A Hidden Immigrant – Expat file #22


This post is from a fellow EXPAT who blogs under the handle: “fine roadkillspatula.wordpress.com” 😉

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. 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to Americans, though, it felt like I was setting aside 15 years of my life and operating on a couple of years of out-of-date experience.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 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.
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.




The Train Tracks of Separation

It honestly never occurred to me that I would ever be living outside the States a couple of years ago. But like all things when you have a wandering spirit things like this happen. My story doesn’t land me anywhere in the western hemisphere as some here at “A Place in this world”, shared. I’d love to say that my family moved to some remote part of the world but that’s not what happened. See I grew up in a middle class family in the United States. One could say “Oh how boring could you get”, but that would not be the case. See by the time I was two 1368224853201years old we had moved countless of times back and forth from Colorado to Maryland. Why? My father was a geologist with the government and Colorado at the time was a hotbed for locating the hottest ore in the world. This was the mid-fifties and uranium was a very sought after ore. It was the “Cold War” that drove the search for this all precious substance and my father was in the middle of it.  This was the beginning of my life, this is my story.

The Jungles of America

We all know that there are no Jungles on the east coast of America, telling a young boy who was constantly exploring the woods this would tell you different. We were very often been told to be careful of the snakes. We were told if a snake wrapped himself around you to break a stick and it would think it broke your back. It would be in these woods I would learn many examples about life. I remember seeing the movie “Stand by me” minus the dead body the things that 915890436happened in this movie I could have written about my life then. It was also a time of segregation, our school being one of many that white children and black children would share their young lives together. I’m thankful that my parents weren’t prejudice and I was allowed to have colored friends, but was told they couldn’t come home with me. The only place we could spend time together was in the woods next to the railroad tracks. I look back now and realize that those train tracks might have separated us then but the future would be very different. The jungles of America are very real, just in a different way.


Then in the sixties an event occurred that would impact my future. My father went to Yugoslavia, why he went there was never clear. When he returned he brought with him records to learn Russian. I was fascinated! I would spend hours listening to them only to come away learning only a single word, “здороваться” which means “Hello” in Russian. The language is still as perplexing today as it was then. campusIt was also a time of change in our family, we moved again. This time to Walnut Creek, California. It would be here that I would learn about the more cultured things in life. My parents always made sure our lives were filled experiences like visiting the theater, seeing the sights of San Francisco, visiting the Berkeley campus and much, much more.

“What’s done in Vegas stays in Vegas”

imagesIt’s been said, “what’s done in Vegas stays in Vegas”, but what if Vegas was thirty miles away and provided your only source of entertainment. Does it still apply? My final years of school were spent in a small town of Boulder City, Nevada which lies 30 miles south of Las Vegas. This small town would be where I’d finish my schooling and the start of my adult life. Life from here on forward would be spent living in over seven different states. Each states adding new chapters to my life and ending others.

Acts of exclusivity

Of all the places to have fulfilled my tenure of living in the states Vancouver, Washington was the best place to have done it. Life in the Northwest exposed me to a culture that appealed more to my nature without even realizing it was happening. See in the Portland-Vancouver area there’s a large enclave of Russians. Up until this time I had never been introduced to them or their culture. Many of those I met  became life-long friends.

A simple Dream

Marc ChagallIt’s here I must share about a dream I had. Dreams have always been an important part of my life. I’ve come to understand that some of them have significant meaning. Understanding them may be challenging and enlightenment only comes later. The dream I want to share with you is a simple dream. It wasn’t so much the dream as it was the emotions it elicited. In the dream I was holding the hand of a woman whose face was blurry at best. What was difficult was as our hands separated my heart ached terribly. I woke up being very disturbed. So why share this?  Several months later while looking online for my future wife I came across her photo to which I almost missed. She happened to be from Russia. This lead to a year and a half courtship of which I traveled back and forth from a couple of times. I came to find out later that around the time I had my dream she received a painting from her friends. The picture was done by Marc Chagall who is a master artist who is capable of capturing dreams.

A Place in this World

One must not sleep when they have a dream. Pursuing a dream is the most important thing we do in our lifetime. The fulfillment of my dream came when I moved to Russia. We all have a “A place in the World”, this is mine. I’d like to say that time and space are the reason for stopping here, but it wouldn’t be true. Truth is that my next post will explore my new world here. One that I hope you will enjoy reading.

Looking beyond ourselves to truly know who we are

There is a lesson in all of this. One can move and still not be separated, one can make a stand and cause separation, segregation was supposed to bring together only to create a deeper wedge, one can try to separate oneself only find themselves more entangled, we must learn to look beyond ourselves to truly know who we are. It’s the greatest challenge in our lives. Something to reflect on.