Category Archives: Daily Life

On Belonging

Author’s Note: I’m just now publishing some old essays. I wrote this post (various versions) between March 2016 and June 2016. The thoughts expressed should be associated with that time period.

When being welcomed to the table as a guest doesn’t feel like enough.

“You know what really gets me?” my friend asked. “That question – ‘Where are you from?’ I get so tired of going through that interview on a daily basis.”

While I hadn’t felt specific annoyance toward the “Where are you from?” question, I knew what my friend meant. I live in Colombia, and by any standard, I don’t look Colombian. Given my pasty appearance and accented Spanish, it’s obvious to anyone that I’m not from here. My friend, who’s Nepalese and looks nothing like me, has the same problem. But for her, the where-are-you-from interrogatory was also an issue during her years in Oregon. In both Colombia and the US, she was flagged, immediately and automatically, as an outsider.

My most blatant personal experience of this occurred a few years back in the Cartagena airport. I was returning home after a trip to the US and was excited to be able to get in the citizens/residents immigration line thanks to my newly acquired permanent residency visa and cédula de extranjería, the national ID card for foreigners. Being able to avoid the tourist-filled foreigner line would save me significant time. I eagerly entered the shorter line, only to have people tell me emphatically and repeatedly that I was in the wrong place. The protest was such that I finally doubted myself and joined the long tourist line. After about an hour, I reached the front only to have the immigration officer confirm what I already knew – I had been in the correct line to begin with.

Despite annoyances like this, in my case being flagged as an outsider often has its advantages. I’m white and blonde, which in Colombia, as in most places, seems to generate certain pleasantries or courtesies that might not come my way otherwise. When I try to accomplish bureaucratic tasks – like getting my son’s US birth registered here or getting the RUT number necessary for employment – my appearance allows me to leverage my own ignorance, sometimes resulting in sympathy that leads to assistance. The reaction to blondness is most obvious with my son, whose golden hair people love to ruffle on the street and with whom strangers occasionally stop to take photos. White privilege does not know international borders.

But for me now, advantages or disadvantages aren’t really the issue – I just want to feel part of the community in which I live. “Outsider fatigue” has begun to set in. I don’t quite long for some version of the old TV show Cheers – where everybody knows my name – but I would like to be able to get in a taxi without having to tell the story, often for the second or third time that day, of how I ended up in Colombia. Repeating it can get tiresome, particularly when one is not on vacation but is instead living the quotidian stress of normal city life. The unfortunate conundrum is that the people who are asking are almost always well-intentioned. They are trying to be friendly and welcoming; they are aiming for inclusion, not exclusion.

Nowhere was this more apparent than recently, at the yoga studio I frequent at least twice a week. I went for a special event – a meditation led by a wonderful visiting instructor whose first event in the studio I had attended the month prior. For this second event, attendance was low and I was the only foreigner. Toward the end of the meditation, the instructor said with a smile (in Spanish), “Now we’re going to sing, and Courtenay can practice her Spanish.” I smiled back, but inside my heart sank. First, my pride hurt – we’d been chanting throughout the class, and by this point I felt it should have been clear that my Spanish was pretty decent. But more than that, the group was small, and I desperately wanted to feel a part. I thought I had perhaps overcome the outsider identity in that space if not in the city at large. But here we were, at the end of the two hours and, in a friendly, well-meaning way, I’d had my difference called out in front of everyone. I’d been put back in my outsider place.

Feeling like a constant outsider has been a learning experience for me. My past jobs in the United States involved working with and assisting people from diverse backgrounds. As a result, I considered myself highly ranked on the cultural competency scale. And yet, I am now 100% sure that on occasion I have been the person who, like the meditation instructor, sought to include another but did so in a way that placed them outside the realm of belonging. I’m not sure how to avoid that problem, but maybe part of the solution is remembering that the stories we assign people based on their appearance are not the true narratives of their lives. They are our own constructs, based on stereotypes that author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED Talk entitled, “The danger of a single story”, rightly flags as problematic because they’re incomplete. Whatever our first question, our opening line, our gesture of inclusion, it shouldn’t be a product of our own assumptions.

All In

Author’s Note: I’m just now publishing some old essays. I wrote this post (various versions) between July 2015 and March 2016. It should be associated with that time period. The pic is also a throwback. I’m now approaching five years in Colombia.

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This is a blog post I’ve started writing three times – a post about what it means to be “all in”, living as a foreigner in Colombia with no plans to leave. I first began the post about a week before the three-year anniversary of my move to Colombia. For many foreigners I’ve talked to here, three years is often considered the dividing line between those who are in Colombia for awhile versus those who are in it for the long haul.  I thought it would be fun to mark the anniversary with a cheeky and hopefully insightful list of what being “all in” means – investing in furniture, buying a car, struggling through the process of getting a kid into private school here, and more. Together with my husband, I had done all those things.

And then, on July 23, 2015, the very date of my three-year anniversary here, my marriage – which had endured for years despite not being the most stable – disintegrated.

In the months that followed, I realized I had no idea what it meant to be “all in” in Colombia. The things I thought were markers of my assimilation meant nothing. It was no longer symbolic to me (how could it ever have been?) that I had ceased reverting to English when startled, that I had stopped pining for items from the US, that I no longer “translated” prices in my head. Even my apartment, which had begun to develop the layers that come from living or planning to live in a place for a long time, seemed like a shell – empty of the stability I had thought it represented. I now faced the daunting task of building a life in Colombia without a marital-style partnership and without relying on my husband’s cédula and other accouterments of citizenship. I needed to see if I could be single here, and single with a kid. I had to find out whether I could grow my business to a level that would allow me to save for a different future. I had to change everything.

My silly list of what “all in” means deserves the shredder. I wish I could tell you that my current situation is what “all in” looks like – it would be a great comfort to know that the gaming table of life has a limit – but it doesn’t. We calculate our risks (and our risk tolerance) as best we can, make our bets, and win some and lose some.

As for my writing, I have – temporarily, I hope – lost my voice, that elusive thing that is a writer’s stock-in-trade. With key pieces of my identity stripped away, my admonitions about leaps of faith – made in the belief that I had successfully made one – ring hollow. I’ve simply gone mute, the same as my one-year-old did for nearly six months when we first moved here. I find myself over open air, a child again at middle age, humbled by all I still have to learn, grateful for what may be the faint outline of solid ground on the other side.

When one door closes…

Courtenay and Marcello at trainMoving to Colombia fulfilled my long-held dream to not only travel to other countries, but to live abroad as well. But just over four years ago, when at age 37 I became a mom – another dream I hadn’t expected to come true – I assumed that living abroad wouldn’t happen. I am so happy I was wrong. Today, I’m honored and thrilled to be featured in Sarah Duncan’s Expats in Colombia series on Sarepa.com, where I share more about how I ended up first in Barranquilla and then in Medellín – and all the twists and turns along the way.

Somehow I find it oddly comforting that life has so many surprises in store for each of us. Never assume it’s over… for all any of us know, it’s just beginning! Thanks, Sarepa, for the opportunity to share my story and my love for Colombia.

10 Tips for Talking with Someone Who’s Learning a New Language

An example of a potentially challenging environment for a non-native speaker.

An example of a potentially challenging environment for a non-native speaker.

The first call was an honest mistake – I told the girl who asked for Laura that she had the wrong number. The second call was a little more suspect. As the request was repeated, the voices of other girls – they sounded like tweens – twittered in the background. By the third call, I knew this had turned into a prank. My reiteration that they had the wrong number was followed in Spanish by, “You talk really funny,” “Where are you from?” and “We’ve never heard anyone that talks weird like you.” Much laughing ensued. I hung up and asked my husband to answer if the phone rang again.

Fortunately, when it comes to being made fun of for an accent, I’m a seasoned old-timer. I grew up in the Deep South, in a north Georgia town where monosyllabic words became two or even three syllables (I stretched my high school boyfriend’s name, Jeff, to Juh-ay-efff), certain letters were eaten or substituted (“At ‘er tree is gonna fawl,” “This war seems to be about ‘awl’,” and “Are you ‘fur’ it or ‘agin’ it?”), and colorful phrases were the norm (“My dog ain’t in that fight!”). While I could do a mean impersonation of an aristocratic low country accent, my accent was more Appalachian hillbilly. I was hounded mercilessly when I went to Connecticut for college and had to battle the age-old assumption that people with an accent are somehow dumber than those without.

Fast forward to Colombia, where I speak solid Spanish but, alas, with an accent. Continue reading

Of God and Gabriel García Márquez

Sunday Mass at Barranquilla's Buenavista Mall

Sunday Mass at Barranquilla’s Buenavista Mall

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my nearly three years in Colombia, it’s that you can go to church almost anywhere. And I’ve learned this despite my non-church-going ways. How? Because it’s obvious. In Colombia, church very nearly comes to you.

There’s Mass in the mall. Big services occur every Sunday morning in the same place you go to see a movie on Saturday night, bringing new meaning to an old Jimmy Buffett song lyric: “There’s a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.”

People crowding in for Sunday Mass at Santafe Mall in Medellín

People crowd in for Sunday Mass at Santafe Mall in Medellín

There’s Mass at the water park. I can’t show you photos because Continue reading

What message does your city send? This is Medellín’s.

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As 2015 rolls on, Medellín is still enjoying its reputation for innovation and urbanismo social (social urbanism)–an inclusive form of urban development famously manifested here in the use of cable cars and outdoor escalators as public transit and the placement of major public works like the España Library in poor areas. The city exudes an inspiring insistence on making sure that the tide of urban development lifts all boats.

But a question that comes up on occasion is whether Medellín’s reputation is based on reality or is merely the product of great marketing. (That Medellín resuscitated itself after years of violence toward the end of the 20th Century is not a subject of debate.) This Next City article, “Latin America’s New Superstar: How Gritty, Crime-Ridden Medellín Became a Model for 21st Century Urbanism“, and this This Big City piece, “Medellín: Miracle or Marketing Ploy?” provide a point-counterpoint.

As a new resident of Medellín, I’ve come to see the debate as a little beside the point, as long as the marketing is accompanied by sincere actions and significant progress. Living in a city that holds good values and repeatedly asserts them in a visible, pervasive way matters. Messaging can’t take the place of hard work and actual successes in helping people out of poverty and designing communities with a decent quality of life for all; the marketing would be downright offensive and frightening (nobody wants to be brainwashed or feel like they might be) without efforts in those areas. But, as the author of the “Medellín: Miracle of Marketing Ploy?” article alludes to toward the end, city leadership that expresses real concern about the needs of all its residents and acts on it, even if insufficiently and imperfectly, is better than city leadership that isn’t concerned at all. Besides, the good marketing ideally helps create a positive cycle in which saying the right thing and doing the right thing–at both the leadership and grassroots levels and on the individual and collective planes–feed each other.

For me, nowhere is Medellín’s messaging more notable than in the small text that appears just below the vast majority of billboards in the city (sponsored I assume by the Alcaldía, the Mayor’s Office). Continue reading

8 Ways that Medellín and Barranquilla Differ

Not too long ago, a reader considering a move to Colombia wanted to know more about the differences between Barranquilla, where I lived previously, and Medellín, where I live now. As I told her, in many ways the two cities could not be more different. Prior to my own move to Colombia, I heard from others that the cultures of the country’s four major cities – Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla – are very distinct. So far (without having visited Cali – that’s on my list!), I’ve found that to be true, though I’m only qualified to talk about two.

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For others who may also be wondering how Barranquilla and Medellín line up, here are a few key differences to consider:

1. As Colombia’s second largest city (after Bogotá), Medellín feels like a big metropolis.

Continue reading