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, March 25, 2012

The Road To Post-Secondary Education

Perhaps one of the toughest decisions as a high schooler is choosing a university. In Roosevelt, we were fortunate enough to host post-secondary fairs where top universities from the US and sometimes from the UK came to engage students. During my tenure at Roosevelt, no Canadian institution had come to recruit. A Canadian school was, of course, my preference as my brother was already back home at the University of Western Ontario in London. I knew I wanted to be close to my family and in my home province, although the University of British Columbia and McGill were other favourites in my desire for further education. The US was completely out of sight due to their ridiculously high tuitions and the potential to be massively in dept should I venture down this road. Canadian universities are publicly funded, and there is easier access to higher education for the general population.

We all need some... education

My primary concern in this decision-making process at 16 or 17 years of age was the lack of overall professional support and advice. My high school guidance counsellor, Mr. Robert Piper, was a great person, but he was also from a different generation. He had suggested that not everyone had to go to university. Many of his peers had not even completed high school, which is a no-no for my generation. I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to study Political Science and, afterwards, join the Canadian public service in hopes of pursuing a career as a political analyst/researcher. I developed great admiration not only for my father, but his outstanding colleagues and the work they did for Canada. Many of our fellow compatriots back home did not appreciate the level of sacrifice and selflessness endured during their life of service. This made no difference to me as a career choice, as there was no higher honour in my mind than serving a country that had given me so much.

Maybe the fact that I was part of an expatriate population – although I doubt this was the case – but there was really no structured guidance at all in the process. The concept behind this next step in your academic life or career progression is that, if you apply yourself, you can achieve anything you want. This is a perfect strategy if you are in a situation where you can influence the entire environment you live in - this is usually not the way the world turns. At that point, I would have appreciated some sort of aptitude test, which could help me to identify my skills, my interests and what careers would be in demand after 4 or 5 years in the labour market. Not everyone can be a supreme court judge, a powerful CEO in the banking sector, head of a medical board or Prime Minister. Unfortunately, most education systems seem to spoon-feed students, taking them by the hand without letting them think for themselves independently. Eventually, however, the firm high school hand lets go. Young students are pushed away, told that they are on their own now and have to make their own decisions. Masters of their own destiny, so to speak. There is no smooth transition, even less in North American education systems.

The MacLean’s magazine’s Guide to Canadian Universities was a key factor for me in deciding which universities I wanted to attend. It was a great resource at the time, ranking our fine institutions by province, faculty, grades, scholarships, number of students and other important factors. Afterwards, I created a shortlist of four schools based on the criteria established by the OUAC (Ontario University Application Centre). This was a great introduction to the wonderful world of intrusive but ineffective Canadian bureaucracy – I had to pay for the service, but was restricted to 4 universities. We were all born to be bookkeepers, I suppose. My final four were Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, both in the nation’s capital, Trent University and the University of Western Ontario. I am sure you can all take a wild guess – and you will probably be right - as to why I applied to the last one after having read these blog entries. The Canadian Embassy also had some literature, although somewhat outdated. I am sure many of my peers had gone through the same challenges in making up their minds.

The evolution of the OUAC application

As the nature of my friendships was quite international, many of us knew the next step would lead to separating the group. This may be why we avoided talking about this process in our circle of trust. I never really thought about their grades, their futures or what they wanted to do after graduation. I just imagined we would all return to where we came from, or others would venture into a new land. We focussed on enjoying today, the moments that made our lives worthwhile and a veritable click. On my end, I was successful on separating my schoolwork, ensuring I would not have any trouble getting into one of the four schools to which I had applied, and continued belting out some mad swings on the softball field. Tomorrow was a long way away.  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

France 98 – The Cup Of Life

France was at the heart of every football aficionados’ attention in the summer of 1998. All the stars were converging for the most - and to some the only - important tournament in international sport. Some nations were celebrating a long-await return and others, their debut on this stage. I was ecstatic because of the Latin American talent that had managed to qualify. As usual, the Brazilians were favoured contenders to lift the cup with on-form striker Ronaldo backed up by Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Cafú and other famous personalities representing the joga bonito style. Argentina posed a significant threat and was not a side to take lightly especially with Batigol behind the ball. Chile returned, after a long hiatus, featuring a goal-scoring dynamic duo: Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano. Paraguay fielded one of the world’s best goalkeepers to grace the game, José Luís Chilavert who built a reputation for scoring free kicks – a feat no goalie achieved in this prestigious tournament and he came very close to this.

Argentina: Another year... another tear

When living in a footballing country, you will realize the world comes to halt on match days. Countries like England and Germany suffer major losses in production due to absentee labour forces. This is the same in Peru. Although we were in school, classes had lost importance, even to the teachers themselves. This madness strikes indiscriminately people of every age group. The odd thing was that Peru had not even qualified for the tournament. As such, everyone picked a favourite to go all the way and every single match mattered. This is why it is called the people’s game. There is always a team that people can relate to. Also, since this was an American school and there was, in fact, a large high student component of US citizens, they adamantly supported their national flag bearers. I remember being in my ITGS class while the USA played against Iran, a game the Persians bagged after 90 minutes of play. I have never experienced this type of wide-scale support for an international event any other time in my life. Football is everything. I guess that is why we call it soccer in North America.  

Mexico was one of the major pleasant surprises during the tournament. The Aztec warriors had few known players outside of their national league but were armed with an unmatched determination to show their national dedication to the game. Luis “El Matador” Hernandez spearheaded the Mexican attack and gave the show of his life netting four important goals in total. Mexico kicked off its campaign in a game against South Korea, turning an early 0-1 deficit into a 3-1 victory. It was an admirable, hard-fought comeback. A few days later, they were down by 2 goals against a strong Belgian side, yet finished with a 2-2 tie. The following group match was decisive and Mexico managed to survive against a stronger Dutch team, gaining points from a 2-2 tie. Not an easy feat against the Oranje. It appeared the Mexicans had found a super in Jesus Arellano. Every time he was brought into a tough game, he made a real difference. Although their run was admirable, especially after sitting on a 1-0 victory over Germany in the knockout stage, the aging Europeans scored twice, sending the Aztecs back to the hotel to pack their bags. This was a disappointing end to an admirable performance.

The Brazilian side had few convincing results. Although they did not lack the talent to outclass their opponents on the field, it seemed that having dubbed the Canarinha as favourites worked like a hex. Six of the seven games they played on French soil saw them concede goals, as if they lacked proper goalkeeping support. Some argue that Brazilians generally are unable to provide top class goalkeepers and this type of performance would support such allegations. The heroes of the day were in the forward lines. They operated on an “I can score one more than you” principle. These were matches for those who feel football is soccer: a boring game where no goals are scored. For a true fan of the sport, confidence is fostered on having a solid team. A hard fought 2-0 victory is much more rewarding than a 7-6 score line. Their strongest test was against the Dutch where they managed to tie after extra time and the game was decided on penalties. At this point, most hardcore fans are on the edge of their seats, bordering cardiac arrest. However, after struggling on, they did face the hosts in a memorable final.

The first nail to the carioca coffin

France had managed some convincing wins. They led their group, which took them through to the next round. From then on, they displayed solid defence and kept cool, treating every match like their last. However, every performance left much to be desired, having world-class playmaker and captain Zinedine Zidane at the helm. He was able to single-handedly disarm any line-up he was facing but he did need a natural born goal-scorer by his side to put the icing on his every move. The best game the French showcased was the final match against Brazil. The South American disorder that dominated Brazil’s performance throughout the competition proved fatal against a more organized and determined European side in front of their home fans. Within the first 27 minutes, a beautiful cross was met by Zizou’s majestic bald head and caromed into the back of the net. There was no answer but frustration, and the match finished with a true trouncing of the Brazilians. Sometimes, people can crack under the pressure of trying to live up to the reputation of being a favourite.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cajamarca – The Final Stand

Many Peruvians associate Cajamarca with the fall of the Incan Empire. This was the place where Atahualpa, the last emperor of the pre-Colombian civilization, was captured as he and his brave warriors defended the city against the assault of Francisco Pizarro and his band of ruthless conquistadors. The Spaniards were greatly outnumbered by the Quechua warriors in this battle – like most of the battles leading to major conquests in the New World - yet their unparalleled determination and hubris awarded them a strategic victory. Apparently, Atahualpa begged for his release by offering his captors a large room (still to be seen in downtown Cajamarca) filled with gold and silver. The foreign invaders obliged the leader’s offer, but upon receiving their bounty, they executed him. Moral of the story: never trust a Spanish conquistador.

Typical street of Cajamarca

Modern day Cajamarca built its reputation on its dairy products, beautiful colonial churches, mining, and the Inca Baths – a true fountain of youth. The Bickfords made the trip via Aero Condor – an old Fokker F50 – from Lima to spend a long weekend in this fabled city. I had never been on a plane that once it rises above significant cloud cover, one could see cloud condensation in the aisle separating the rows of passengers. Pretty neat! Our primary objective in this excursion was to spend our leave relaxing in the soothing hot springs. This water - similar to Rotorua, New Zealand and other places on the planet - is geothermally heated from the Earth’s crust. It is highly recommended to avoid taking a dip directly in the source, unless you want to understand what a lobster goes through before ending up on your plate. The waters of the Baños del Inca resort, slightly on the outskirts of the main city, are cooled from the source for the guests to enjoy relaxing either in the public pools or the private tubs in their respective suites.

This trip was highly recommended to my mother after her cancer treatments due to therapeutic qualities in the natural springs. Heated spring water generally holds more dissolved solids and possesses high mineral content. It is common to find compounds of calcium and lithium, both particularly useful in revitalizing the human body after radiation treatments. These medical procedures slow the natural processes of developing bone marrow, among many other observed side effects. Doctors drop a small nuclear bomb on a localized section of a patient’s affected area, annihilating infected cells and the success rate is high. Nevertheless, like most nuclear explosions, there is fallout. My mother’s road to recovery was cumbersome, making us ponder for several years after whether she would make a full recovery. My father was determined to try new things, such as these spring baths, hoping to ensure my mother had a decent comfort level even if the worse case scenario should apply. If she left us one day in the near future, at least we provided a positive environment for her.

From what I noticed, the majority of the city’s population originated from the native quechua people. Most outsiders fit in like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop. Even my mother was tall there. Like many places in Peru, Cajamarca shared a tainted ambience. Newer buildings appeared tired or worn out, as if the modern era hadn’t completely arrived or had arrived in a truncated shape. The streets were covered in litter due to inadequate and in some cases, non-existent garbage collection, giving a poor front stage to small and struggling neighbourhood businesses. The inhabitants carried themselves in a defeated or resigned manner, probably finding the day-to-day routine exhausting, as there was no hope for betterment. New generations came in only to relieve the old guard of their duties and resume the long established routine of their forefathers. The memories of their glorious aboriginal ancestors being defeated and humiliated by foreign conquerors were evidently deep in the subconscious of these people, continuing to mourn the end of the Incan golden age. The people of Cajamarca have much in common with other indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Maman taking a dip in the thermal pools

On my end, Cajamarca was a rather boring trip away from my close friends but I made the most of it. Many times, we are the masters of our own fate. We have the power to influence our surroundings, regardless of the hand we are dealt. I invested most of my time watching television in my room, catching up on schoolwork and reading in various places on the grounds. I was inclined to distract my mind from the events unfolding in my everyday social life back at base camp Lima. My parents ventured into the depths of the downtown core, walking around taking in the various iconic sites and observing the locals. With my insatiable love for history and culture, I regret I did not seize the opportunity to join them on their foot patrol. My teenage attitude got the best of me on this occasion, proving that sometimes, it is better to do things you don’t want to do. The only currency we have in this life is time and if we do waste it, there is no way to get it back.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Caracas – A Homecoming

When we return to our hometown after a prolonged tour of duty, we suddenly feel like a lingering emptiness has been filled, bringing the peace we longed for. Specific parts of town trigger your memory more in the beginning as we reabsorb the surrounding ambience, such as the streets you used take to school, the place you worked and eventually, building a snowball of flashbacks down memory lane. Depending on how long ago it was since you had last been there, you remember the buildings but they don’t quite look the same anymore. The once photographic memory resembles more a faded Polaroid picture. Nature has taken over what used to be pristine gardens, colours of things don’t match what you remembered and even buildings themselves appear to have dipped into a depression lamenting your absence. The city thought you would never return. Other buildings look booming and radiant almost as if to prove the point that “the grass really is greener on the other side”. Life moved on while you were gone and the pieces making that mental jigsaw of a place don’t seem to fit as naturally as they once did.

Maman and I in Caracas

On Easter 1998 - a festivity commonly referred to down South as Holy Week due to long observed duration of the holiday, reflecting the predominant Roman Catholic faith – Dad, Maman and I hopped on a plane for Caracas as part of a now routine evacuation. Maman had managed to track down our Venezuelan family friends before actually making the trip, the Marquez, who had returned there following their posting in Quito, Ecuador. Nine years after we left, we were back! This was their home base, much like Ottawa was ours. They warned us before coming - as any good friend would - that perhaps we should avoid making this trip, primarily because Caracas had undergone a face lift gone bad performed by an unlicensed political surgeon. Things hadn’t changed much. This South American oil sheik was making mad money selling off its precious natural resources through the oil cartel to an enslaved consumer relying on a limited international market. Nevertheless, the petroleum tycoon had not channelled the revenue to provide for the country’s poorest still living in similar or worse conditions from our heyday. As a matter of fact, the major change was that an already high crime continued its trend upward at an alarming rate. We were well aware of the potential dangers at hand, knowing it hadn’t been the safest place while living there, but it was a chance we could not pass up to be reunited with our Venezuelan family. Usually the odds are slightly better if you have someone on the inside.

Jhonny and Juan Alberto had come to greet us at Maiquetia Airport, a place we had often frequented during our 1986-1989 posting. Going through the terminal, everything I was seeing was going through my internal mental processor, sorting out images to pair them up with existing saved data from the old days. I had a sense of homecoming and I was genuinely pleased. Juan and I loaded the suitcases into the trunk in the airport parking lot, where I noticed a circular perforation in the rear driver’s side of his father’s vintage, lime green Mercedes. On the road into Caracas from La Guaira, I questioned the origin of the aforementioned hole and was explained rather colourfully that some ruffian shot a pistol at his car a few times and only one bullet actually hit his vehicle. We all wondered if the aggression was warranted or not. As he shared his explanation, no one felt his story increased our self-awareness of probable security threats. Our reaction to his monologue was the understanding that this was more like a curious everyday happening. He always had a gift of story telling due to his easy going attitude about many aspects in his life which made any difficult circumstance sound funny. I can’t honestly say, especially to those following this blog from its inception, that nothing of this sort had happened to us. When living a normal life under these types of circumstances, you become somewhat desensitized and find humour in these situations. It makes everything that much easier. You really can’t do anything to change the negative realities out there and sometimes, instead of being powerless, a good chuckle or giggle helps bury the worry temporarily. Otherwise, you may end up locking yourself the closet of your choice hiding from life, but that does more harm than good for your personal long-term mental health.

It was great to see the beautiful landmarks of Caracas, visiting the Teresa Carreno Theatre, the Fine Arts Museum, the Archeology Museum, Plaza Bolivar and the National Capitol, the seat of government. These were exactly as I remembered them. I cannot forget to mention revisiting the extensive highway network of Caracas as well. These were spectacular concrete monsters with intersections bearing their own nicknames, such as the octopus and the centipede, due to their many layers of traffic feeds and wild curves. Things were as busy as ever once you hit the streets. The roadways still seemed to be dominated by the motorcycle snaking through gridlock. The major change I noticed was the number of Wendy’s burger joints and that struck me as odd. Most South American cities had primarily Burger Kings at most and Pizza Huts – most of these had great playgrounds for kids – and MacDonald’s seemed to enter the local markets shortly before our departure. This Golden Arch syndrome was a very weird coincidence indeed. In the 80s and 90s, I had not seen a single Wendy’s outside of North America. We even had dinner the night we arrived at a Hoolihan’s. This was a reasonable establishment on US soil yet they are usually jazzed up for South American markets, much like Tony Roma’s and TGI Friday’s. Our other meals reconnected us to our times in Venezuela through the tasty Venezuelan arepas, tequeñones and the pabellón criollo. When travelling the world, allow yourself to experience new things to develop your wonderful pallet – a true genetic gift from our maker – and you will not be disappointed. There is a real world of flavours out there. The company of the Marquez and the ever-present laughter made our meals so much more pleasurable. Good food is meant to be enjoyed with good company.

The Bickfords and the Marquez reunited

This return to Caracas was unlike any other experience I had ever lived so far. Every major urban centre we had been posted to was routinely for a period of three years. During this time, I became part of the city, absorbing its culture, knowing various shortcuts and all the ins and outs – I had an exceptional sense of direction as a kid and was often able to serve as my father’s GPS to avoid traffic jams on our way from A to B – and breathed the same sweet air as every other citizen. In a certain way, it was like I earned my place in each of these magnificent cities. However, after each three year posting, we always packed our bags knowing the high probability that we would never return, leaving these settlements in the annals of our personal history. This trip had broken with that established pattern. It was curious that, no matter how many years had come and gone, my place among the people of Caracas was waiting for me in some shape or form. I somehow belonged to the life energy fueling the city’s organism. I continued to identify with my fellow ‘caraqueños’ as if I had come home. Home was becoming harder to define. I wondered if this would also apply to Brasilia and Santiago should I ever go back, as I continued to possess a strong affinity to both places, even though I had lost all ties with the people I knew there. Venezuela would be forever in my being.