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, February 27, 2011

A Summer For Democracy

By December 1989, our family had settled into our new home in Las Condes and we were enjoying everything the country had to offer. Brian and I had finished one of our shortest school years on record and focused on the important things such as our swimming pool, piano classes, encyclopedia games and major GI Joe battles. Spring and summer had finally arrived and transformed our backyard into the ultimate playground. With the tedium of homework out of the way, Brian and I had time to invest in Chilean television. We watched American cartoons dubbed in Spanish, a major Latin American trend, el Chavo del ocho and El Chapulin Colorado, some quality Mexican television widely exported to the Spanish-speaking world, and other favourites such as Thundercats. I also liked to watch a Chilean mid-day sitcom called Los Venegas, a show that introduced a new concept of compadre and comadre to my vocabulary. My Dad on the other hand was hard at work in the Embassy and when he came home, my brother and I enjoyed hanging around with him. We watched movies and the evening news with him.

El Chavo del Ocho cast left to right:
Sr. Barriga, Doña Florinda, El Chavo, Profesor Jirafales, la Chilindrina, Don Ramón and La Bruja del 71.
The quality time spent with my father, watching the news broadcasts and interaction with our neighbours and friends, I was feeding my desire for information and gained significant knowledge about the political world. I understood that the man in charge was a military general, Augusto Pinochet but never really understood at the time how he came to power. Most people were not comfortable talking about the subject. My parents mentioned to Brian and I that this was sensitive subject matter and as guests in Chile, we should avoid getting involved in local politics particularly with anyone outside our household. I understood this as a prudent restriction but was unaware of the consequences if I did not oblige. Therefore, I decided to follow my parents’ instructions and directed most of my questioning to my Dad. The rise to power of General Augusto Pinochet still remains a controversial topic and continues to create a strong divide between Chileans of different ideologies. Salvador Allende was president during the 1970s and as head of state had implemented policies forwarding land redistribution, promotion of workers’ rights, nationalization of financial institutions and copper mines. These wide-scale reforms alarmed the conservative elite - including the fact he had aligned himself with Castro and the USSR - and caused a major flight of capital which lead to an overall collapse of the national economy. The US government feared a domino effect - Cold War terminology postulating that if one country fell to communism, it would spread to neighbouring countries - in Latin America, a region it considered its sphere of influence. General strikes and civil disorder were spreading throughout the country, leading to an increasingly difficult socio-political environment for Allende to govern. As the turmoil and general discontent increased, the army stormed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, ousting Allende and installing Pinochet and his military junta.

Chile had undergone 16 years of military rule by the time we had arrived. The Pinochet regime, under both domestic and foreign pressure, engaged the population through a plebiscite in 1988 proposing another 8 years of military government. 56% of the population rejected the continuation of the military rule in favour of  democratic elections. Pinochet and his government remained in control of the government for another year setting the stage for open elections for the end of 1989. This was where the Bickfords fit into the story. As a family, we were witnessing history in the making. It was evident that the citizens were overjoyed to see a return to a political world and possessing once again the ability to determine their political future. Even children had exercised their political voice, including my brother and I. The main candidates in this election were Hernán Büchi leader of the right-wing Democracy and Progress Party and Patricio Aylwin, head of the center left Christian Democrats. My brother supported El Pato and I had identified with Büchi. Of course Brian and I had no clue about their electoral platforms or campaign promises but this did not stand in the way of our newfound passion for this process. My parents noticed the interest we had developed for this event so they provided us with stickers, flags and banners for our parties to use freely in our home. They encouraged our longing for awareness and participation.

To my misfortune, my beloved candidate was not the winner. That honour was instead trusted to Patricio Aylwin and his Christian Democrat party. My father was a senior political officer in the Canadian Embassy during this posting and understood the importance of these results, the potential outcome for Chile and what could be expected for the country’s future. Brian and I did not have such an in-depth understanding. Nevertheless, our political appetite and curiosity was going to be further rewarded. The Embassy was temporarily without an Ambassador, so my father was Chargé d’Affaires and as such, his obligations included attending the usual engagements of an ambassador. This meant that he had to attend an important event and brought along his three closest companions: Maman, Brian and I. The four of us were now headed to see Aylwin in person as he was delivering his victory speech as the newly elected head of state in front of a selected audience of bureaucrats and foreign dignitaries – much like my introduction speech when I arrived to the Alliance. We had excellent front-row seats, so close to El Pato that we could perceive the facial expression that accompanied his every word. General Augusto Pinochet was present as well, which was quite an excitement after having seen him on television. After the speeches came to their conclusion, he graced the public with his presidential wave and proceeded to shake people’s hands, including mine. I felt so honoured!

General Augusto Pinochet handing over government to Patricio Aylwin
Patricio Aylwin was inaugurated as Chile 31st President on March 11, 1990. Although many Chileans at home and abroad celebrated this return to democracy, Pinochet made it clear he would remain as a defender of the country and its interests. General Augusto Pinochet was to continue his role as Commander of the Army and a Senator for life. As I approached the end of my 8th  years and began my 9th, I developed an interest in politics as I realized the potential wide scale impact policies politics could have and how important a role governments and leaders could play. The Caracazo in Venezuela was still a fresh memory and now being a witness to the beginning of the end of the military era in Chile provided another. I noticed that there existed sensitive issues that sometimes people had to take a neutral stance. I understood that as a foreigner, I should not meddle in other people's affairs as it would reflect poorly on my country and my parents. Limiting my behaviour was extremely important as I was also in some shape or form representing my own country. I knew most kids my age did not have to adhere to such protocol and had not enjoyed the kind of exposure I did through my father’s devoted work for his own government.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Befriending Bernardo

School was my main avenue to the rich Chilean culture. My friends had done an outstanding job molding me into a Chilean, at least in terms of speech. I was now comfortable chatting with anyone inside and outside school using the local jargon. I mastered words an educated Chilean would use in formal situations as well. The circumstances would dictate when to use the formal or informal, and I could identify these with ease. The Chilean culture placed a strong importance on manners and mutual respect. Some outsiders criticize this as snobby or elitist but while a guest in their country, I noticed the importance of etiquette as a gesture to make others feel comfortable. With a universal code of behaviour, when someone would leave their environment to enter another, they would feel at home. I remember my lads from school were very much this way. They would move to ensure everyone would be included in the conversation. This was truly remarkable behaviour for 8 year-old children, in contrast with today's reality. Parents seemed to go out of their way to teach this fundamental value in their children’s lives. This was a perfect fit with the values my parents wanted Brian and I to have.

Entrance to the Alliance Française Antoine de St-Exupéry
Every school day after my first – I joined my group late as you may recall from the previous blog entry - would start with La Marseillaise – the French national anthem – followed by the Chilean national anthem. All the elementary school kids would stand to attention and sing the anthem as each flag was raised. Of course, La Marseillaise had been engrained into my mind through Colegio Francia, as well as the Venezuelan anthem "Gloria al bravo pueblo", but now I saw the French paired up with the Chilean. I memorized the lyrics to the Chilean anthem and did not only sing along every morning, but I felt the words with a certain kind of inspiration and patriotism. I still recall every single word of the national anthem to this date and when I hear the song in international competitions, I get goose bumps and a sense of national pride. Perhaps I had become attached to my new culture because my hosts had been extremely welcoming and true friends. All the students would line-up in with their respective grade and classrooms in a large patio that separated elementary and our beloved soccer field in the north, from middle school and high school to the south. On the east side of this mall was the main gate to Luís Pasteur and to the west, the track and field facilities where we would endure physical education classes.

Our school curriculum had a strong French component and it was our primary language of study. Math was in French, History was in French, Science was in French, French was in French – just making sure you are still reading. The other component which was completely new and foreign to me at the time was the inclusion of Spanish. I was a master in speaking Spanish - whether it be Chilean or Venezuelan - but I had never sat down in a classroom to write it. Of course, I panicked. If you possess a solid base writing one Latin language, it is easier to learn new ones, but by no means is the process an easy one when the rest of the classroom has an advantage of 5 years. I find French as a written language still much easier and elegant – perhaps because it was my first language of study – and Spanish lacks so many accents. Grammar is somewhat similar and equally important. These languages tend to have longer sentence structure, including intense description, something I quite enjoy and find lacking in English. I always wondered why the Anglo-Saxon culture never went with the flow of formulating sentences that go on for pages. My mother, being a good francophone, says the English use few words because they know they can’t get in to trouble by sharing too much information. Working as a political consultant, I see a lot of truth in that comment.

The Chilean curriculum, aside from the writing aspect, was another great cultural portal. We studied history and geography of Chile. These two subjects still remain my life's passion and a source of enjoyment. Brian and I had invented a game with our Larousse Encyclopedia, which I am sure he still remembers as fondly as I do. One of us would pick any country in the world from the encyclopedia and only show the other the national flag. The other one would see the flag and have to name the country and on what continent it was situated. We later became experts at playing this game and would know the country capital and national language - or languages in some cases. Through my classes I learned about the great liberator, General Bernardo O’Higgins, who fought to drive out the Spanish. I saw something of myself in this person, as he was of Irish ancestry and had a strong commitment to his Chile with its blue skies. Perhaps I would be the Canadian who would some day make Chile his home as well and leave my everlasting mark on my Chilean people. I also learned about their proud naval history with the Esmeralda, immigrant settlements throughout the country, and most importantly, the existence of a small island in the South Pacific called Rapa Nui - also known as Easter Island. I remember being intrigued by pictures of the Moais in my textbook and dreamed of the day I could see one up close.

Brian and I wearing our Alliance sports outfit.
At my age, I was receiving a fine blend of academic knowledge and sporting activities. Some Venezuelans possessed an interest in football yet their real ambitions lied in baseball. All their national sports heroes dreamed of practicing baseball professionally in the major leagues in the US and Canada. Chileans, including my buddies, dedicated their lives to the sport of football. The country had a competitive professional league that brought through its ranks some continental champions. In our school, even though we were friends and played together every chance we could, tension would arise when chatting about the national league. Everyone was a proud supporter of their club. You could never take away the accomplishments of the U de Chile, the history of Universidad Católica de Chile or the fighting spirit of Colo Colo’s Caciques. My brother and I jumped on the Colo Colo bandwagon, especially in 1991 when Colo Colo made it to the finals of the Copa Libertadores de America. They had risen to defeat Olimpia de Paraguay, the defending champions, 3 – 0. What a moment that was for us as fans and pundits of the sport! This moment immortalized the great manager and Yugoslav mastermind, Mirko Jozic along with his caciques warriors. This accomplishment was a landmark for generations of players and fans to come. There were also many memorable moments from the game to recreate in the schoolyard and with our friends.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

School, A Crash Course In Culture

Our summer vacations had been cut short. We had arrived mid-way through the school year – the Southern Hemisphere scholastic calendar runs generally from February to December - and had to catch up with the regular kids. Summer had now been pushed back to Christmas. The loss of the season was harder to take than the shorter vacation. My catching up on cartoons and building forts for my G.I. Joes would have to be put on standby. Dad went back to work as usual, but now to a new address in downtown Santiago. My mother, the proven brilliant multitasker, was left scrambling for last minute uniform purchases, receiving our shipment from Venezuela and enrolling us into a school. It is easy to take for granted the degree of difficulty to register your children and purchase new uniforms halfway through the school year. Props to my mom! She managed to enroll us into the Alliance Française de Saint-Exupéry, located on Avenida Luis Pasteur. We really did not have much time to settle in as a family with all the running back and forth but remaining in a French curriculum would help the transition as it had been the only constant thing in our lives for Brian and I.

Soldiers from the Escuela Militar General Bernardo O'Higgins in official uniform.
I was really nervous about starting school this time around. Sure it was the French school, but everything about it had been changed on me. This time I was much more self-conscious about every single moment I was going through. All the possible 'what if' scenarios were running through my mind. My stomach was tied in a million knots and butterflies in there were managing to get through these somehow. The route to the Alliance would be the same every morning, but our first drive there engraved an everlasting memory in my mental chip. Just before reaching the major intersection of Vespucio Norte with Apoquindo, we would take a side road taking us by the General Bernardo O’Higgins Military School which I noticed right away out the right window of our family the car. Every morning, rain or shine – or sleet on some occasions – the military students would parade in impeccable Prussian-looking uniforms. They appeared as if they were preparing for a full-scale invasion of France. Watching them march completely synchronized was both a thing of beauty but also extremely intimidating. As I watched on, it seemed almost as if I could see all of their routine in slow motion. Absolutely flawless. I began to hope that the French did not exercise this level of discipline in their Alliance. Images of military parades and uniformity continued to dominate my thoughts as I rode the back seat next to my brother. What did we get into this time?

When my mother, Brian and I arrived to the alliance, morning classes were already in progress. We were by no means late. We were delayed as Brian and I had to attend interviews in the morning with the cigarette-smelling proviseur – the principal – who held our fate and future in the school with just a stroke of a pen. After successfully obtaining the approval of this principal, one of his minions was going to escort me to my new classroom. I was not looking forward to bringing all kinds of unwanted attention on my first day. I walked down the cold hallways following Inspecteur Mario - the equivalent of a prison guard for me at the time – to the classroom where I would be spending most of my days. He knocked on a heavy green metal door and a lady with glasses and long, salt and pepper hair answered the knock. She introduced herself as Madame Jasmine and suggested I enter the classroom - not like I had much of a choice. My first task as the new kid was to stand in front of the class and say a few words about myself to my new peer. My best attempt to briefly explain my story, my life in Venezuela, my father working for the Canadian Embassy and my family being Canadian seemed complicated for most of my 8 year-old colleagues to grasp.

After my awkward self-introduction, I felt really out of place and made my way to the back of the classroom, sitting next to a chubby-looking kid. This was a perfect hiding place now, as all students were expected to face forward while Madame Jasmine did her thing. No more attention drawn to myself! The kid I previously mentioned, my back-row neighbour, appeared to react positively to my arrival. He mentioned that his name was Stéphane Simon, he was French and had not been in Santiago very long either. I gained more confidence as my new cellmate and formed an unspoken agreement to watch out for each other. I was off to a good start. Next thing I knew, the sweetest sounding liberty bell rang. I thought to myself, already recess? I actually walked out of the room - as opposed to the Olympic style sprinting I had perfected from my days in Caracas - and many of the other kids from my class were waiting on the other side of the green monster of a door. To my surprise, they were not waiting for a traditional welcome hazing of some sort. I am still surprised to this day that they actually waited for me to introduce themselves so I would feel welcome and meet the gang.

Brian and I modelling our Alliance Française uniforms.
They were mostly Chilean kids. They spoke to me again in that melodious Spanish I had heard from Osvaldo and I replied in my best Venezuelan. They thought something was wrong with my linguistic skills and took it upon themselves to coach me on how to speak like a proper kid. The basics of normal language were “al tiro”, “cachai”, “despelote” and of course my all-time favourite, “ya po”. These lads became my good friends throughout my time in Chile. The names I can recall were those of Alfonso Barneche, Allen Rosemberg, Cristian Salinas, Felipe Olate and Felipe Schapira. Everyone also had a respective nickname, so I had to remember that as I was now part of the group. Schapira was the one with the hook-up for recess. He explained that he always brought his soccer ball to school and the game would begin as soon as the bell rang. We would play until the next bell would go off and go back to the classroom. After this explanation, another follow-up yet logical comment followed: do you like football? This was the perfect time to share my stories of the Venezuelan clásicos in Colegio Francia which helped in creating a new bond. Football - soccer for North Americans - was my tool to bridge the cultural gap and perhaps because it has been a strong common interest for many kids, has always been another one of my life long interests.

(For more info on the General Bernardo O'Higgins Military School, uniforms,  pictures and videos check this link out: http://www.pickelhauben.net/articles/South%20America.html)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chile - First Impressions of Santiago

As we made our descent into Santiago, I could see through the window of the airplane the majestic Cordillera de los Andes and its snowy caps. I was in awe admiring these huge natural wonders, wondering if any human-being had ventured through them. I announced my new discovery to my parents and told them they absolutely had to turn their attention to the windows. All this excitement made me feel more confident as I approached this new experience in a positive manner. At the age of 8, this would be my fourth temporary home. I had managed to make good friends everywhere else, so I figured that I would easily make new ones and become more Chilean.

Chilean flag, La Estrella Solitaria.
Our plane touched down at the Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport in Santiago. I knew little at the time that this place would become our hub for the many adventures here. We were greeted after crossing customs and officially entering Chile by Osvaldo, an Embassy driver. He did speak Spanish however, it had a much different flair and intonation that I had grown accustomed to in Caracas. Aside from this flashy new accent I was hearing, he had the appearance of an older European gentleman, the kind that reminded me of my mother's family. I decided I liked him already. He welcomed us to Santiago with the firmest handshake I have ever shared - firm handshakes being a sign of respect - and mentioned that he would be driving us to our new digs in the big city. He advised that our trip was to Las Condes, our neighbourhood, and travel time would be about 30 minutes or so depending on traffic.

The world outside the airport was quite a bit different from Maiquetia. While sitting in the car behind Osvaldo, I absorbed the countryside through my window once more. We arrived in August which meant it was winter here. The day seemed cloudy, the land was green and there was a smoky smell in the air as many people used chimneys for heat. There was no central heating like what we use in Canada or parts of the US. I could not get over the feeling of cold. Caracas was usually either hot and dry or hot and raining all year round. I saw farms surrounded by a unique vegetation. There was some similarity to Canadian forests in my mind, but not quite the same. There were towering eucalyptus trees, - still remember the soothing aroma of those leaves - long pines similar to the kind found in Spain and Italy, oaks, weeping willows or sauces llorones, and much more that I can't name. This was fantastic!

Once we arrived to the city of Santiago, the buildings and people I saw through the window told me a much different story from the other places I had lived and visited. There was a certain elegance to this place: historic buildings appeared clean as if they had been newly erected, wide avenues and boulevards full of people, taxis swimming in a river of flowing traffic. Everything was so organized and seemed to have a purpose. It felt as if my family and I had been transported to the past through some kind of worm hole while we were in that LAN Chile plane. This place looked much like Madrid when I first visited in 2004, but more structured and planned. The city was surrounded by the mountains as far as you could see. Oswaldo mentioned the Manquehue, a natural landmark the city has and a target for foreigners' weekend hikes. I was eager to get out there with my family to explore this interesting city.

Panoramic view of Santiago de Chile and the Andes mountains in the background
We finally reached the apartment on Apoquindo Avenue and settled in knowing we couldn't get comfortable as we would just be there for a short while. Our assigned residence - SQ or Staff Quarters in the foreign affairs lingo - was unavailable as my father's predecessor was still occupying it. He was in his final days of his posting. Usually, once a diplomat finishes his posting, their family leaves and time is allotted for house cleaning and painting. The furniture is provided but personal effects such as clothes, decorations and other things families chose to bring along are shipped separately once you are moved in. This had always been the case for my family but this was the first time I noticed the process. I also realized most of the things we had in our homes were not ours. Regardless, I was now concentrating on the new French school, a new house and again, starting a new life.