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.