I learned an insightful new term the other day on a site that focuses on life overseas. The author refers to a “hidden immigrant” as “One who speaks the language – looks the part – but is missing social cues and cultural meanings.”
When I started college in 1977, I had lived a total of 3 years of my life in the US. The other 15 years had been spent in several parts of Colombia.
In Colombia I was clearly an outsider. I spoke fluent Spanish, but I was a foot taller than most people and had blond hair and blue eyes. Little kids used to run after me shouting, “¡Gringo! ¡Gurbai! ¡Guachirnei! ¡Sábana biche!”* I had very good Colombian friends but was usually on the edge of what was happening socially. (Introversion is not a desirable trait in Latin America.) My closest friends were other missionary kids from the US and Canada.
So when I got to college, I looked like one more gringo in a university full of gringos, speaking good English, knowing the basics of survival. But there was a lot I didn’t know, and plenty that I learned but didn’t care for.
I coped by finding niches: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (I could relate to evangelicals, especially intellectual ones); majors in Latin American Studies and Spanish (familiar language and material, people interested in Latin America); international student friends (people from home or places like it). I also traveled home as often as I could, and to Dallas where many of my high school classmates settled (their mission has a major center there). I wrote letters constantly to friends and family.
In relating to Americans, though, it felt like I was setting aside 15 years of my life and operating on a couple of years of out-of-date experience. As the years went by, I got better and better at it, and felt more comfortable. By the time I reached grad school, I felt like an 8-cylinder engine hitting on six, comfortable and competent but not fully confident.
I noticed that my mind made a big switch when I traveled to and from Colombia. When I flew into Medellín, everything looked crowded and small and messy. By the time we drove across the city and started up the mountain to our house, my perspective was restored and everything looked just right. When I flew back into the Miami airport, everything was huge and clean and people were big and fat. It usually took a couple of days for it to quit being strange. One time I was clear back in Lawrence, KS, and had to run an errand downtown. I saw someone across the street and wondered, “Who’s that gringo?”
This mental switch fascinated me. I chose to study intercultural communication for my Master’s, thinking I could work with people who planned to go overseas and prepare them for cultural adaptation.
Once my classes were done, I spent a year in Honduras working with refugees. It was a wonderful environment; the agency had recruited missionary kids from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, fresh out of college, because we knew Spanish and were comfortable living in primitive circumstances. It felt great to get back to Latin America and make use of those years that had been set aside.
Since then, nearly all my jobs have been multicultural and multilingual (I’ve deleted a few that weren’t relevant):
Refugee logistics worker (Mocoron, Honduras) – 1984-1985.
Purchasing agent (self-employed, Miami; clients were missionaries and agencies in Latin America) – 1985-1986.
Administrative assistant (charitable agency in Miami serving the Hispanic community) – 1985-1987.
Community researcher (mission agency in Miami) – 1985-1987.
Admissions clerk (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1988.
Missionary in training/teaching assistant (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1988-1990
Adjunct professor of linguistics (missionary linguistics school and University of Texas at Arlington) – 1990-1991.
Linguistics professor (several Bible schools and missionary training centers, Costa Rica) – 1991-1995.
Teaching assistant, linguistics (missionary linguistics school, Dallas) – 1996-1997.
Professor of English as a Second Language (two language schools, a community college) – 1997-1998.
Translator (two agencies in Dallas) – 1998-2000.
High school Spanish teacher (Mansfield, TX) – 1999-2000.
Translator (another agency in Dallas and now Tampa) – 2000-present.
At this stage of my life, I’m a voluntary outsider to American culture. Alicia and I talk Spanish to each other. We eat a Colombian diet and hang out with Alicia’s sister and brother-in-law and sing Spanish songs. We travel to Colombia every six months. I like living in the US but am grateful for the multicultural nature of my employment and my marriage and for the Latin grocery store nearby. I feel more fully integrated as a person than at any time in my past.
*Three of those four expressions are attempts at English. If you read them phonetically you can figure them out.