Colombia, Handyman, Language, Multiculturality, My life

On finding a niche, fitting in, and accent

 Marilyn, in a great post about “Places as possessions,” raised the following questions: “I think a lot of this is about finding our niche. How does our past fit with our present? How can we take the places we’ve loved and the experiences we’ve had and use them in our current reality?”

Finding a niche is tough. Most of the jobs I’ve had (professor of Spanish/English/linguistics; bilingual admin assistant; refugee worker; translator) are a direct outcome of my bilingual/bicultural upbringing. A few of them provided some satisfaction of my desire for meaningful work, but there has always been a longing for more fulfillment. As a professor, I was dissatisfied with my curriculum, my performance, my students’ progress. When I belonged to a Bible translation organization, I worked in training rather than on the front lines, and wondered whether my work made any real difference. Refugee work turned out to include a vast amount of politics, not just helping people who needed help. Working as a translator is frequently tedious and boring.

The most satisfying jobs I have had were in construction. There is nothing quite like framing. You arrive at work in the morning to a bare slab or a raised wood floor. Within a few hours, there are walls standing. Within a few days or weeks (depending on the crew), the entire house is framed, all the way to the rafters! Then begins the fascinating process of sheathing, siding, roofing, wiring, plumbing, a/c, insulation, wallboard, flooring, texturing, painting, trim… When your work is done, you have created a place where a family will live its life.

Interestingly, construction is the one job I’ve had (besides working for a moving company) that doesn’t build on my multicultural background.

Why can’t more jobs be like construction?


Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a TCK with an unusual profile. Alicia has a cousin in Costa Rica who has a veterinary supply company. Her husband is a most interesting character; his father is a Spaniard, so the family spoke Catalán at home, but were prohibited from speaking it outside the house. In public they spoke Costa Rican Spanish. He studied in Chile and lived there a number of years before returning to Costa Rica.

When he visited Barcelona, his cousins laughed at the quaint, archaic Catalán dialect he had learned from his father, who was raised in a remote village. I suspect that this was one of the more frustrating experiences in his life, because according to his own admission, he grew up obsessed with fitting in. In Costa Rica he passed as a Tico; in Chile he passed as a Chilean. But in Spain he sounded like a hick.

As we compared stories and worldviews, he grew more and more animated. He talked excitedly about how I could see the world as he did, the flexibility a multicultural upbringing creates and requires, his passion for fitting in.

In listening to him, it struck me that fitting in was never in the realm of possibility for me. I was always bigger, whiter, more blue-eyed than others around me in Colombia. Besides that, I was an introvert by nature. I’ve never fully fit in anywhere.

But I did make sure my Spanish was as good as it could be. My family set a high value on language skills. We spoke better Spanish than most of our fellow missionaries and MKs, and picked up the paisa accent used in Medellín.


When I got to college (University of Kansas), my Spanish profs had trouble understanding my thick regional accent, so I switched to more neutral pronunciation. In grad school, I went home for six months to work on my thesis, and quickly adopted the paisa accent even stronger than before. But when my tourist visa expired after three months, I made a trip to Pasto (to cross the border into Ecuador), and was startled to hear myself talking like a pastuso after just one day. Maybe it’s because that’s where I first learned to talk.

I spent a year in the mid-80s working with refugees in Honduras, and learned to say cipote (‘kid’) and vaya pues (‘okay’). The next year I got married and moved to Miami, and worked with Cubans for a couple of years. In the early 90s I moved my family to Costa Rica, where we lived for four years. When I made a trip to Medellín, my old friend Oscar said, “Where have you been living? Your Spanish sounds so ugly!”

In 1998 I got a job in Dallas as a translator. The vast majority of the work involved Mexican Spanish. It was a steep learning curve, but within a few years I picked it up, to the point that when I visited Cartagena (Colombia) in 2008, a taxi driver said I was obviously from Mexico.

Then in 2010 I met Alicia and my life changed forever. I’m back to speaking Colombian Spanish, with a far better vocabulary than I ever had before. In Tampa we interact with Colombians, Venezuelans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans… even a few Mexicans.

My exposure to so many different accents and dialects has been very helpful in my job. But I identify most with Colombian Spanish, especially the paisa accent.

Interestingly, my English doesn’t change much at all, no matter where I live. I wonder why that is.


14 thoughts on “On finding a niche, fitting in, and accent

  1. that’s really amazing you can bridge the spanish spectrum from accent to accent. i would like to learn a new language and reading your entries regarding language is very inspirational.

    • There are millions of multilingual Filipinos, what with Tagalog, English, and all the other languages over there. Do you speak any of them?

      There are some Spanish accents I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Argentinians have a very pronounced accent, but even if I lived there, I would avoid adopting it because they have a bad reputation in the rest of Latin America. And I would never want to sound like a Puerto Rican or Dominican or Cuban. I guess I’ve assimilated some Colombian linguacentrism. Colombian Spanish is considered the best in Latin America.

  2. theinfiniterally says:

    Perhaps your English didn’t change because you didn’t put as much thought into it? Fascinating stuff, Tim.

    It’s a dream of mine to learn how to build a house from the ground up. I’m sure it’s a very interesting experience.

    • I think my English is closer to my core identity than my Spanish. I’ve never lived where the vocabulary or pronunciation were that different, in any case.

      I dream of building myself a house, but it’s not likely to happen.

  3. digitalgranny says:

    What is wonderful is that every step you took in the past got you to where you are today and that is a very happy place.
    You and Alicia have a wonderful week end coming up way to fast.

  4. jr cline says:

    Finding a niche. Hmmm Seems you’ve found one. It is an interesting journey getting from where we were to where we are. lol
    I’m leaving my niche in search of another.

  5. Wow! You’ve had an interesting journey, Tim! You are fortunate to have learned more than one language.
    It’s cool how things led you to where you are today.
    I think it’s great when a person finds their niche and feels like they fit in.
    I have always been very outgoing, very active in clubs and volunteer work, etc….but haven’t ever felt like I fit in anywhere…not even in my family. But, I can go into any group setting and get along with everyone and have loads of fun.
    HUGS and Happy Whee-kend to you and Alica! 🙂

  6. TCKs assimilate accents. I did wherever we lived: Colombia, Costa Rica (to the disappointment of my colombiano friends!) and even New Zealand (when we moved to the States people thought I was “English” for awhile). What pleases me is that when speaking French (or trying to communicate in another language) Europeans never assume I’m an American – of course they have idea where I come from!

    • I never changed my English. I wonder what would have happened if I”d lived in a place like Australia. One of my linguistics students at SIL grew up in India and had a British accent even though his family was from South Carolina.

  7. I bet Alicia’s cousin knows my friend Andrea Ferris – a horse veterinarian. Six-degrees of separation (even less in CR where everyone knows everyone – or at least their cousin!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s