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, April 24, 2011

A World Without Borders

The first two years in Santiago presented unique occasions for my parents to groom Brian and I into the youngest gentlemen. Canadians from coast to coast are generally friendly and welcoming people yet protocol and etiquette are becoming less important as a significant proportion of the population seem to label this behaviour as snobby. There is a smaller group of people who take the more extreme side, surrounding themselves with expensive goods and procuring lavish services, leading to their self-proclamation of belonging to a selected elite. These individuals generally associate quality with the associated price tag. My brother and I were raised in a manner to appreciate quality through use rather than cost and to respect our fellow human beings no matter their financial standing or place in society. We were extremely sociable and able to foster and maintain friendships with anyone who was willing and able to communicate with us. It is something that has allowed me to feel comfortable anywhere between a group of orphans with disabilities to a room filled with politicians and foreign dignitaries.

Maman, Mémé and I in front of La Moneda Palace

When receptions or cocktails were held in our private SQ, protocol dictated that the hosts were to remain at the entrance of the home or designated event location to greet guests. Protocol is actually not snobby but a universal set of procedures that ensure hosts and visitors are on equal footing in terms of respect for each other. On most of these occasions, Brian and I would sport our nicest clothes and stand next to our parents shaking hands with everyone. How many young children play this host role, welcoming people at their front door with a “how do you do?” We were to add a “pleased to meet you” after each introduction. Sometimes, embassy staff that knew us would share a friendly comment or two with Brian and I. In Santiago, Brian and I had conquered the hearts of many of the Embassy, as most who had children were either teens or older. We were still in the cute bracket. In some way we were the Embassy’s children. The usual procedure after the welcoming ritual would include a brief meet and greet or standing next to our parents listening to what the grown-ups had to say. This was an extremely useful skill to acquire as it allowed me to understand how the diplomatic game works and some of the specific jargon. As soon as the guests were called to dinner, Brian and I would excuse ourselves, retiring to the kitchen for our meal and resume our evening quietly on our own. On some special occasions, our guests would be treated to the musical delight of the young Bickford duo on the piano.

Living in a rich and homogenous environment provided excellent opportunities for Brian and I to adopt certain Chile cultural aspects. However, we were also exposed to a multicultural environment due to adult expats yearning to find a piece of home in their new posting through other people and families in the same situation. Throughout my personal experiences, I have generally found expats can be divided into two quite different groups. The first of these are those who are excited about the new adventure and learning experiences of leaving their home country. These individuals are generally fascinated by the overall change in their lifestyle and begin to adopt elements of the local lifestyle. In some cases these people do not forget where they are from but tend to feel more at home in their host country. The other side of the expat persona is the complete opposite. Change has not been kind to them as they keep searching for elements of home in the new country and cannot find them. They resent everything the host country stands for and cannot relate to the locals. They dream of the day they can return home. I have seen both cases but I favour the first. I seem to thrive with change, as it is a process of self-discovery and enjoy meeting people who are open to sharing their life experiences. Each and every person experiences life from a different perspective and one day their knowledge or your own could prove useful.

I did not establish a preference for Chileans, Canadians or any other expat. I grew up understanding the existence of geographical borders. Yet I had a blend of cultures between my Chileans and everyone else. Within my family itself, I already had a rich cultural diversity, with English, Welsh, French, Spanish, Belgian and perhaps other nationalities the further I trace back my bloodline. I have family in Canada, England, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain and the United States and, of course, the friends I met down the road that became my adopted family. Expats have one common uniting element: being away from home. My parents met through official functions politicians, diplomats and business people from many different professional backgrounds and countries. The expat circle is in some cases a close community and as such, Brian and I began making friends our age from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, and perhaps other countries that I may be forgetting to mention. To those who may read this and I have not mentioned. I apologize, but rest assured you have a special place in my memory and heart. I remember Brian and I had developed a strong friendship with the Ambassador of New Zealand’s daughters who spoke excellent Spanish, but they were my first English-speaking friends at that age. We seemed to run into the Kiwi family out of pure coincidence on some of our trips outside Santiago as well. I was greatly intrigued with their unique accent that seemed somewhat similar to Mick Dundee, yet at the same time somewhat different.

Standing guard over Santiago wearing my Canada cap

As Brian and I continued our immersion in these diverse cultures, we realized how important our behaviour was when relating to other people, young and old, as we were representing our country. We wanted Canada, whether Canada was a person or an entire population, to be proud of us. Last year, I remember receiving a Facebook friend request last year from my friend and former classmate, Stephane Simon, from back in the Santiago days that referred to me as the Canadian friend. It was quite an honour to remain in someone’s memory as a representation of a whole country. As a result of such cross-cultural bonding, I developed a sense of empathy for newcomers, trying to assist them in their adjustment to a new home. I had befriended a South African kid, who I remember quite well. He was about 2 years younger than my classmates and myself, but I took him under my wing. Stephane had also joined in. We included him in our activities and hoped he felt  part of the group. My Chilean friends had also led by example exhibiting an incredible reception from the first day I set foot in the Alliance. I continue to this day extending a hand in friendship acquired in Chile hoping to help people transition to the temporary environment I call home.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Special Visit

Be away from family can be perhaps one of the toughest aspects of living abroad for an extended period of time. Brian and I missed bonding with our grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins on a regular basis. These are special relationships that we were better able to establish once we were older and able to communicate at a much deeper level. In a given year, there are approximately 52 weeks and generally 2 weeks a year were dedicated to visiting my father and mother's families. The remaining weeks were spent in our assigned country. International travel was significantly more expensive than it currently is (some argue prices are still very high) and the availability of credit was not as widespread as it is now, therefore air travel was an expensive venture. Our visits to our family were important as nobody seemed to have the ability to come to see us. There was however one great exception: my Mémé. She was my maternal grandmother and she had been widowed since 1984. She loved to travel, especially to see her foreign grandkids, Brian and I. She did not get to enjoy us as much as she wanted due to our 3 year rotations from one country to another. It was always a highlight when she came to stay with us, generally for a few months, yet  it never seemed to be long enough. She was the kind of guest you never wanted to leave. She had spent some time with us during our Caracas posting, but I seem to remember more her Santiago trip. I must say having her in our lives was a great blessing.

We gave Mémé a grand tour of all the hotspots in the nation's capital and other points of interest we were familiar with such as Farrellones, Santa Teresa de los Andes, Valparaiso and the quiet paradise we knew as Reñaca. Most of her time with us was spent in the big smoke. We resumed our regular routines making some adjustments to ensure we maximized the enjoyment of our special guest. During our school hours, she was able to spend quality time with her daughter (my Maman) that she did not get to see regularly since she married my Dad, beginning the exciting life of a diplomat's wife. My mother's family had been very close and seeing her mom was a great way to reconnect. There is always something special when you have that connection with family, the kind that feels comforting just having that person close to you. It makes a great difference. In the evening, as soon as Brian and I would arrive home, we ran into the house racing to find Mémé and used any excuse to be next to her. We sat beside her to chat, brought our toys to play close to her or even did our homework in her company. She had been a great support and thanks to her, I learned my multiplication tables at the speed of light. All of a sudden I was able to multiply mentally without the aid of a calculator from the terrible 2s to 12 times 12. She helped me memorize poems for school and she was encouraging as she knew there was nothing impossible for her grandchildren. Something she continuously mentioned remained engraved in my memory: "Only dumb people have trouble." This became one of my many mottos until recently.

My father had bought a beautifully hand-crafted guitar with an artistic leather case in one of his many Paraguay trips and now was the perfect opportunity to give Mémé her present. My Pépé had his own classic guitar and mastered it, but since he passed away, my grandmother began to teach herself. She was a wonderful musician and I am sure if she would have had more time to spare during her youth, she would have invested more time in the hobby. As far as I was told by my mother and her sister, my Aunt Annie, she was busy taking care of her family and seemed to be able to perform almost any task. Both my Maman and Tati Annie have inherited this amazing quality and I like to think her grandchildren as well. We had a piano at home as Brian and I had taken up this hobby and Mémé liked to play a song on it I later learned was from Xavier Cugat. I believe the melody was called "Cocktail Para Dos". She had a great ear for music and my mom told me my grandmother had never taken music lessons. She had a good ear. My parents were supportive regarding her musical ambitions and hired a teacher to help her pursue her enjoyment of the Spanish guitar. She began to learn some notes (which she later taught me when I bought my own guitar as a teenager) and classic Chilean folk songs such as "El Chilote Marino" and "La Petaquita". Brian and I joined her during her lessons to watch her play and sing along to the new songs.

Las Condes, the neighbourhood used to be primarily made up of private homes. I have not returned since, but our area in Apoquindo appears to have been converted into apartment buildings (based on newer pictures). The area was safe and great for evenings strolls. There were great shopping destinations such as the Centro Comercial Caracol, Toyland and Apoquindo. In time, Mémé became very acquainted with our part of the world having accompanied us to all of them. She joined us on our Sunday mornings walks to our Church off a neat traffic circle called Ronda La Capitania. Sometimes, my brother and I would sneak out after we had communion to join some local kids at the nearby park to play soccer. We thought we were so clever, but we kept getting caught every weekend. On our walks with Mémé, we also claimed a small gelato and water-based desserts joint called Pavarotti as our favourite place, which she always remembered fondly. She also loved Parque Los Dominicos. Doing justice to its name, there was a small park in the shape of a half-moon and at the end of this park, a small handicraft village. Some stores stocked antiques but our point of interest was a store where collectors could purchase stamps and coins. This place had served in the past as a mission for priests and monks of the order of St. Dominic. Everywhere we went with her created new special memories that we would always cherish, even after our days in Chile.

Brian and I became accustomed to having our grandmother around. She was part of every day life: waking up, arriving home from school, going to the movies, dining out, everything. Life had taken a new turn after a few months of our family bubble when, before we knew it, we were all five of us in our Citroen returning to the Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport. She was heading home. This was never an easy moment every time it happened. As a child, it felt like an eternity until the next time I would see her. Weeks were like years. We would miss her animated laugh, her great company and her guitar. The regular routine was making its way back and our communication with our Mémé would once more remain limited to snail mail. We waited in the departures terminal - those days there was a lounge where people could sit to watch their loved-ones planes take off - to make sure her plane left without inconvenience and in the event there was any we were there. I remembered hoping her flight would be cancelled or delayed so we could get another few minutes with her. We saw her plane taxi and take off, with a tear in our eye and a certain emptiness as we stayed behind. Everyone returned to their respective duties as if her visit had only been a long wonderful dream. We had to face reality and continue living on as the Fab Four.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Alto Paraná and the Iguaçu Falls

Most of Paraguay is sparsely populated and most of the settlements are inhabited by Guaraní natives. I had an incredible opportunity to visit a few of these villages with my parents and my brother. One of the indigenous villages I recall fondly was receiving Canadian development funds for a duck ranch project. Upon our arrival in our diplomatic jeep accompanied by the Consul, Bernardo Weibe, everyone in the town came out to greet us. They had been expecting our visit for some time and were excited to show the Canadians their progress. They were attentive to my brother and I ensuring both of us felt welcome among them. The locals gave us a tour of the village, the enclosures where the ducks were kept and explained the breeding process. The possible income return would be designated to improving the quality of life for the entire community. They praised Canada's involvement yet had no idea where these generous gringos came from. This was a moment of great pride for me as a Canadian. After the tour, the women of the village had prepared a meal for us, knowing we had a long trip ahead. They prepared some of their local dishes: the famous sopa paraguaya and some gray sausages with a peculiar consistency. As we sat on our chairs in an open area at the centre of the village surrounded by every Guarani man, woman and child, all watching us hoping we would approve of their cooking. Whether we liked the food or not, we knew we had to eat, smile and swallow. We did not want to offend our generous hosts who probably had to dig in to their own rations to feed their guests, so we managed our best to consume their food. Once we finished our meal, we thanked our new friends for their hospitality and proceed eastward, continuing our adventure.

The Itaipu Dam challenging the mighty Paraná River

As we bounced around country roads with barely any passing traffic, the countryside took on a familiar jungle-like vegetation. I remember the song Welcome To The Jungle by Guns N' Roses was playing on our car stereo. Bernado's son had given Brian and I the newest GNR tape, Appetite for Destruction, still a timeless classic. We were heading to pay homage to the majestic Paraná River, dividing Paraguay and Brazil. This river is South America's second longest after the mighty Amazonas, extending some 4800 km. As we continued down the road, small farms and communities revealed themselves as we approached Hernandarias in the Alto Paraná region on the Paraguayan side. As we drove through this town, Bernardo explained that this place served as a labour force during the construction phase of the landmark we were about to visit only a few minutes away. Otherwise, the community consisted of farmers, artisans and other local merchants that conducted most of their business in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Most of the agricultural goods produced in the area included corn, mint, wheat, cotton and yerba mate. The latter is a tradition all in its own, particularly enjoyed by Argentines, Brazilians (primarily in the South), Chileans, Paraguayans and Uruguayans. The mate ritual is quite simple. First step: preparation. Never use boiling water or boil the leaves. Water must be hot. Proceed to pour the hot water on the leaves and let it simmer for a bit. This allows for the water and leaves to mix. After this, you may add sugar or honey if you do not like the bitter taste on its own. Sweet syrups should be avoided because they do not mix well. Now you are ready for the second part: the presentation. Tea is served preferably in a gourd called mate (sometimes the gourd is made out of hard leather, although there are more posh versions in silver) and sucked through a metal straw, usually referred to as a bombilla. Part three: consumption. The idea of this tea is to drink it among friends in a social setting. Conservation is not subject specific, but enjoying the company along with the tea is an important part of the ritual. A key for positive conversation: never talk about politics, religion or money. These conversations always lead to arguments. Often times, Argentines drink mate while playing an entertaining game called truco. I first fell in love with the mate culture through my Argentine friends during my undergraduate studies in Ottawa.

Beyond the town of Hernandarias lay the Itaipu dam on the Paraná River. This massive mega structure was a joint undertaking between Paraguayans and Brazilians. The need for this dam arose in the 1970s as Brazil's population had grown exponentially and so did the energy consumption. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, two of the three biggest South American cities, were already densely populated, but such progress and improvement in the quality of life enticed further immigration to these metropolises. The Brazilian government opted out of increasing the importation of further energy products, preferring to create  sustainable and dependable sources of energy. The Paraná River, particularly in the Itaipu region, was deemed an ideal location for creating an immense hydroelectric dam tapping the natural energy of the river flow. Just to provide you with a general idea of the importance of this facility, as of 2008, this dam alone supplied 90% of Paraguay and close to 19% of Brazil's energy markets. The construction of the dam – the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant until 2009, when the Three Gorges Dam in China took the prestigious number 1 rank - involved a great deal of bilateral negotiation. As Paraguay and Brazil revised acceptable flooding procedures and limits of the Paraná valley, Buenos Aires showed up to the bargaining table in alarm. The Argentines were concerned that a rise of the Parana river would increase the water levels of the River Plate, in turn flooding Buenos Aires, South America's second largest urban centre. All concerns regarding water levels, compensation for displaced people (many would see their homes disappear and were forced to relocate elsewhere) and construction targets were addressed, attempting to ensure a proper compromise. Upon our 1991 visit, the dam was already operational and the completed concrete monster was a monument to the hard work of thousands of Paraguayans and Brazilians alike. I was particularly inspired by two nations coming together to undertake a mutually beneficial project overlooking a long history of wars and rivalry.

Our plans proceeding the Itaipu dam included a brief pit stop across to Brazil. I remember feeling joy as I was returning to the country that was my first home, and listening to my first language once more. We were going to stay overnight in the village of Foz do Iguaçu, about 20 km South of Itaipu. Our accommodations were modest but in contrast to most of the area, it was a 5 star hotel. This did not seem to bother me in the least as I was blinded by excitement about being "home". It did not occur to me that my actual Brazilian home, Brasilia, was actually about 1,700 km away from where I was standing. Home is where the heart is as it is said. That night, Bernardo's plans were for our group to head out for a Brazilian dinner - Brazilian dishes were something I could not picture in my mental gourmet glossary, except for garotos and pão de queijo. I was hanging around the lobby with my Dad at our rendez-vous point and I approached the hotel receptionist to catch up on the latest current events in my country. He was extremely friendly and we began chatting about Formula One races. All I could think of on the subject was the brave Ayrton Senna, one of Brazil's most famous sons. He had won three Formula One Championships during his career until meeting a tragic end to his young life in an fatal accident during the 1994 San Marino Championship. I never had been a fan of watching cars whizzing by in a closed circuit, but as my fellow compatriot was so enthused, I felt I had to share his passion. I did not have enough time to build an everlasting bond with the receptionist as our conversation had been interrupted by our soirée. I cannot remember what we ate at the restaurant that night, which is odd, but I remember there was live entertainment. These were the happy people I remember hearing so much about. While some got up to dance samba to the beat of the animated band, others sat to enjoy their food and watch the show. You should never feel embarrassed that you do not have the right moves for dancing. In Brazil, all that matters is that you move and smile. Dance is for fun, not to impress anyone.

Young me posing in front of the Iguaçu Falls

In the morning, nearby the village of Foz do Iguaçu, the Parana River is broken by a major natural phenomenon and tourist attraction where the town gets its name: Iguaçu Falls. Here the waterfalls and river divide Brazil's Paraná region and Misiones, Argentina. The actual land formation separated the river into a network of over 200 waterfalls of different shapes and sizes. The largest is named the Devil's Throat. Easy to remember that name. The Guaraní natives were people of stories and legends and had these for many elements of life, including the waterfalls. The story is a little fuzzy in my mind, you can probably find it online as most things are these days, but the creation came about through an enraged God's desire for revenge on a mortal's betrayal. Regardless, watching this natural wonder and nature's grandeur was story enough for me. There is a certain similar sensation that you can feel inside while observing Niagara Falls and the hypnotism of the ebb and flow of the millions of liters of water. My Niagara Falls experience felt this way when I first visited in the early 1990s, but Iguaçu felt more genuine due to the lack of huge casinos, towering hotels and amusement parks. Sometimes, the greatest part of nature is having the least foreign elements around as they only create a distraction from true breath-taking beauty. As we concluded our visit to the national park and left Brazil behind again, I felt a certain heartache for leaving my country. The day of our departure from Paraguay to Santiago was getting closer by the minute and I felt very weird - for lack of a better word. I was leaving Brazil which was "home" once in my life, to go back "home" to Chile, yet "home" was supposed to be Canada. Either way, I loved the trip and was anxious to tell all my friends back in school.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Paraguay - Asunción, The Heart of the Chaco

On the Eastern edge of the Gran Chaco plains embalmed in a hot semi-arid climate, lies Asunción, Paraguay. Paraguay borders Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil and they are the small country's major trading partners. It is a tiny landlocked country with an approximate population of 6.3 million inhabitants, predominantly of mestizo origin - people of mixed European and Native ancestry. There are also several indigenous settlements throughout the country and a small Mennonite community with some allegiance to Canada. My father traveled regularly on official visits there as our embassy's jurisdiction in Chile extended to include Paraguay. Canada's official representation in the capital city was through a consulate dealing primarily with assisting Canadian nationals acting as a post office box for development, immigration and trade enquiries which were handled by Santiago . Santiago undertook political duties. I first visited Asunción in 1991, during Brian and my winter break from school. I was excited about visiting this country and uncovering their traditions, accents, and languages. It is the only officially bilingual country in South America, with the recognized languages being Spanish and Guaraní, the proud Chaco warriors mother tongue. The Paraguayan National Football teams usually communicates on the pitch in Guarani as the language does not resemble that of any of its regional rivals.

Flag of Paraguay, adopted in 1988 from similar adaptations

During our time in Asuncion, we stayed at the Hotel Guarani, a great central location  with a spectacular view of the Paraguay River from the window of our room. The elegant decor and pricey amenities remain a bargain as the cost of living there is relatively cheap compared to many other places in the world. I recall initially being in shock as I searched through the mini-bar item list and every item on it was valued in the thousands in the domestic currency, also named the Guaraní. Of course, being a 10 year-old boy and with both my parents providing for a responsible lifestyle, I did not understand the concept alue of exchange rates. I was familiar with the Chilean peso, the Paraguayan Guarani, the US dollar, but rates were a tough concept to grasp. As I continued to investigate prices, I decided against enjoying the services provided by our tiny fridge. I did not want to bring recession to the family finances. Upon taking to the streets around our hotel, I  noticed the local money was secondary in merchant exchange as most vendors and shopkeepers gladly accepted US cash. If there was some component of English in the local culture, it was the American dollar. I suppose that during our visit to the Chaco nation, inflation could have being alarmingly high and devaluating the currency that a more stable one was welcome. I had never seen a foreign currency so widely in use anywhere else in the past.

Shopping in Paraguay was another bargain. People would come from neighbouring countries to purchase leather jackets, artisan handicrafts.The copyright laws were flexible. The country had a reputation for quality imitations and stolen items for sale. The shops surrounding the hotel had their own exceptional flair. Most of the businesses appeared to be managed by Koreans immigrants - a significant Korean diaspora was established between 1975 and 1990 - who could barely communicate with us in Spanish. I wondered if their Guarani was any better. They carried all sorts of interesting merchandise and gadgets. My parents bought two small radios for Brian and I to enjoy our cassettes as we had begun to acquire a taste for Guns N' Roses, MC Hammer, Roxette and Vanilla Ice. Poke fun all you like but we all had our guilty pleasures. My Maman and Dad were not counting on the poor manufacturing standards at the time of these emerging industrial Asian powers, but the radios did not last long after we had returned home. Other nearby stores sold popular video games for consoles such as Atari and Nintendo and Brian and I found Ninja Gaiden. Every kid dreamed of owning this game. My father had spotted an obscure Sumo Wrestling game and purchased it as a great addition to our gaming collection. The fun part of these games was plugging them into our console and the dialogue and text was in Japanese. The Sumo game itself was impossible to understand, seemed never ending but provided many laughs.

Street vendors, a common factor in most major urban centres throughout Latin America, were abundant in Asuncion. The Paraguayans were incredible salespeople. You could see a guy standing on a street corner selling leather jackets and as soon as it began to rain, he would instantly replace his stock with umbrellas and rain coats. What an amazing talent. On one of our recon walks around the city, a man approached us in an attempt to sell us wristwatches. He was offering Cartier, Longines, Rolex and other high scale brands at blow out prices. At first glance, it was easy to notice the watches were esthetically pleasing imitations. It was difficult to determine if the craftsmanship regarding the internal mechanisms was of superior quality. This aspect is a key bargaining tool with the salesperson. The law of the town was negotiation. Sticker prices were non-existent. If you end up paying $25 USD for a watch on the street, you would (become a so-called)be branded a "sucker". My generous father bought us each a fabulous cheap watch which we wore immediately. I was so happy with mine and could not keep from  checking the time every step I took. I cannot remember what brand imitation it was, but it was digital and even had a marking stating it was waterproof. However, once we were in our hotel to clean-up for dinner, I remember washing my hands in the bathroom before heading out wearing my brand new accessory, and it turned out not to be waterproof. I was so disappointed.

Maman, Brian and I in front of the Palacio de los Lopez

Most of the population resided in humble abodes but were proud hard-working people. We observed this while making our way to visit many of the principal city attractions. The Palacio de los Lopez is the official seat of national government and the workplace of the president. This beautiful white colonial building was surrounded by peaceful well-maintained gardens and bushes crafted into small spheres. I imagine my father must have entered this palace when accompanying the Canadian ambassador to present his credentials to the President Andrés Rodríguez. Visitors to this city could also walk down Calle Palma, where Spanish colonial buildings still stand for history buffs to absorb. I thought the architecture was quite spectacular and welcomed local and foreign pedestrians alike. The former Asuncion Central Train Station was another location not to miss. It had become almost a railway museum where most trains were outdated wood-burning relics from the late 1800s. They ran passengers and freight South to the Argentine border. They were extremely expensive to maintain yet amusing to watch. Most commercial and industrial transportation was taken over by boats and trucks. Lastly, we spent some time reacquainting with the animal kingdom in the zoo. My most notable memory was a large bird who seemed to hold the world record for leaving its manure in the same huge pile.