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 29, 2012

Graduation: Tomorrow Comes Today

A lot can happen over a period of four years. I am reminded of a timeless classic quote from Matthew Broderick’s cult character, Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.” During his day cutting school, the spectators observed a ‘young adult’ – I use this term quite liberally in his context - demonstrating the rewards of hanging out with friends by putting scholastic responsibilities aside. In my case, school was a responsibility I looked forward to, as it was a chance to be with my friends, participate in organized sports and continue to discover the world of computer technology. This was long before MacBooks suddenly became ‘cool.’ Cell phones were not only basic but also bulky enough so as not to comfortably store them on your person and the battery would run out before you had a chance to pull it out. Anyway, in four years, I went from wanting to go back to Canada from never wanting to leave my life in Peru.

Good team... not so good shirt

At the culmination of my high school career, I had the outmost respect for my peers. Regardless of grades, class rank, extra curricular activities, clubs, we went through this whole gruelling process together. We went to the same war, fought the same battles.  The differences we once cherished and used to define our early persona, separating one group of students from others, no longer mattered. Our days walking past each other in the hallway, hanging out with our cliques over lunch break or running to sports practice came to an unpredictable end. Well, we all saw it coming but preferred not to pay close attention to the inevitable. Many of us, including myself, started to chat with people we never would have imagined in the past, as in some instances, we did not stop to look around once in a while and we did not want to miss anything. We were aware of this and knew we might never have a chance to get to know people we did not bother to associate with. We ceased to be childish rivals bickering over conflicts long forgotten and conversed like colleagues at the water cooler.

Graduation came, marking the official end of my duties at Roosevelt High School. I was pleasantly surprised between trying on caps and gowns and growing a smart looking goatee when my big brother arrived to join me. He had mentioned over the phone that he would not make it because he was taking summer courses or working back in London. Can’t remember which it was in the end but the fact was that he had planned to come all along. That was a great surprised orchestrated by my three closest allies. For the actual ceremonial march, Alejandro and I paired up once more. This was very fitting as he was in fact my first good friend in the school, so it was nice to count on his support once more. At the last moment, we made a special ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, sticking our hand through the gaps in the fabric of the graduation outfit at the height of the belly and strutted down to the stands. It was a glorious procession indeed with many of my buddies’ parents congratulating us on the walk down.

This special occasion was similar to most important dates in a third culture kid’s life. There was no family – meaning those family members that are blood related – just like at birthdays, first communions, confirmations, etc. This absence, that some would consider crucial on the path to adulthood, never really dampened my mood. I grew up experiencing what was to me a very normal trend. Either way, should they have been guilty of negligence, the same would apply to me, as everything in life is reciprocal. The rest of my friends, who were in a similar boat but perhaps were on their first secondment overseas, may have suffered more. I had my transitory adoptive family, typical to the many postings: my school friends, their parents – which becomes tios and tias (uncles and aunts, a habitual nickname in South American countries for friends’ parents) – the Embassy staff and my favourite parents and brother. These are the people you become greatly attached to when you are away from home as in some ways, they are the ones who can better understand the life style you have lived and the sacrifice you have gone through in what outsiders consider ‘the sweet life of an eternal vacationer.  

Veni, vidi... and somewhat vici

The last months in Lima were slow and uneasy. Not only had I earned my place among my peers, allowing me to call it MY school but also, I had managed to build a life I enjoyed. I was certainly going to miss every little thing. I thoroughly understood my future was away from Peru – and so was the fate of every one of my friends as they embarked on their own journeys – yet it was a tough pill to swallow. The remainder of the summer was great, without classes or studying to worry about. My friends and I decided to enjoy every moment as if it was our last, even as our numbers began to dwindle with everyone having different departure dates. After graduation, suddenly we became aware of class parties thrown at different venues around the city and everyone without exception was invited. No need for an RSVP. The rule was pasar la voz – let everyone know. We were going to have the time of our lives before stepping on that plane which symbolized our own end of days.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Miraflores Missile Crisis

Roosevelt High School was a great institution for encouraging creativity. The strongest element in the American education system is the environment fostered to nurture the imagination of young minds. For that, I will always be grateful to my North American neighbours. My passion throughout my early scholastic development was history. I always wanted to find out more about everything. Wrapping up my final year in Lima, I was excited that our IB History teacher, Mr. Cotner, give us the chance to decide what we wanted to do as our final project for the year. It was a true blessing that imagination and history came together in this instance. I acted quickly to rally my troops, enlisting the services of my usual suspects, Alejandro, Crack, Glen and William (the other one, not myself) and picked up some free agents to complete the roster.

The creative process can be frustrating

There was no doubt in my mind that the topic should be The Cuban Revolution. It had been the conflict that had by far raised the most interest in my history career in school, and I was also fresh off the Cuban boat – of course as a tourist, which is completely different than being a citizen from the island that knows the REAL Cuba. We were convinced that the best way to present the subject was through visualization. Most people tend to be more engaged through tangible images rather than just words on a sheet of paper, or an abstract lecture standing in front of the entire class. Nobody likes that. The words “this person loves the sound of their own voice” come to mind. This style of presentation eventually became overshadowed by the avant garde PowerPoint presentations. Images and graphs make a difference. Now, if that is true, it is even more so when we are talking about teenagers. At that age, we think we already know everything we need to, so it is tough to impress us. We have all been there, enough to agree on this generalization. We opted for a high impact home video.

This project generated my first experience in the world of script writing. I could have gone all the way to Hollywood for sure. I would go further and still say it was an admirable script for someone whose training was primarily based on Cable Mágico TV channels - mostly HBO Olé, Cinemax and MTV Latino. Well some classic South American football dives too. I was hardly forced to take on this role as director, scriptwriter, producer, casting, etc. My passion fuelled my enterprise and I was open to critique and input from my colleagues. I guess it was also my first experience in project management and leadership. The story began with Fidel Castro (yours truly), Che Guevara (William Erickson) and Camilo Cienfuegos (Alejandro Alves) storming the Cuban National Capitol in Havana (our IB History classroom) to kick out the evil dictator, Fulgencio Batista (our teacher Mr. Cotner) and take over government. Of course, the entire production was absolutely impeccable and worthy of a High School Oscar.

Those of us involved in the project were so enthused and having such a great time, I remember we managed to get volunteers to play extra roles in the film. The best scene we shot was down in the Larcomar shopping centre in Miraflores, where Fidel, Che and Camilo were going to catch some rays at Playa Girón – actually the beach on the Miraflores coast – and we were supposed to have gotten lost trying to get there. That is so unlike Fidel, don’t you think? We filmed the three amigos walking in to Hard Rock Café in Larcomar, where we coached the Maitre D’ to give us directions to the beach on camera. He was a good sport. Upon reaching Playa Girón – a settlement in the Bay of Pigs – the not-so-barbudos hung out at the entrance of Fidel’s beach house – a public outhouse – where a rag tag CIA trained army – our High School student extras – came for a battle royal to take over Cuba. Of course, like history dictates, they failed. In our case, not a single shot was fired.

Camilo, Fidel and Che digging the Hard Rock

The key ingredient in making the education process valuable, especially when dealing with high school kids, is to give students space to grow. If they demonstrate enthusiasm and stay on task, do anything you can to support their passion, or stand back if need be. Mr. Cotner was just that kind of teacher. In my entire time in that school, not a single person had complained about his teaching method or his attitude. I like to think he led by example. He was just one of those teachers that stand out. He gave us the tools to become independent decision makers and taught us to be aware of consequences. He really prepared us, without us even knowing, for the world after Roosevelt. In most North American schools, you are dumped into a “sink or swim” scenario. Thanks to the discipline acquired in my IB History class, I have always kept my head above water. My only regret is not having this video on VHS anymore. It was a classic of epic proportions.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The White City

Arequipa lies high atop the lofty Andes Mountains – a phrase I never tire of saying – dominated by the dormant snow-capped El Misti volcano. The city is the second most populous in Peru and produced some of the continent’s most famous sons, such as Nobel Prize laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa and two-time UN Secretary General, Víctor Andrés Belaúnde. The colonial era architecture that characterizes this true ancestral gem was constructed using a white volcanic rock, which explains the nickname, La Ciudad Blanca (The White City). This unique metropolitan manifestation brews a resolute psyche among its inhabitants, spurring a collective sentiment of national pride and individuality. During my time living in Lima (from 1995 to 1999), Arequipa’s local government officials were toying with the idea of separation from the Peruvian state, an idea that was often met ridiculed by the bureaucrats sitting in the national congress. You could even acquire an Arequipan passport – with a picture taken right on the spot - from street vendors in downtown Lima.

Our restaurant facing the Cathedral and Plaza de Armas

I made this excellent adventure to Arequipa with my parents during the Easter break in 1999 for just a couple of days. We spent most of the first day in the splendour of the downtown core, working our way from the Plaza de Armas outward. The main square representing the beating heart of former Spanish colonial strongholds often share the same name. Principal government buildings and a cathedral usually surround this dedicated area. The Spanish conquistadors designed cities using a standard military mindset, strategically preserving an open area where people could gather and receive weapons should more distant defences be overwhelmed in an attack. The Bickfords kept watch from a picantería – restaurant where traditional food is plated – absorbing the fantastic view of the Basilica Catedral of Arequipa. After spending enough time among the Incan predecessors, it is evident that even the food in this city claims a more Spanish ancestry rather than a Creole, Japanese or even Chinese mix as in Lima. It was amazing back in the capital, the number of chifa fast food restaurants serving Asian dishes. The fine dining establishments located around the central square are an ideal choice for people watchers while enjoying a hearty traditional meal before hitting the streets. You will need the fuel, as there is a lot to see there. Don’t miss out on the nunnery, it is a city within the city.

The evolution of this city’s architecture is significantly correlated with its many earthquakes. It is actually quite surprising to see the number of buildings that have bravely stood the test of time against these mighty shakes. I experienced one of these quakes in the comfort of my own hotel room bed in the middle of the night. The scariest element of the phenomenon is that you can hear it coming, like a freight train barreling through you. A bunch of screaming tourists slamming their doors and running out in panic added much to this drama. Upon hearing this out-of-tune opera of squealers, I dashed out of my bed, reached for my Montecristo No. 4 cigars and bolted out the door. Mother nature was not going to steal these fine Cuban creations. Should the building crumble, the cigars would be safe. Anyway, I am deviating from the original subject of the colonial architecture of this fine Andean gem. Many of us fail to recall that while early architects, engineers and builders did not graduate from technical universities yet they were able to erect these grandiose monuments that continue to be admired to date. Their tools were more basic than children’s toys, but their determination was unparalleled. The elegance of these landmarks jumps out before the visitor’s gaze, underlining simultaneously the historical importance the Catholic Church of Spain in the development of this settlement. 

Our hotel was on the outskirts of the city, in the suburb called Sabandia. It was a Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort located near a small artificial lagoon, a picturesque old stone mill and large open fields. There was an excellent restaurant onsite serving all sorts of gourmet items – we met the hotel owners one evening at dinner: they were French expats and motorcycle aficionados – large gardens with alpacas mowing the lawn with their razor sharp fangs (indeed nature’s best lawnmowers) and a swimming pool to kick back. One afternoon, my parents and I were lounging poolside, sipping freshly made lemonade, enjoying the sun and peace that the Peruvian countryside had to offer. This entire property offered a very relaxing ambience to the everyday city slicker. During our moment of deep Zen, our collective consciousness appeared to have connected so well with nature that we somehow managed to summon the local fauna. As we focussed on this overwhelming peace and tranquility, a horse galloped past us out of nowhere, edging the swimming pool ever so slightly. The three of us just shared a look wondering if in fact we had just seen what we thought. While we made up our minds, trying to absorb this brief oddity, the same horse returned trotting towards the pool and back around again, this time chased by some rather heavy set gardener employed by the hotel. I must say that it does in fact require quite the athleticism and skill to stop this kind of animal whose natural inclination is to run.

At the old mill of Sabandia

On a quiet afternoon – like many that can be observed in this area – the three of us walked down the country road to see the old stone mill. On our way there, we found an old terracotta red house with a large veranda displaying tables and chairs. It was a private home with the front entrance converted into a local restaurant. In Peru, especially if you look like an obvious gringo – a flexible word to describe any foreigner – people will sneak up to you with a “ya pe... come and eat here compa’e. As I mentioned in my previous Ancón entry, these places are the best in terms of quality and value – not to mention abundance. We were easily convinced to drop in and try some of the local delicacies but the plate that was immortalized in my gourmet glossary was the infamous rocoto. I love spicy food, but after this plate of nuclear pepper stuffed with fireballs of ground beef, I was breathing out flames for about a month. Those who have sampled the variety of spicy Mexican food will agree that the many different kinds of peppers do have both a zing and a tang – heat and flavour – but the Peruvian ají could easily be used to remove cancerous cells or burn a hole through steel vault. That’s why they say: “to each… their own.” We even had the world’s smelliest dogs fulfilling proudly they sentry around our table, hoping a piece of anything would come to their level. Arequipa was one of my favourite places and I give it a “two thumbs up” to anyone with the opportunity to make this memorable trip.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spirituality 101: Who’s The Boss?

Spirituality, regardless of each specific set of beliefs, has accompanied us on this planet for thousands of years. Most human beings, when faced with a difficult challenge, seek to channel positive energy towards a favourable outcome by invoking the heavens. We just seem so keen to believe that something or someone is up there, above us, looking out for us on this earth. As of 2005 - supposedly this is the most recent data – approximately 88 percent of the world’s population were said to “believe in God” (Cambridge University). In the United States, this same study showed 95 percent of the population responded affirmatively when asked this same question. The answer when broken down includes believing in a life force or energy that uses our output to shape the world we share. Could it be that the majority of the world’s population are on to something?

Ana reconnecting with Mother Earth

During my teen years in Peru – especially after my mother’s cancer – I reconciled my spirituality, returning on a regular basis to church. My particular fallout with the establishment was not related to child-abuse scandals or allegations, as I am quite certain clerics of any denomination have been guilty of this immoral behaviour at one point or another. This does not mean I condone this practice, but my brother and I had served our community as alter boys and survived to tell the story. This is why we do not scream bloody murder every time we are accused for being ambassadors of pedophilia. We know we are not. The truth is that sometimes the voices of the few protesters are louder than those of the devout. We have also seen this unfortunate contamination effect with Islam with the media powering a band wagon simply due to a minority of this religion distorting the overall powerful message of their God. In the Catholic faith, we are taught forgiveness, humility and responsibility toward our community, our brothers and sisters. We do not consider our brethren who are from different faiths to be the enemy, or that these individuals are destined to an eternal afterlife next to Lucifer himself in the fiery pits of hell. The times of the crusades are long gone.

Members of our affluent Lima neighbourhood of Chacarilla congregated for weekend mass in the Santa María school a few blocks from home. The Sunday service was curiously housed in the establishment’s basketball court, something that in my opinion lacked much seriousness. During this time, I was expecting the buzzer to go off or someone catapulting into the air to hammer-in a slam-dunk. However, a hefty native fellow belted out hymns on his classical guitar, meriting a technical foul. This was all fine and dandy in my books. It was just a fine example of doing whatever you could to welcome many guests, something any good human being would do. My beef was with the Churchgoers themselves. I remember walking home after a service when I noticed a wealthy local hop aboard his Mercedes Benz followed by his family mimicking every move. The car pulled out and totalled an ice-cream salesman’s bicycle. After receiving communion and the priest’s blessings, he responded to this at-fault accident by winding down his window to extend his middle finger to the poor self-employed guy on the pavement, covering him with a blanket of swear words I care not to repeat. Great example for his young kids sitting in the back seat, don’t you think?

What I soon realized is that being part of any religion is, in fact, belonging to an extended family - so much so, that you don’t know everyone personally. The family values imparted are the same, but the follow-through can leave much to be desired. You may not always agree with the people you have to sit with, or approve of their behaviour, but you pray for the greater good, hoping that those who stray away from the doctrine have a coming of age. Some people never do, which is unfortunate, but you cannot impose your will onto others. Do unto others as they’ve done to you is not part of this group’s ethos. Every person on this chunk of planet is conditioned by events they experienced, but religion gives us a certain framework as to how to improve humanity. These ideas are proposed and the priest tries to highlight them during his sermon. If those sitting in the pews decide to shut themselves down, refusing to take in any wisdom from their hour in church, is completely up to them. Like any service: use it or lose it. There are some similarities to parenting or being someone’s uncle. You don’t make the final call for other people. You can only coach your loved ones so far until eventually you have to let go and hope for the best.

We all choose our own road to travel in life

In order to continue to build a global humanitarian community, you can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Buddhist - whatever you feel comfortable with is of the outmost importance. As long as you don't mind diversity and the wealth it brings, our global home can greatly improve. Even if you renounce religion or spirituality, religious values are deeply entrenched in the foundations of each country’s legislation and regular every day values. There is, in fact, no way to run away from this reality. The key intelligence you need to gather from this blog if you will indulge me is that, no matter who surrounds you, they are people just like you. As such, think before acting or engaging them, as maybe one day the roles could be reversed and you would expect other people to treat you with the highest degree of care, respect and honesty when you are down on your luck. Never judge a book by its cover; you could end up being terribly mistaken.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cuba - A Lonely Stronghold

During my teenage years in Lima, I became an adamant supporter of the Cuban Revolution. This is hardly normal political conditioning in an American high school setting. Nonetheless, I was fascinated that this tiny Latin American country, only 90 miles off the Florida coast, liberated itself from the shackles of US exploitation in the 1960s and thwarted an invasion attempt - the famous Bay of Pigs incident – originating from the same powerful neighbour. Fidel and Che were really larger than life. The revolutionaries’ commitment to improving the lives of their people, putting the needs of the average Cuban first and foremost, was laudable. Their leaders acted on the rhetoric they preached – rather uncommon with most politicians – bringing education and healthcare to everyone. While the US was engulfed in its own struggle for civil rights, the Cuban revolution knocked down the walls of discrimination, eliminating conflict between race and gender. All men and women are created equal in the eyes of the Revolution.

Castro assuming power with his barbudos

By the mid 1960s, the Cuban government had eliminated all private property rights, kicking out every leftover foreign investor from the pre-Castro era. This eliminated the tourist industry, often viewed as the prostitution of their island and an enslavement of their 'compañeros'. Many of the hotels that were left open catered only to Cubans and their communist brothers. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union, and the loss of Soviet financial support, that the communist regime reluctantly opened the island to foreign visitors. The island’s government was without friends in the global community able to subsidize its economy and welfare net. The special treatment, with trade subsidies, during their Eastern European love affair were long gone and never to return. The quality of life had tanked. The islanders know this infamous period as the Special Period. The regime was desperate to replenish their coffers. After much debate among the old guard, a tourism policy was enacted, which led to the restoration of hotel buildings, allowed international chains to reinvest and begin the arduous task to revive the aesthetics of their cities. Before long, the floodgates were open and the tourist industry fuelled a major part of the economy, surpassing the sale of sugar and related products.

In February 1999, my parents and I arrived in Havana to spend four days under the welcoming Caribbean sun. As soon as the aircraft’s door swung open to let the passengers out, there was a sweet aroma of Cuban tobacco overpowering any other perfume. Even a Cuban welcome came with its own glorious smell! The customs routine was slightly intimidating for first-timers, as the officer was sitting in a booth a few feet over ground level, looking down at tourists. Even if a large family was travelling with small children, the rule was that people had to come through one by one. You stand in a sort of booth, without being able to look at who has passed and who is about to. This was very unusual. I was wearing my trusty Rage Against The Machine Che Guevara t-shirt, which brought an “I like your shirt, young man” comment from a hard-looking Cuban state official. Guess this was a good icebreaker. After collecting our baggage, we were greeted by a representative of our travel agency and driven to our hotel, 200 kms away in the beautiful coastal town of Varadero. At the halfway point, we stopped at a wonderful lookout, the highest point on the road, to sample a “welcome to Cuba” mojito with the sound of an animated salsa band.

We took a day trip to Havana from Varadero aboard an air-conditioned van led by Jorge, a knowledgeable guide. I quickly developed a strong rapport with him as he could notice I had passion and a strong understanding of his country’s history. Someone in the tour bus had asked at what age Che Guevara had died, and I was the only one who had the answer. We visited the old city centre, a wonderful area full of colonial buildings and fortifications dating back to the 1500s. Cuba was the last Spanish colony to gain its independence in the New World. There were also several bars with special stools chained off as memorials to Ernest Hemingway who sat regularly to drink there. He was a true connaisseur of Cuban rum-based beverages. Due to Jorge’s employment with the state – most people dealing with the public shared the same employer - he was not permitted to enter the city’s cathedral. His - and the only political - party on the island did not tolerate religious affiliation. Marx called this “the opium of the masses” if I am not mistaken. On the streets, there were black women dressed in white, wearing a white turban of sorts and smoking a cigar. Jorge mentioned that these women are leaders in the Santería faith – a blend of African, native and Christian faiths with similarities to voodoo – and he recommended not to engage or even to look at them. Although people were not religious, they were indeed superstitious.

Jorge, Maman and I chatting outside the cathedral

Cuba was an awesome experience. I absolutely recommend it to any open-minded individual not holding a US passport, especially before the existing regime crumbles. It is one of the safer countries in the world due to its totalitarian structure, so you are relatively free to discover the place on your own. If you speak Spanish, this is definitely to your advantage. It is almost like time travelling to the past. You will see these magnificent American cars from the 1950s in incredibly great condition. Cubans proudly take care of their cars. The buildings throughout Havana whisper secrets of what the city must have looked like in its belle époque and the people are always welcoming. This place is a walking museum equipped with a full-time afro-Cuban salsa band accompanying you every step of the way. You will most certainly notice, on the negative side, the lack of overall freedoms the population has to endure. People have a tougher reality in acquiring very basic goods that we all take for granted in more developed countries. Make sure to give a tip whenever you can or even the cap off your head, a pack of smokes, or anything you are willing to part with. They will truly appreciate it.