticed protesting and major rioting. The reporter on scene mentioned that the events we were witnessing were unfolding in Guarenas, a town close to Caracas. My mother, Brian and I could not believe the images we were seeing and I could not help but think about my Dad who had left earlier that morning for work. By that afternoon, the rioting had spread to Caracas and from our backyard we could hear gun shots, bombs going off and all sorts of screaming.
Mobs looting around Caracas, Venezuela, Feb 27, 1989.
Through the widespread civil disorder, the President came on national television declaring the country was in a state of emergency and as such, we were to remain in our homes until order would be restored. There were clear warnings that anyone leaving their home would be fired upon by security forces. After this message, media rights had been suspended and we were left in the dark. Our television coverage was the only way to know what was going on in the world outside the walls of our house. I found out later on that President Pérez had suspended many constitutional rights and ordered to restore obedience at any cost. All I could think of was about my father and if I would ever see him again. I had mental imagines of my father in his car surrounded by people trying to get to him. He did in fact make it home late that night. These riots went on for another three days.

(Pictures courtesy of http://primicias24.com/)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Defining the Family

Venezuela was turning out to be an enjoyable home. As children, my brother and I already settled in, making friends and doing well in school. As a family, we had the opportunity to visit many beautiful regions in the country. We traveled to the sandy beaches of Puerto La Cruz, colonial settlements such as Colonia Tovar, discovering the Andes mountains in Mérida and remote settlements like Canaima in the Amazon jungle. Each place was filled with their own enchantment and provided unforgettable memories.
Me with a coconut in Chichiriviche, Venezuela.
Our first major challenge came on September 1987. A nasty mosquito visited our home, using my mom and brother as hosts for the dengue fever. I had never seen someone as outgoing and energetic as my mother completely out of commission. Both of them suffered from extreme exhaustion, fever and weight loss. The only time I could see them during the whole month was when I would go with my Dad to take them to the hospital for check-ups. My brother seemed to recover quicker than my mother, even though she did go back to work while she was recovering.

My mother worked at the Embassy as the community coordinator. She organized get-togethers for Canadians and their families, as well as public events where Canada was represented. Upon her return to the office, she was organizing a Halloween party for the kids and our pirate costumes for the grand event. She possessed abilities better known these days as outstanding multi-tasking skills and an ease to perform her tasks in a high pressure environment. As I readied my pirate riffle, sword and eye patch, I had no idea of the bigger picture.

Before the glorious day of my swashbuckling and treasure hunting, my parents organized a sit down. They wanted to talk to Brian and I to tell us that mom was "going to be going away for a while". This entire proposal was hard for me to understand. My father tried to explain as best he could that she had to go to the hospital in Toronto and would be staying with my Uncle John and Aunt Amy. I loved my aunt and uncle but I also knew there were hospitals in Caracas. Why could she not go there? They told us that my mother had breast cancer and had to undergo surgery. All I knew about cancer was that my Grandfather Bourlon passed away of it.

Halloween 1987, Caracas, Venezuela.
My mother went to Canada for a whole two weeks. Those two weeks were an eternity in child time. Mom was there to help with the homework and make sure everything was under control. With high prices for long distance telephone calls and no existence of our Internet, communication was restricted to snail mail. If we were to send her a letter before she left, it would arrive four weeks later in Toronto. She would already be back home by then. My Dad took charge of the home. Brian, at 9 years of age, helped me with my homework. This challenge helped me realize the importance of our Fab Four relationship and that we could all count on each other during times of distress.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Rise of Pancho Bickford

I began my primary school studies at Colegio Francia. This school is part of the intricate Lycée system, which guarantees that wherever French families go around the world, their children would receive the same quality of education as if they were back home in France. Many of the teachers themselves were either French ex-pats, teachers hired directly from France or young French people doing their military service as a community service abroad. I remember my first day there with outmost terror.

Brian and I looking sharp with our Colegio Francia uniform.

There was a large courtyard in the middle of the French section of the school, filled with all these children from every grade in elementary, each standing around waiting for the next step. All of a sudden, teachers came out into the area with a megaphone calling out each student's name. Each time a name was called, a head would go down, followed by eyes looking at shoes, looking at one foot lead the other, with the child remembering every detail of the freedom they enjoyed slipping away. This was one of the moments where your life flashes before your eyes while everything you knew is taken away from you in a split second.

The wonderful thing is that we were children, and as such, we moved on quickly. Sitting in the classroom next to me was a kid who did magic with his colouring pencils. He drew these stick figures that looked amazing. He looked on to my drawings and seemed to approve. We immediately became friends. His name was Gabriel Montagne. From that magical artistic moment, blossomed a strong friendship that initiated our first sleepovers and hang-outs. On the other side of the drawing table was a girl, Caroline, who seemed to feel at home in the room already bossing everyone around, and Douglas, a very quiet kid who was actually dragged in to the classroom crying by her mother. These would become my new friends throughout my days in the Lycée.

Discovering recess was something all in its own. When the bell rang, everyone in the classroom looked at each other completely puzzled and then we heard other children in adjacent rooms burst out in a massive cry of joy. They were the veterans of elementary who knew the ropes. We bolted out of our seats and straight through the door joining in the ode to joy. Outside that door that separated us from the world was where the gladiators met. The courtyard we had been in earlier was actually a cement field and now, it was to become the gauntlet. Students were forbidden from bringing in balls to school as these could prove to be a source of distraction, so the wiser kids used small plastic bottles as a ball and the higher authorities did not seem to mind.

Brian and I in our backyard, Caracas, Venezuela.

Here we also began the great "clásicos". Kids from the French and Venezuelan sections would face off in 15-minute daily tournaments. After several matches, we began to develop a camaraderie not only among teammates, but also with our adversaries through the sportsmanship that comes along with meeting the foe on the battlefield. There was no higher honour then partaking in these matches and the respect you earned. Furthermore, through my Spanish classes and interactions outside of school with anyone who was not family or Embassy staff, I began to feel comfortable in the local language and developed a new Venezuelan personality. From here on out, there was no more William the Canadian kid. I became Pancho Bickford. Everyone was to know this.

(For pictures of the school, including the soccer field, visit: http://colegiofrancia.edu.ve/)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Venezuela - The Land of Bolivar

In 1986, we arrived to the Maiquetia International Airport, ready to discover a new world, this time where the local language was Spanish. Upon exiting the terminal and being received by the admin officer of the Canadian Embassy, the most striking site were the so-called "ranchitos" on the sides of the hills surrounding the bay and the city. We all saw through the window of the car transporting us to our home in Caracas, the dense vegetation seemed similar to Brazil, with red earth, bushy jungle-like trees and potentially an amazing fauna as well, all blended in with the ranchitos. We felt a certain familiarity already with our new surroundings.

Venezuelan flag in use from 1930 to 2006.
The apartment that was assigned to us was my mother's dream. There were staircases with no railings - the type kids would love to sit on their bums and slide down, not that we ever did - to three compact floors, with free access to the rooftop - where there was no railing nor walls, therefore an easy place to fall off the building a whole three storeys - and our backyard with bamboo plants as a separation from our closest neighbours. One of our first backyard experiences was meeting our neighbour, Rocky - a big, smelly, sad-looking dog craving for attention. He was quite athletic and managed to hop on to our side of the yard on various occasions. My brother and I immediately took this dog on as a friend, to my mother's dismay. It was no surprise that we did not stay there too long, with my mother pressuring my Dad to get a safer, more acceptable home for a small family.

We moved to a neighbourhood called Santa Paula, in El Cafetal, Caracas, to a nice two-storey home with a big backyard, fenced-in for my parents' peace of mind. We had a guard dog as well, the most elegant looking German shepherd brought in by the owner from Bulgaria called Snap, and a deadly land turtle who could deal with enemy threats through extreme boredom called Touché. This was a great place to live as the community was safe, with adequate police presence and most of our neighbours seemed to be foreign entrepreneurs or diplomats from other countries.

Brian and I with Caracas on the backdrop.
We knew Caracas could be an exciting place for us as a family, and my brother and I had been coached very well on our new lifestyle. We were now unable to play on the street due to security reasons, and our new areas of activity were restricted to the backyard. I remember riding my bicycle around the house and building forts with garden furniture, which always seemed to be well received by my parents. My brother and I noticed when we went out on our walks with my mom and dad that there were no kids on the street like back in Ottawa.