“Between 3 million and 8 million Americans live abroad” – The Association of American Residents Overseas
My heart beats a little fast when I walk into a crowded room here in Bogota. I know introductions will be had and I will decide whether or not I want to kiss each person on the cheek when I hug them and then I will have to decipher many voices speaking a language I’ve only scratched the surface in understanding. Call me a cold estadounidense, but personal contact makes me freeze up. Which cheek do I kiss? I’ve almost smacked a big one on someone’s lips before by going in the wrong direction.
When I tell my students that in the U.S we don’t kiss on the cheek, they ask how we greet and I shrug and say it depends on the person. I tell them we have something called a “personal bubble” that only the closest friends and family step through it. I don’t tell them that I usually flap my hand around and mouth “hey” or “hi” to new contacts mostly. We shake hands I say.
My Colombian male co-workers are okay with this; they know I’m from up north and they don’t hug or kiss me, they smile warmly and say good morning. I can’t know what their thinking, but I don’t think any of them think I’m being mean, they just sense the difference and run with it. There are a few female co-workers who I hug and kiss, because seeing them makes me want to. I’m never made to feel like I have to do something that makes me uncomfortable. Even so, I still get nervous at the idea of introductions.
My Spanish makes me sound like a big baby, I don’t know how to construct sentences without arranging them in English in my head and then translating that into Spanish, which oftentimes sounds awkward. I leave out articles and mess up genders. If the person I’m talking to knows an ounce English, they implement it with me. Even if they’re dusting it off since it was last used in high school, they will still grab into the back of their mind and show me their cards, to help me and I in turn, will return with my broken Spanish unless they tell me they want to speak in English. If Uber drivers or grocery store workers, waiters, and the multitude of other people I come into contact don’t speak English, I will ask them to speak slow and they are patient with me. They will repeat, use synonyms, laugh gently with me to ease my embarrassment.
Most Colombians seem to have endless patience with my communication skills. When someone doesn’t level with me, it hurts. When my former boss saw the panic in my face when she told me all of my training would be in Spanish, she looked at me and said “Well, you’re in Colombia, you need to learn.” Comments like that break me, because I know I need to learn Spanish, but it isn’t happening overnight, it’s a slow and clumsy process. It’s easy to say “You should have learned Spanish before you got here.” You’re right. But a year ago, I had no idea that my life was taking me to Colombia.
Someone I once met referred to me as “gringa” for a whole day. By the afternoon I wanted to scream, “I AM MORE THAN THAT WORD!”
When I meet someone who keeps repeating the same sentence to me rapidly, progressively getting louder when my eyes are blank, it makes my chest hurt, it makes my eyes well, it makes me want to lock myself in my apartment until I’m fluent. But luckily, that isn’t the Colombian way, most of them treat me just the way they’d treat their niece, or granddaughter. Because of my Spanish, making friends can be difficult. It’s hard to approach a conversation when you know 40% of the words you need to carry the idea through. Non-native English speakers randomly say hello or thank you to me, and I could cry with gratitude. When someone expresses interest in talking to me, when they come up to me and make that connection that I didn’t have the guts to, they will never know how special of a moment that is for me.
As a white, middle class, North American female who came to Colombia for love, I don’t want anyone’s sympathy. I’m here and I’m living a good, comfortable life. But I would be lying if I said being being the minority in this country hasn’t changed the way I see the country that I left six months ago. I’m thankful my born culture doesn’t hold a dangerous stigma. That could change depending on how the U.S chooses to treat people.
Just like I can’t say “Colombians” and have that represent a certain type of person, I can’t say “American” (even though we’re all Americans all the way to the very tip of Argentina up to Ellesmere Island) and use that to describe those who live in the United States. But when I see a wave of Them vs. Us grasping the United States, I wonder how many negative words it takes to become a stronghold. Do any of those people have family members that have left the country? When grandfathers in red hats hug their granddaughters goodbye, before she steps onto that plane, how do they hope she’s treated by her hosting country? With class, warmth, and welcoming? Probably.
How are you treating other people’s granddaughters? Are you yelling a foreign language in her face? Are you commenting on her body? Acting like she doesn’t exist? Are you building a culture of hate around her? Is her family sending her away to people who support someone who doesn’t support her?
Yesterday I imagined what would happen if a gringo blew up a building downtown, if a Canadian shot Colombians, if someone with the same hair and eye color as me brought violence into this city. I would have no connection to those bad people, we would be complete strangers. I would grieve with my Colombian family members and friends.
What if the world used social media to paint me into a monster? What if people slowly stopped making eye contact with me and watched me from the corners of their eyes, with animosity. What if I was sent away from the person I love? If the whole country turned against me, would I want to go outside? How would my family feel?
Most Americans I know who voted for Trump have very little contact with minorities. It’s easy to be afraid or to forget the Other. It’s easy to point out the person who is different. They should be more like you right? Stepping foot into the United States means:
ASSIMILATE, BE LIKE ME, SPEAK ENGLISH, PRACTICE MY RELIGION, DRESS LIKE ME or…be invisible.
Does Colombia have its own cultural and political issues? YES. But aside from the occasional street crime, foreigners are made to feel at home by most people that live here. If I called my family and told them Colombians were forcing me to do things I didn’t want, what would they do? What if I came back to Ohio unrecognizable? My clothes, my speech, and my culture had to change to make Colombians feel more comfortable because they were afraid of the real me.
I can’t think or speak for anyone but myself. Being estadounidense in South America doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to be Muslim in the United States. My religious and cultural identity looks pretty similar to a lot of rolos here in Bogota. This does not mean I can’t find empathy for those who find themselves sleeping somewhere far away from their families. It’s easy to call people crybabies when they are feeling emotions that you yourself have never had to encounter. Most of you don’t deal with foreigners on a regular basis, but you’re raising children who might. Before before spreading negative information about someone that isn’t white middle-class, maybe ask yourself, is what I’m saying going to make this world better? Will I hurt someone else’s loved one with my words? And if that doesn’t make you care, turn to your nearest loved one, say those words out loud to them, and pray no one else ever will.
In the U.S, “hate crime incidents impacted a total of 7,242 victims—which are defined as individuals, businesses, institutions, or society as a whole” (2013)- FBI Hate Crime Statistics report
867 reported post-election hate attacks- Southern Poverty Law Center