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 26, 2012

The Nazca Lines – A Message From Our Ancestors?

Peru has some of the world’s most fascinating anthropological treasures. Among these are a series of curious hieroglyphs decorating the sands of the Nazca Desert, only 400 km away from Lima. These stone drawings are called the Nazca Lines and they cover more than 80 km of relatively uninhabitable land and the origins are traced back to somewhere between 400 and 650 AD. The many figures dressing the landscape are hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks, orcas, llamas, lizards and gods, each visible from space – and not so much from the ground level. There are several theories behind the purpose of these images, some more complex than others, such as homage to gods, navigation points for the locals and even a landmark for ancient aliens. Many of you must be thinking, “This must be a breathtaking sight!” I would ask the same question as well since our attempt to get there fell somewhat short. Nevertheless, it is a funny story and will serve to answer a reader’s request via e-mail regarding this Peruvian gift to the world.

The monkey, one of the more famous lines in the sand

This was our first trip out of Lima on a long week in 1996 – Brian was still with us at that point – and we were always keen to discover our host country’s most famous tourist attractions. People come from far and wide to see this place and there are many documentaries where you will see the lines, perhaps better than from the observation tower onsite. We brought our beloved Plymouth Voyager to Lima, Peru from Canada, so we were happy to make this trip in our familiar and spacious van filled with adequate provisions for desert exploration including a very large vat of water – much needed if you read on. We had enjoyed very much the neighbouring Chilean Atacama desert, so we felt prepared to tackle this one. We managed to make it to the town of Ica – more or less of a midpoint on the map - where we had reservations at a beautiful hotel in the middle of the desert, called Las Dunas, on a full tank of leaded gas. This gasoline is extremely poisonous for vehicles from North America that require unleaded gas. Yes, that meant our van was not immune to this kryptonite. I am not certain that our fearless leader, Dad, had any idea what he was intentionally doing to his car – in all fairness, it never occurred to the rest of us, as he was the only driver at the time. Obviously, the car would run more or less alright on flat surfaces, but every so often, the engine would overheat, expelling clouds of steam from under thr hood – and some unfriendly words from the old man directed at the car. In the beginning, we were all puzzled by this, but every time the engine would be slightly overworked – especially climbing a hillside stretch of road - we were forced to come to a halt because the engine indicator seemed to be off the gauge. Poor Plymouth. The large vat of water came in handy after all as we had to fill up the radiator every time.

We eventually made it to Ica after several hours of fumes - both from my Dad and the car – and the ensuing stops. The hotel was a fantastic place for a family vacation. There were tennis courts, a basketball net, a large swimming pool and a cross between a regular and the biggest sand dune I had ever seen. The curious thing was you could sandsurf down the dune but you had to be willing to smash face first into thorny bushes at the end of the run. There was also a mini-golf course where you could pick your own clubs. We took a dabble at golf, choosing a driver, several irons and a putter, without knowing the real difference. Maman was the more seasoned golfer who had recommended the irons and the lack of a need for a driver as the distances from the tee off to the green were not much. Since no one else was using the course, we decided to try combinations of tee offs and greens to have a longer field of play and a better challenge. I started the swinging lineup with the driver. For the more seasoned readers, you will know that my mother was right and for the rest of you, always listen to your mother. The irons cover shorter distances and the driver is meant to be used for really long shots. I hit the ball, making a wonderful clicking sound from a calculated swing and we all watched the ball travel like a bat out of hell as it curved over the hotel building and out of sight. We were shocked by my fantastic long shot, but once we came back to reality, we were concerned that the ball could have hit someone. Brian and I ran off to conduct some discrete reconnaissance to make sure everyone was fine yet demonstrating a very nonchalant attitude until my brother saw the ball was in the pool. Hole in one! He asked a kid that was swimming to collect it noticing we dodged a real bullet – someone else dodged a real golf ball.

The following day, we set off on another 200 km day trip down the Panamerican Highway – at this point, traffic is redistributed through one lane each way – passing by little towns named after saints and sacraments. These places looked pretty basic however, chapeau to the citizens as the land does not seem to bare much in the shape of agricultural products to outlive the dry desert. It seemed rather odd as well at the time that most of the sand dunes were covered in various layers of trash, including the unmistakable E. Wong plastic grocery bags. The other peculiar aspect was that there was quite a traffic flow on these desert roads. Every few minutes or so, there was a small combi (those elegant looking second hand Toyota vans with Japanese markings on them) passing by packed with locals. Our poisoned Plymouth breaking down every fifteen minutes did not seem to disturb the traffic parade. On the contrary, we were probably a source of great entertainment for the passers-by. Nothing more fun for some than watching a bunch of gringos in a bad situation. You have no idea how much they enjoyed the Mr. Bean series, probably because it was a foreigner going through terrible situations, but we all have our own guilty pleasures when it comes to this man. Everyone in Canada seems to have seen the famous Christmas episode where he gets his head stuck in a turkey, whether they care to admit this or not. It was also tough out in a desert plain to find an appropriate place to relieve yourself from excess liquids as it was impossible to do this without any audience and we couldn’t really get to the nearest bathroom quickly because of the car breaking down. Eventually, this routine got the best of our father and we were no longer willing to risk ourselves as a group to get to the Nazca Lines, unfortunately never having the chance to ever see these in the future.
Huacachina, the oasis town

Instead, we spent the remainder of our trip, listening to Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and driving around the vicinity of Ica. We came across a wonderful oasis named Huacachina. There was a really small town, maybe something over a handful of rustic old buildings and a nearby vineyard at Ocucaje, which my father declared produced among the world’s worst wine, next to a small lagoon. The only way in is following a system of dusty roads and trails off the beaten track, so be wary. We ate lunch there in one of the few buildings, on a wooden deck/covered terrace, ordering the special overlooking the lagoon of stagnant water surrounded by large sand dunes. It looks like any major windstorm could push the dunes into the water, eliminating the areas easy access. Our meal was decent – some of the best places to eat in Peru are the more humble ones - which included an Inka Cola jell-o for dessert. Our waiter was so pleased to announce this and serve his establishment’s unique culinary creation but were were somewhat disappointed. It was like chewing cream soda. It was a shame we did not make it to the lines but we discovered that jell-o could be made using Inka Cola - never had it again though. Make sure to try it at your own risk.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Family Ties – The Cousins

We all have a built in homing device, developed through the sophisticated technology of blood relations, which naturally demands we physically make that pilgrimage to our personal Mecca. For those who have lived abroad or away from their hometown, they can relate. There is no place like home. Most third culture or trans-cultural kids possess, at any point of their lives, a sense of jealousy towards those who have enjoyed a more sedentary life. This is because the latter are truly at an advantage having daily interaction between family members and create a strong bond across several age groups. Those who were brought up as nomads, the famous “citizens of the world”, are clearly at a disadvantage yet still seek that unique refuge where family makes everything better. This craving for unconditional love and understanding resembles that of a child seeking their parents’ approval after a major personal accomplishment. In the shoes of that exciting nomad adventurer, family becomes a metaphor for peace to soothe a war weary mind in the theatre of instability.

My adorable aunt, uncle and cousins

            With the departure of my big brother from the household, I needed to make sense of things, and the implanted homing device was armed and ready but waiting for the rest of my person. In a way, what I witnessed was the upside to being a target for terrorism in Lima. As previously mentioned in my earlier blog entry, traveling meant I had to renounce the privilege to enjoy my friends during my downtime. It was like winning a major local sports championship as part of a neighbourhood team: outside of my city, no one knew the tournament existed so nobody was able to relate. Like winning the NBA Finals with no party for the victors. The first time I noticed a reward in disguise was in fact when we were evacuated from our Andean posting during the longest holidays: January and February, 1998 – remember that these are summer months down South, therefore Canada, my adored homeland, was buried deep down under a thick cover of snow and blanketed by subzero temperatures. Who would consciously break from the gentle embrace of a tropical sun, sandy beaches and outdoor activities to knowing lock up their families indoors to shelter them from an avoidable old man winter? This meant, two months with Mémé, my maternal grandmother and my mother’s family who I had the pleasure of seeing about a week a year previously since I was a little guy.

            At first, Maman was the major beneficiary of this exodus. She was still struggling to part ways with the spectre of cancer looming over her regular routine, so she needed some quality time with her mother. My mother and her family – a rather large family up to par with the size of the cast in My Big Fat GreekWedding – had always been very close. They stuck together through thick and thin through generations, strong enough to outlast world wars, conflicts, forced exile and other difficult developments throughout the years. I believe they could have pioneered the trans-cultural movement, having family hailing from places like Belgium, France and Spain and adapting to new foreign cultures. Should I get into further detail here, I would be obliged to write several years worth of blogs just to give some justice to this story including ties to Maximilian Hapsburg, Austrian monarch and Emperor of Mexico, GeneralBazaine, Marshal of France and President Porfirio Diaz of Mexico. Suffice it to say, Maman had a well-established psychological, emotional and genealogical Holy See and relocating seem to be engrained in her genetic code - along with the necessary tools to set up a base camp relatively anywhere on the map. I was in the process of discovering mine.

            While staying with my grandmother for these months, I really began to be acquainted with my first cousins, Annie, Fernando and Javier. It was somewhat complicated to spend the maximum amount of my allotted time with them, as their own scholastic responsibilities and duties to long-time friendships were primary – similar priorities I would have had staying behind back in Lima. However, they did make an effort to include me in some outings, such as to catch of the latest Hollywood blockbusters or grab a cup of java and a chat. I treasured these moments as I began to know my cousins for who they had become since our old days tearing up my grandmother’s backyard with our shenanigans. We used to get paired off in those days by age groups yet none of these seemed to work out in my favour – I was too old to play with my cousin Javier and too young for Fernando – but these times were now behind us. Now, the discourse had evolved from age differences into a nearly grown up dialogue, exchanging musical recommendations and a genuine interest for each other’s lives. It was difficult to relate in some instances to details but we did our best to understand.

Catching some waves with my favourite grandmother

            Perhaps among the more interesting elements of my dear family was that, although we had grown up worlds apart, we were like brothers and sisters. We were all brought up with similar values and appreciated the special meaning of getting together as a family. My favourite moments were having everyone together around my grandmother’s dining room table to enjoy meals together, hearing everyone laughing and chatting over a wonderful home-cooked family specialty. These experiences truly began to give shape to the definition of extended family – especially as now I was going to have more than just a week a year with them - and I realized how lucky I was to have my Godparents – my Uncle Fernando and my Aunt Annie. They truly made me feel at home – regardless of some to swallow ruses at my expense because of my rocking good looks – and as we left, reassured I would always have a place in their home should the case ever apply. I knew now, I would be looking forward to reallocate my time resources in the future with the five of them and my dear Mémé. Truly a reward in disguise.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When 2 Years Became 4

Initially, Lima was going to be a 2-year posting for my father. The Department of Foreign Affairs (our foreign ministry) determined levels of hardship, taking living conditions - threats of violence, availability of basic medical services, clean drinking water, or pretty much anything necessary to lead a normal life – into account to negotiate the length of a posting. Due to the aftermath of the MRTA crisis and Canada’s important role in Lima our stay was to be extended one more year. Surely, my mother’s cancer treatments were an additional factor in leading to this extension. It would have been brutal on my mother to undergo another international move, as she was not even recouping yet. She had already been discharged from hospital but she diligently pursued her radiation therapy to remove any additional cells that may not have been surgically eliminated during her stay at the Clinica Montesur. We all had to adapt to a new life, including Brian about 6,000 km away

No monkey business with David Bickford

            Grade 11 brought major changes to my life. Academically, I had entered the elite in my age group, undertaking International Baccalaureate coursework, a necessary step in assuring I would have a great shot at the university of my choice back home – not to mention a potential scholarship of any kind. The curriculum, as most of my peers will agree, was significantly more demanding than the regular American or Peruvian counterparts offered by our school. My favourite courses were IB - History of the Americas, a continent I have been passionate about from Tuktuyaktuk to Tierra del Fuego and ITGS – Information Technology in a Global Society, my introduction to the complex world of computers. The French Lycée system focussed on training the brain by using it, such as forbidding the use of calculators or computers, and making us memorize everything. Their motto is that if you don’t exercise this muscle, you lose it. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being able to create things on computers, eventually building a website for the High School Softball Team and my own websites that paid homage to my favourite bands. My learning curve even surprised me.

            This time had also been a great source of Canadian pride for myself as our Embassy had welcomed our elite security professionals from CSIS and the RCMP. They had come down South to make an educated assessment as to the safety of our SQs (the homes of DFAIT employees and their families abroad), beef up security in our Embassy in Miraflores and the Ambassador’s residence, and train local police that would act as an armed escort to our official vehicles everywhere we went. I knew that if they were involved, we were in good hands. After all, the RCMP attaché at the Embassy was first class, providing not only an excellent example of service as a decorated police officer, but as an outstanding member and contributor to our Canadian expat community. It seemed everyone that met him, liked him, including his counterparts throughout different neighbouring countries and law enforcement services.

            A major change to my regular routine however, was the addition of a few bodyguards. My father had to have one at all times, a friendly Peruvian police officer going by the name of Roberto Mendoza. He was always on top of his game and never acted unprofessionally on any occasion. I did joke around with him from time to time as a young teen and was quick to develop a good rapport with him. I was convinced should he be called upon to protect my father, he would not hesitate to react. My father, on a trip to Canada, brought him back an RCMP sweatshirt, which he treasured. I gifted my GI Joe collection to his son. The other bodyguard rode our school bus every single day. Not too many Canadian kids I know could say that. I don’t think any of us, as passengers, felt uncomfortable with this, as we knew it was for our own good. His name was Luis, a wiry fellow with a great sense of humour. I tended to talk about soccer, primarily the Peruvian national soccer team and their quest to qualify for the World Cup. He did not employ his revolver as a display item to show off to the kids or a vehicle of intimidation so we would behave in the school bus. On the contrary, he was a completely, no-nonsense, police officer. He carried himself with pride and purpose, even while protecting foreign kids, a job some seasoned professionals would have trouble complying. We had armed guards 24/7 at the house, and we enjoyed playing basketball together. With their heavy boots, nightsticks, radios and flak jackets, they were at a slight disadvantage.

Our dear Jean-Yves, Mr. Ambassador and David Bickford

            Perhaps the toughest lifestyle change to adapt to was travelling. Yes I did say travelling. Most people love the idea of travelling to new places and taking a break from the real world, but how long can you really escape from the realities of home? My parents had no choice on this one. Due to the increased risk for Canadian Embassy staff in Peru – for security reasons, when I went out with my friends after school, I had to be careful not to wear anything that identified me as a Canadian. That was tough - our government required families to evacuate should they be off from routine obligations for an extended period of time. This meant that holidays when I could spend quality time with my friends were now gone. Sure it is cool to travel and see the world, but it becomes tough when you know home is not safe and your friends are left behind to cope. Nevertheless, I did manage to make the most of the time I had in Lima afterwards to nurture my friendships on different terms. I had to accept reality and play by the rules to ensure my own safety. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Remembering The Old 97

No matter what relationship you have with your parents and siblings, these relatives are really the few that can genuinely understand what you are – or will be – going through. A strong nuclear family is of the outmost importance. Outsiders label the expat experience as a sabbatical where you will be rocking out under the hot sun on a sandy beach wearing a funny hat. They don’t usually associate this displacement with becoming a target for terrorists – as was the case in the aftermath of the Japanese residence – or random attacks – when Mario Lambert and I left an amusement park in Peru shortly after a group blew up it up – and having to go on with a regular life. Your parents and siblings know these stories are not exaggerations or some desperate cry for attention. They soldiered on through the same struggles that you had. It is not that the rest of your family or friends do not care to understand, but your mind, identity and even culture has been morphed into something quite different from that of your fellow compatriots in a positive way as you have sacrificed stability and a sense of daily continuity.

Roosevelt Softball Team:
bet you can't spot the heavy metal horns!

In 1997, my nuclear family was rocked by even more than gun blasts and body bags marking the end of a siege. My older brother, Brian, was now headed off to university to pursue higher education in Medicine, bringing an abrupt end to our comfortable routine and camaraderie. He was excited to leave the roost and overjoyed with his upcoming emancipation. I was delighted and celebrated this new step alongside him yet realized it was going to be difficult to live in the same house after his departure. No more Sepultura banging through the massive home-made speakers he built with his friend Paul. The Cowboys From Hell were packing their suitcases to the head bangers ball in London, Ontario. Our lazy day basketball “21”s were to be substituted for a solo shoot around the driveway. The pitching staff in our school’s ball club was going to struggle to replace him and his lefty swing attempting to beat the green monster on right field. Family trips were now going to be booked for 3. Little did I know the days of living under the same roof had come to an end. There was no tomorrow.

To make matters even worse, as a 10 year anniversary present for my mother kicking cancer out of our house, she was once more diagnosed with the same type of cancer shortly before Brian would leave home base. Dad and Maman called us into their room one evening to have a serious chat and my father used that infamous cliché phrase: “It is nothing serious.” In every past instance when I heard that sentence mentioned, it was always a big deal. Mom told me several years later, she had decided to spend quality time with her mother that summer as she thought it could be her last chance. Mom was admitted on August 15th, 1997 to the Clinica Montesur in Monterrico, Lima for surgery and she was to remain there for a good 5 days or so until she would be discharged. Brian stayed a few nights at her bedside during her stay and my requests to stand guard had been denied due to my school obligations. Everyone suggested – in my best interest of course - that it was best for me to continue my usual routine. I wasn’t a fan of people deciding for me. All I had on my mind was whether or not I was going to have a mother tomorrow or lose her to this cancer that did not want to leave our family alone. She was the glue that kept us all together.

School provided no distraction from the situation whatsoever. My mother had taken on the role of the school’s French teacher many moons ago and now… she was absent. This was highly uncharacteristic of her career in Roosevelt. Of course the staff knew why, but students began to ask questions and, as most kids and teens manage to, they got answers. Soon, my peers and others came up to express their sympathy, support and hoped things would get better soon. I preferred at the time that people pretended everything was normal. All is well. The icing on the cake was someone who came up to me and said: “My brother died of cancer so if you need someone to talk to, I’m here.” Gulp! Not a very smooth reassuring comment but I understood that the intentions were most noble. I felt as if I was treading like the Titanic in the academic seas as I prepared for the most important years of high school - the ones that universities really look at. However, I fought for my place, my grades and my permanence in the International Baccalaureate programme and tried to focus on what I could influence. I had to make it. Come September, Brian was gone. It was not a way of escaping his duties, on the contrary. It must have been difficult for him to leave knowing our mother had to undergo multiple sessions of radiotherapy. They had always been very close.

Maman (in red) and the FDR High School staff

We all have challenges to overcome and we often fail to consider how privileged we are in contrast to others. Many of us tend to dwell on the fact we were dealt the wrong card from the deck of life and resent God, life and others in a better situation than ourselves. I was somewhat guilty in the beginning of this crisis, feeling I did not have the proper support. An outsider could coldly say to you in a similar setting, “Toughen up” or “That’s life” – usually the last thing we want to hear – although this may be the best prescription. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms. Even in this darkest hour when faced with what looked like the end of my world as I knew it, I realized that you – the universal you - can always count on the kindness of others. Strangers can become friends, friends can become brothers and you may find redemption in a friendship you considered lost. It is up to you to deal with this pain and you owe it to yourself to carry on. Tomorrow, people you love may or may not be there, but the show must go on – of course while keeping those who are gone forever in your heat and thoughts. My mother fought and survived cancer once again and I never forget the support from strangers, friends and family that went out to the four of us. All of you are never forgotten in our household for your unconditional gesture of friendship in a time of need. I have always said, you always find out who your friends really are in times of hardship.