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, June 26, 2011

The Fall In Lycée Claudel

I began to find structure in Gillespie in an attempt to claim my own happy place. My parents had given me for the first time the freedom to decide how I wanted to decorate my room, either with posters, pictures and anything else I wanted as long as it was deemed appropriate by our local government. I had grown out of my toys which were donated in Chile. Now I had more space to organize my clothes, shoes, and a special place for my GI Joes. These were not toys. They were recreational action figures for pre-teens. Nothing to be embarrassed about there. I had some space for my radio - music always has been an important element in my life - that I often tuned to follow KOOL FM 93.9. At this point, I started to experience some of the popular music hitting the waves and followed new music on a regular base. Home was feeling like home oddly enough, but a new challenge was coming and I had to face it head on: a new school.

The timeless structure of the Lycée Claudel, Old Riverside Drive

The school where my brother and I had been enrolled was once more a French school following a strict curriculum, called Lycée Claudel. The mission on my first day was front and foremost to survive the experience. I was not interested in calling attention to myself or trying to rule the school from day one. The first day was brutal. Those knots and butterflies I had when I started in Santiago were back with a vengeance. I was instructed to head to an assembly room of sorts, which, at the time, seemed dark and lifeless. There were several pillars, if memory serves me right and on each of these were different class lists where students had to find their names and line-up in front of them. Once I found my group, I had an urge to stay away from the rest of the classmates until someone would come get us and walk us to our classroom. I had never been so shy in my life. What happened to the William who was a people person and had no problems hanging out with anyone, regardless of their click. All I could notice were a bunch of kids my age chatting up the storm and feeling an overwhelming powerlessness to introduce myself. I stood back trying to not call attention to myself, thinking all my new colleagues had probably gone through many years of schooling together. I was an outsider now.

The first few weeks were lonely in school. I thought about the friends I had left behind and wished I could close my eyes and open them up again and magically be back in my familiar days in Santiago. Regardless, no matter how bad luck can be, it tends to turn into good luck at some point. In the lycée system, we would move from one classroom to the other as a group. As we changed ambience, so did the subjects. Thanks to these circumstances, I began to timidly open up to kids sitting around me, and as is the case in many middle schools, once you know one kid you eventually end up meeting the rest. It took time but it happened. My friends who ended up being my group for everything were Adriano Damnjanovic, Cédric Cocaud, Jean-Philippe Cormier, Marc-André La Haye, Olivier Kacou, Philippe Boyce-Lyon and Philippe-André Bonneau. Aside from class time together, which was compulsory, we had lunch together in the cafeteria in the basement of the school where we talked our hot topics: the teachers, parties and sports, a world far too unfamiliar to me. Football (or soccer as known in Canada and the USA) did not seem to play a major role in their lives. I was out of touch with my peers, so I realized I would have some after school homework in the social department. I was going to have to know at least something about hockey (beyond the beloved Hockey Sweater story) and the NBA. Other sports were considered interesting but not worthy of extensive commentary.

Aside from our eating and chatting, our lunch hour had a great stress-relief element. Before the first snowfall, we would replicate the grid iron giants with some full contact football (the one that requires little kicking, making the name of the sport a real enigma). As long as someone had a ball, it was game time for anyone in our grade willing to participate. I had never played the game before and was not familiar with the rules, something my friends thought was odd. Even one of my buddies, Adriano, who was actually half Serb and half Italian could not believe I did not understand the rules. I was excellent at the kicking part of the game, which is extremely limited. The other tackling part and running game turned into common knowledge the more I played. There was something very rewarding about running in the cool breeze, feeling your lungs working hard and struggling to beat the opponent physically to win that important touchdown. In the winter, we played a high stakes game of king of the hill in the parking lot where the ploughs would pile up the snow. These generally included epic battles between kids of different ages and grades. I think lunch time had more intensity than our physical education courses.

Me and my classmates during our class picture

As time went by, these guys became part of my new home and their friendship helped me finally become an average Canadian. I quickly noticed that I had been Canadian in my mind, yet had little experience to relate to one who had not been an expat. Some of them were, for example Olivier was the son of a Ivorian diplomat and Adriano's mother was an Italian foreign service officer. Many of the others, at their age, perhaps could not grasp the concept that a Canadian can live for an extended amount of time abroad and still be Canadian. However, they gave me much more than they could ever imagine through their friendship. Thanks to this tremendous camaraderie, I always have fond memories of Ottawa and whenever I pass Claudel on Old Riverside Drive, I cannot help but smile. These great friends gave me a real sense of belonging, especially when this mattered most upon my return home. I often think that these special memories perhaps weight heavier on my past than theirs. My three years in this school were only a mere fraction in their lives especially when time holds such a difference currency when you are growing up. Anyway, in the early going in Ottawa, I was first received as The Chilean, but then became one more member of the schoolyard gang.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Canada - Sweet Home Ontario

The day finally came to leave Santiago. Our personal effects were already packed and shipped off only to reunite with us upon our arrival to Ottawa. Leaving Chile meant leaving my friends, my school and all the other elements of my daily life I had grown so accustomed to. I was separated from a city I had grown to love as my own. As I sat in the waiting area at our departure gate with my family, I remember trying to memorize my surroundings, my people, my countryside, as this would probably be the last chance I had to be at peace with my adoptive country. I was not thinking at the time about Ottawa and the brand new adjustment process. Boarding time eventually caught up to me and this brought about a feeling of leaving the love of my life behind. I persistently prayed for our flight cancellation during my interminable captivity watching the plane from the waiting area. I was utterly powerless to change this date with destiny. Once we boarded the aircraft, it obeyed the instructions of its pilot, continuing its purpose leading us out of our haven. This was goodbye, probably forever. I had to watch out window of the plane, my usual portal to the world as a passenger, as Santiago became smaller. The cordillera seemed to bid me farewell and all I had left now were only the memories of the past three years.

Canadian Airlines aircraft at Pearson International Airport, Toronto, Canada

Our Ontario saga began amidst a wonderful summer season. Two summers in one year in 1992. Our port of entry once more was the Pearson International Airport and the ensuing customs routine. The officers were kind to remind us in a condescending fashion - on each and every occasion they could - that we were not extended any diplomatic privileges upon entering their jurisdiction. These comments did not affect me personally as the excitement of reuniting with the Toronto Chapter of the Bickford Clan prevailed. We were guests once more at my Uncle John and Aunt Amy's lovely home in Etobicoke, a stone’s throw away from the airport. The kind of reception we were subject to eased temporarily many of my concerns of returning to Canada. I have always considered Uncle John to be my Canadian Dad and Aunt Amy my Canadian Mom. They were the first recognizable faces upon setting foot on Canadian soil. There was a similar feeling regarding my Tati Annie and my Uncle Fernando on my mother's side of the family which I will delve into in depth in the not too distant future. There was another element that may seem odd to some but contributed to feeling at home with them. Their home as always had a refreshing scent which I discerned on every circumstance as soon as I walked through the front door. If clean had a smell, it would smell like that house.

Our stay was not packed with activities but extremely entertaining. We sat around my uncle's living room increasing our fine repertoire of jokes and hearing stories of my Dad and his brother growing up in the Maritimes. I could relate to some level to their anecdotes as they were both born in the UK and immigrated to Eastern Canada. They moved from one exciting town to another every few years and each place had a specific highlight. I am positive that this kind of lifestyle in those years must have involved fewer political and social risks than we had encountered, but living in scarcely populated townships was a challenge all on its own. Towns and cities in England seemed to be isolated yet nowhere close in comparison to the distances experienced in Canada. Once you have lived long enough in the Great White North, a 500 km drive seems like nothing at all. Just a day trip perhaps. Furthermore, our imperial brother possesses a much better developed transportation network due to population density, something we are not exactly blessed with here in the tundra. They have trains, we have VIA Rail. Not the most encouraging method of transportation if you have had the pleasure to try out other rail services around the civilized world. Most of us here get from A to B using Henry Ford's favourite invention, which brings me to the most important item on the agenda of our triumphant return: the new family car.

My Dad's primary objective was to purchase a new car before leaving the big smoke on the 401 East. We browsed through few dealerships around Etobicoke in search of a van or station-wagon. I favoured the idea of the van, especially the big ones, for example the Aerostar. The station-wagon in my eyes was a failed design by automakers. As a passenger, the Aerostar gave me the impression of being in a mobile lounge. I certainly confirmed that riding along for the test drive. What a beast! My Dad kept mentioning that he felt he was driving a truck. I was enthused about the Aerostar and I am sure I bombarded my father with many pros regarding this purchase, of course without thinking about the price tag. After all, why would I be concerned with a price tag if I had not bought anything in my life. The van did not bare the same value for both of us. The dealer had managed to sell me the fine vehicle, though I had not purchasing power. My Dad was not convinced, mostly thinking about whether a car that monstrosity had the clearance to fit in the garage in Ottawa. Again, as a child, why did I care if it fit in the garage? It was the Aerostar! The answer to my Dad's concerns came afterwards when we entered the showroom in Islington Chrysler. The 1992 Plymouth Voyager SE. The inside did not resemble the inside of a conference room, a great disappointment. A major sales point was the removable seats and the then futuristic look about the vehicle. He later disappeared into a mountain of paperwork to complete the purchase while we waited, hoping to leave the premises in our new sky blue (not the same as Maui blue) Voyager. I did not realize we actually had to wait before actually being in possession of the recently purchased van. I somewhat approved the acquisition but it was not the Aerostar.

Snapshot of a 1992 Plymouth Voyager

Our Plymouth Voyager's maiden voyage was to Kingston. Amherstview to be precise. Now we were invading Grandad's house for a few weeks causing all sorts of mayhem. Actually, we spent most of the time watching movies, playing games and attending the Sunday mass. William "Bill" Bickford (my Grandad) was an Amherstview celebrity/superhero: an Aikido sensei on weekday evenings and a United Church of Canada Minister on weekends. He provided demonstrations on his martial art tricks on both Brian and I which he thoroughly enjoyed. Since Granny's passing, he must have invested more energy and time out of the house. He had equipped his country home with many options to entertain his grandkids. Brian and I discovered the brand new world of satellite television and computer gaming, especially while my parents left us behind on a few day trips to Ottawa. They had to meet their real estate agent to sign some papers so as to be able to move in to our new home quickly. As soon as my parents were able to obtain those blessed keys to the house, our new lives would begin. A new era in Ottawa, a city I did not remember after Venezuela and Chile. We had only briefly returned to the nation's capital during one of our winter trips up when my parents were house-hunting. This is when they bought the Gillespie Crescent house. None of us had ever lived there but it was a great house nonetheless. My parents thought it was important to stick to Hunt Club, the Ottawa-South neighbourhood  so Brian and I could identify it as home base.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Remembering Two Great People

Grandparents are perhaps among the most treasured people in the lives of children. Kids can't wait for the moment to see them and the time involved in reuniting with them is never ending. The fact of just being close to them or hugging them is natural behaviour and gaining their attention at every passing second is the number one objective. Time just breezes by when you are in their company and if you don't stop and look around, that time will just pass you by. This was no exception with my paternal grandparents (better known in my little world as Granny and Grandad) who we barely had the pleasure to enjoy during the course of the year. My widowed maternal grandmother, Mémé, as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, was the only family member who periodically visited while we were posted overseas. I remember when December came around, I began counting down the days to heading to Canada to see the family, especially Granny and Grandad.

Grandad and Granny on a trip to England in the 80s

After our Polynesian tour, we resumed our regular pilgrimage to the frozen north without knowing what awaited us upon our return to Santiago. The end of the southern hemisphere summer naturally brought forth the mixed feelings of a cooler autumn. The end of February meant going back to school, replacing the excess leisure I cherished with hitting the books. My comfort was in reuniting with my buddies and hoping the new scholastic year would include interesting courses. I also was looking forward to my much anticipated birthday on March 2nd, only two weeks away from the inaugural schoolyard bell. I was particularly enthused that it would be on a weekend this year. However, the day before my special day, my perfect world was rocked once more. My Granny had been hospitalized due to a heart attack and was not able to hang on to the world we shared, and passed on the day of my birthday. I still recall this moment with great heartache. I lost a great person who blessed me with great memories, such as her love for Huck Finn and the incredibly amazing deserts served in gargantuan portions. This shock was hard to handle, especially as I could not be close to Grandad to give him a hug and support, especially now that he was alone without any relatives nearby. Furthermore, because we had already taken our vacation leave, there was no way financially or otherwise for us to attend Granny's funeral. That distance between North and South had become even greater. We could not pay tribute to Granny and say our farewell.

I am not sure how the next events unfolded, but some of the influencing must have been conducted by my Dad. The loss of his mother contributed to his cross-continental reaching out to his father, convincing him take some time for himself to heal the wounds and fill the void Granny had left in our lives. The four of us in Santiago did our share of reaching out, so I could relate to that father-son connection. The good news among the bad was that Grandad was coming to the deep south. Brian and I were delightfully surprised to have our grandfather all to ourselves, regardless of the fact we were back in school. After Maman's cancer, our Venezuelan curfews and other challenges, we were seasoned in finding comfort in family and coming together. This would be a great opportunity for all of us to join forces and help Grandad keep his mind on the positive and the magic of family. Once the news was out he was coming, another arduous waiting game began, hoping the day to go pick him up at the airport would come soon. I wanted all my friends to know he was coming and hoped they would meet him. I swear I must have even thought of organizing my GI Joes for a military parade welcoming him. My parents on the other hand were probably considering some fun activities, must-see events and locations.

The day finally closed in on us. Grandad arrived. The four of us were all present and accounted for at the airport to greet him and anxious to make every second of his visit count. The royal treatment we had previously extended to Mémé now applied to pampering Grandad. It was awesome coming home from school to see him. We also took him to our personal heaven in Reñaca where he seemed to appreciate the Pacific Coast. Once more we assumed the role of the most thorough tour guides in the region. We dined in our preferred restaurants, ventured around port area, and the Chilean navy even had a wonderful collection of war ships out on the waterfront, perhaps readying for a war game. My most precious memory of his trip was in the beach house during one of our quiet evenings together. Brian and I decided to turn the silence into entertainment. Lucky Grandad! In the early 90s, the song Black or White by Michael Jackson had taken the world by storm along with his unmatched abilities to moonwalk. Brian set us up for the opening ceremonies, popping in our tape of Michael Jackson's Dangerous as we scrambled to our places. Let the show begin! I performed some world class lip-synch routine wearing my huge dark sunglasses, my Terry Fox Run t-shirt bearing a massive red maple leaf and my gray jogging pants. Brian suited up in his fancy black nylon track outfit and busted every move in the dance move bible. Footloose had nothing on him. There is a video of this incident somewhere in the family records which I hope to share at some point on this blog before this priceless footage is lost in time. The Bickford performers were so unbelievably talented that my Grandad showed the tape to the family in Canada. What an honour! I know now what the Jackson 5 must of felt when they hit the big time.

Grandad leading the expedition through Valparaiso, Chile

Once Grandad returned home to Canada, reality, as it tends to do, set in. From here on out, every time I would see Grandad again, there would be no Granny. In fact, even until the last times I went to his house in Amherstview - for those who are not familiar with this place, it is a suburb of Kingston, Ontario - I never got used to not seeing Granny around. There was no dedicated tombstone or mausoleum where her remains rested. Grandad spread her ashes in the backyard of his house. Perhaps this was an idea to always be with her, but when his house was sold in the 2000s, I felt as if Granny had also been sold. My Pépé (my maternal grandfather) passed away when I was slightly over 3 years-old and now, my Granny at 11. It is impossible for me to say that I understood that this was a life process and our clock runs out when it has to. Actually, it was quite the opposite. I considered that I had been robbed of special people. On the subject of my Pépé, it saddens me that I do not remember much about him. Perhaps it was the age, the fact we did not live close by, or my age and having to keep up to constant wide scale changes. I have developed a mentality which adapts to tragic personal losses convinced that it is absolutely important to remember the good things about these people. As long as their memory prevails, they continue to accompany us through life. I like to think that when I reach a goal I set for myself, it was thanks to their positive thoughts, as they are my guardian angels watching out for me.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How To Be A Canadian

As we returned to Chile after our Christmas - New Year vacations, we were only a few months away from our six year anniversary of having left Ottawa. As a child, the concept of time takes on  much different importance than it does when you are an adult. Canada felt like a past life. After two and a half years, to the untrained eye, my brother and I had become Chilean. The adaptation process was so successful, we shared our hobbies, our passion for cuisine, our expressions and our socio-political concerns were the same as the locals. We were no longer the Canadian strangers arriving from Venezuela. My parents were proud of the overall result and how comfortable we had become with every aspect of our lives in transit. They did however share a concern that would eventually affect us, which was our inevitable departure in the not too distant future. The fear was interrupting once more our stability and sense of belonging and whether the new transition entailed negative repercussions on their children. Some diplomatic children cannot manage dramatic changes positively once they reach a certain age and value their stability, an important operational parameter in a child's programming. Being Canadian was, in fact, a foreign concept for my brother and I as we possessed an artificial understanding of our country.

Maman, Brian and I at Salto Laja, VII Region, Chile.

Canada played a major role in terms of my identity and was a synonym for home. I was “The Canadian” in school. Usually home is a place one returns after school, work or hanging out with friends. I had not lived at home in fact for almost six years, enough to have forgotten what life in suburban Ottawa was about. Every year included a brief visit to the family in Ontario during the holiday season. Toronto had generally served as our point of entry, which included a short stay at my Uncle John and Aunt Amy's house in Etobicoke. This was a special time for me to reconnect with them as I began to associate Canada with them. The magic of the white Christmas further contributed to a feeling of living in a dream. Canada was spending time with Uncle John and Aunt Amy in my perspective. I loved crossing the large automatic doors leading out of customs and immigration anxious to see my uncle waiting to greet us. My grandparents lived in Kingston, about 3 hours northeast of Toronto and the drive up to see them seemed eternal but had a great payoff. Generally, Christmas Day was where we all gathered at my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Rick's home in Grimsby, approximately one hour south of Toronto. There Brian and I had our annual opportunity to spend time with our cousins, Emily, Stef and Katie. They were younger but the age gap never was an obstacle for playing together and being a family for a quick moment. We always welcomed the season together with perhaps the biggest turkeys available on the market. I still remember that moist, fresh taste of an oven cooked turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy. I always loved that unique flavour, but being all together for the festive season made the meal taste even better.

The more frequent exposure to my country came through events organized for the Canadian community, where children were invited and occasional appearances at the Embassy downtown on Av. Bernardo O’Higgins and Ahumada. When Brian and I had time off school, my Maman would bring us along to visit Dad at the office, something we always looked forward to. Great places to eat downtown Santiago. Every time we went to his workplace, our presence was acknowledged and we were received in a courteous environment. My father's colleagues noticed we were in the premises and came around to have a quick chat with Brian and I, asking how school was going. They were lovely people and our family away from home. My father's boss, the Ambassador Michael Mace, was an extremely gracious man and he and his wife developed a strong relationship with my parents during the posting. They included us in many of their get-togethers and enjoyed having us around as we reminded them of their children when they were younger. Their son and daughter were residing in Canada, probably attending university at the time. Outside of that world, I met Canadian aid workers involved in development projects, business executives from Scotiabank engaged in acquisitions with Banco Sud Americano and mining professionals all hailing from the Great White North. I was proud to see the role my fellow nationals were undertaking in Chile, especially through development aid projects to improve the quality of life for underprivileged members of society. My Maman insisted the exposure to these events helped develop excellent social skills and early awareness of our country in an international setting. I admit, this upbringing is an excellent advantage as these skills cannot be mastered in a classroom where topics are restricted to theoretical discussions. Brian and I received a Social Science Degree and an MBA through early first hand experience. 

One quiet summer weekend shortly after our Polynesian adventure, Brian and I were called in to the family room while we were playing in the backyard. Dad was sitting on the couch in front of the television and my first reaction was wondering what movie we were going to watch together. My parents decided it was important to enrich our knowledge of Canada, as our school curriculum did not include the basics. They figured that upon our eventual return to Ottawa, this would facilitate yet again another transition. I am not sure what my brother thought, but I could not imagine myself leaving Santiago. Dad brought out a large book he had stashed away among his LP records and began to explain the content. I remember the book contained many images and seemed similar to an encyclopedia but with more illustrations. This was particularly useful to me, especially as I had undergone several years of language immersion yet I had never written or read English at this pivotal point in my life. There were numerous depictions of key moments in Canadian history. Events included the discovery of Newfoundland by the Vikings, early European explorers, French and English settlers, major battles such as the war of 1812 and one of my favourites, the flags of each province and their respective capital. After a few of these weekends, we would be sufficiently versed to pass a citizenship exam with flying colours, if the case were to apply. It was deeply interesting and motivating for me to learn more about my country..

Visiting a Canadian aid development project in Chiloé, Chile

It can be a difficult task for parents when living abroad temporarily to create a stable long-term environment for their children. Kids tend to become self-involved and dependant on the familiar. Kids being kids. Change usually is accompanied by a sense of overwhelming fear due to the unknown road ahead. As they experience new events on a daily basis, a complete overhaul of life can be scary and in some cases traumatic. Some expatriate children I met down the road of life become bitter, and even myself, had gone on strike when I first moved to Ottawa from Brasilia. It is a challenge to adapt to a new setting especially when you live here and now without considering tomorrow could be a far different story. Even the past, Venezuela, seemed far away. I enjoyed variety, encountering different cultures, languages, traditions, customs, and I responded to these rich differences with outmost respect. I also valued my sense of belonging. My parents managed to do an outstanding job ensuring we adapted through their love and support. I knew I was Canadian but I had developed a strong Chilean identity, leading me to think Chile was my permanent home. If life was good, why did we need to change that? The idea of leaving felt absurd and could not understand it. Although Brian and I were told we would return to Ottawa eventually, there was a bittersweet feeling of seeing yet another chapter coming to a close.