The Expat Child

The Expat Child

Apparently I am an ” Expat “. That identity crisis only took some thirty some odd years to figure out.
It sure explains a lot.
As a child I remember designing different flags with my best friend. A flag to represent our own country where we both fit in. Her parents were from Argentina, mine from Switzerland and the US. When we entered our homes our language and customs instantly changed.
I was raised under the “melting pot ” theory. Which meant our home was a bubble of the USA. We were all going to speak English, watch TV from the USA and eat ‘ American ‘ food. As a result I have little beyond a passport to show for my Swiss heritage. It also meant that any language or customs that I acquired locally were frowned upon.
To confuse matters even more I attended a school where the students transferred in and out every three years from other countries. This was before the internet era and long distance phone calls were expensive. I tried desperately to stay in touch as a pen pall, but none lasted.
I remember exploding in anger one day after hours of crying. I was mourning the loss of another friendship transferred to some other country. “That’s it! No more!” I was not going bother bonding with anyone anymore at school. I was going local.
My act of rebellion was to recognize and embrace the local culture I had absorbed all along. I had already grown up speaking the local language, listening and dancing to its music and watching local television programs. Over time I looked at my family as the foreigners.
I remember begging to study at the local university. No, I had to study in the USA. So I went thinking, ” I have cable TV , a dad from the US and studied at an American school” I am ready. No, I was not. It was incredibly difficult.
Imagine a Zulu speaking Japanese. That was how I felt. My looks did not match my identity and it angered everyone. They could not pigeon hole me. People yelled at me saying I was lying about who I was, where I came from.
College was temporary, so were those relationships. I knew about that already. All I did was look forward to going home. When I did my parents were surprised. They thought I would fall in love with the “Motherland”. Whose mother? Not mine.
My mother sent me off to Switzerland hoping to kindle that bond that was forbidden in our home. It was too late. I was a tourist and will always be. My roots had not found any sustenance. I responded by mutating. I found a way to grow my own roots.
Since then the “salad bowl” theory replaced that of the “melting pot”. It is how my husband (local of course) and I have chosen to raise our children. You see our family has also packed and unpacked, started over and over. Always the new kid in school… Always the new employee…
Except we do not live in our bubble. We do not melt all of the separate cultural ingredients into one stew. Like a salad, every component of our culture retains its shape, color and texture, its integrity and best of all, we can always add more with every new experience.
“Citizens of the world” is how my children have been described by fellow expats. I tell my kids not to worry about losing their friends because like mommy and daddy, they can stay in touch with social media, e-mail and Skype. I am more open now to new friendships, but sadly still a bit icy on the edges. I am still haunted by the thought of “Why bother, I will be leaving soon anyway…”

Chilenas, all of them, I swear!

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Chilenas, all of them, I swear!  Well, all except for yours truly, but seriously people I can’t begin to emphasize how monumental this moment was for me as an expat in Chile.  I broke through the bubble and you can too.  There is hope for us gringos to bond with the locals without marrying into the family.  Granted that has not been the only way, but the most popular no doubt.

We spent hours exchanging our personal stories over coffee and laughing, so much laughing.  These ladies felt comfortable right off the bat sharing intimate details of themselves without a single drop of pisco.  Well, you see, that is usually what it takes to get the locals relaxed: a BBQ and wine marathon known as a “parillada” which begins at lunch and extends way, way past dinner. This was breakfast, yeah, that’s right, I had breakfast with Chileans.  Let that sink in won’t you.

All of this thanks to the wonders of Twitter, a way for an introverted nation to observe you and then choose when and how to socialize with you.  I grew up on an island where the phrase “Mi casa es su casa.” was taken very seriously.  You knew your neighbors and happily marched into their homes as they did yours with only one invitation: the first upon introduction.  Today I sat with a group of women who still could not fathom going to someone’s home, even though they were invited as a group.  It was too much too soon for them, better some breakfast at a restaurant…. for now.