Living in Spain: Understanding my dad and my culture

Here’s a post I wrote while still in Spain and everything so fresh in my mind. It’s very close to my heart and very  personal but feel comfortable to share.  Enjoy.

It’s taken me twenty-eight years and moving to Spain to finally understand my father, understand Latino culture. My father is Chilean, born to a father with family history in Spain (with Arab roots, I never understood until now). Growing up in America, anything in the Arab world is marked as terrorism, creating bias and brainwashing against an entire culture, language, and people.

Arab influence in Spain: La Mesquita (the mosque)

I’ll admit, I’ve fallen victim to the constant media bombardment against the Arab world, despite being well-traveled and college educated. If I have bias, what does this mean for Americans who have never left America or only have a high school education? My first experience in an Arab country was my recent visit to Morocco, and I’m now curious and fascinated to learn more. I had no clue of the incredible Arab empire in the 8th century, their dominance of Spain and all the beautiful archicteture left behind in Andalucia, the South of Spain.  His mother’s side has German ancestry, which may come as a surprise but after WWII, many Germans sought refuge in Chile.

Growing up with a Chilean father and a Canadian mom, though practically American since she moved to the States when she was six, I am a first generation American. I didn’t understand the significance of being raised by parents from a different culture. My dad was just my dad, I never thought to question what other fathers did. He often told my brother and I childhood stories of growing up,  giving us perspective between the differences in America and Chile. Naturally, he idolized his country and often criticized his adopted country. I grew up with mixed feelings and thoughts about the USA and have certainly never fit the American stereotype.

My dad and I, before I embarked on my African adventure

When I went to Chile in 2003 for six weeks to visit extended family on my own, I had my first glimpse of Chileans in their land- witnessing culture, tasting food, watching mannerisms, and hearing ways of speaking. I had my first cultural understanding during this visit, connecting the pieces of how and what my father cooked, how he spoke, how he thought, how he walked, even how he dressed was influenced by his culture. It was an awareness I could only gain from visiting his country but grasping the culture alluded me.  Six weeks wasn’t long enough nor was I aware of what I was experiencing or seeing.

Flash forward to living in Spain:

Living in Spain has proved to be a cultural education. I’m surrounded; engulfed by the culture all the time. Latin and Spanish culture are similar, the Spanish colonized South America, after all. I’m surrounded by Castellano and each week and month that passes my Spanish improves. I hear Castellano daily and I can’t help but think of my father. Every day. I notice how Spaniards are direct, sometimes blunt. They’ll tell you if you look good, Que guapa eres! and when you don’t, Que mala cara tienes (Literal: What a bad face you have, Translation: You don’t look well/good today).   I realize even though I don’t fit the American stereotype, I’m American in so many ways. Americans typically are not direct, we like to dar una vuelta- to take a walk and go the long way round of telling somebody something, especially when it’s not nice.  I think of my dad. He always said what was on his mind, maybe it was his personality but most likely influenced by his culture.

He would refer to people in English just as he would as if he were speaking Spanish, such as Mira la gordita o el viejito, Look at the  fat woman or an old man. He had commentary for everyone. He always told me it was cultural;in Chile this is how we describe people- it’s not mean- it’s just how we speak,” he’d say.  Taking my first solo trip to Chile at 20, I didn’t quite know what he meant, despite studying Spanish for 5 years in Middle and High School. Now living in Spain, I understand. It is part of the language.  I hear how people speak, I understand what is being said. Now he’d often take it too far for our young developing ears when he’d be checking out woman (all the time) and provide inappropriate commentary to my younger brother and I. When I’d contest during my teen years and as an adult, he’d tell me I was too sensitive. Nothing like being a woman and hearing negative commentary about other woman, but that’s another story.

Another comment on language. Hearing Spanish everyday and struggling to improve, despite talking often in English with expat friends, keeping in touch at home and my job teaching in English, I realize how much effort it takes to learn a language. I reflect often on how challenging it must have been for my father to move to America at twenty-eight years old, having only taken a few English courses and having only one friend here.  Growing up, I never thought about it. Speaking Castellano and feeling what it’s like not to be able to fully express yourself, to not be able to translate idioms, jokes and ways of speaking all the time, is difficult and frustrating. What is really incredible is not only did he learn English and would often correct our speech when we picked up slang at school,  he worked as a Saleman for thirty three years, yes 33, selling chemical products in English.  When I have my down moments of learning Spanish, I think of my dad and know if he could become fluent and spend most of his life speaking an adopted tongue, I can become fluent too, no matter how daunting (at times). 

Food and Family

Barra de pan, baguettes are  always fresh at the grocery store and local panadería in Spain and a staple of the Spanish diet. My dad didn’t consider a meal complete without pan and everytime we went to a Chinese restaurant, he joked he would bring in a loaf of bread. Rice is to a Chinese meal as bread is to a Chilean/Spaniard.

In Spain, it’s common for children to live at home till their late twenties and early thirties or until they get married or a job takes them to another town. When I stayed with my Chilean family, my cousin Victor, in his late twenties lived at home and had a serious girlfriend. He lived at home until they tied the knot a few years later. I thought it slightly strange accustomed  to American ways that by the time you’re in mid-to-late -twenties, it’s typical to be living on your own and if you’ve been with a significant other, you may be living with them. (Yes, this is changing with a changed job market but this is based on circumstances not culture). I always knew I couldn’t live at home forever, not that I didn’t like the comforts of home and home-cooked meals but knew their was a time-limit with my mom. My dad thought differently.

When my parents divorced at my tender age of nine, my brother and I changed homes every other week, thanks to equal custody. At seventeen, after graduating high school and starting college, I told my dad I was going to live with  my mom full-time,  he was heart broken. He had always told me I could choose any time, knowing it was a hardship for both of us to go between houses, but deep within, I knew what he said and what he felt were two different things.  I struggled with my decision, not wanting to hurt him, but knew I needed to do what was best for me.

When I moved out on my own several years later to expensive rental market in the Bay Area, he questioned me, “Why are you going to spend all that money? Why don’t you live with me?”  Our personalities were too strong, too much conflict between us for that to be successful. I didn’t tell him the truth, I just said, “It’s time for me to live on my own and have these experiences.” A “time” based on American culture and ideas.  Now I understand my Chilean cousin and my father, content and wanting his children to live at home; it’s not strange- it’s the norm in Latino culture.

My dad always dreamed of having a big piece of land where he could build several houses, one for my brother, my half- sister, for me and for him and when his mother was still alive, one for her too. We could all be together, living our lives within a stone’s throw, as one big, happy family. Dream on, is what I thought. Besides how would we all agree on the location? Now I understand how deeply rooted family is in my culture. I knew family was important, but I didn’t really get it. As a curiosity seekeer and traveler, I could never relate to his dream. I realize my dad was a simple man in many ways, complicated in others but family was most important.

It’s taken me twenty- eight years and moving to Spain to realize my biggest struggle with my father was culture. Our conflict was culture. It seems crazy to think that something so simple (yet very complex) would take so long to realize. But maybe not.

I recently saw my Chilean family for the fourth time while celebrating a nephew’s 1st birthday and I excitedly told my aunt Veronica how I’m finally understanding my culture and culture, sadly, was our conflict. She responded with a loving smile “You know, Your dad probably didn’t realize this either.”

I wish I could have learned this earlier and tell him all that I’ve learned living in Spain.  I wish I could tell him, “I want to know more about your culture, my culture.” But I can’t. I find comfort knowing he likely knows, smiling at me where ever he is and how he feels alive and within me as I discover my roots. One day soon, I hope to spend time in Chile getting to know my extended family and to try to grasp and understand my father in a new a light.

Has living abroad given you insight into your own family or culture? Have you had ah-ha moments?


18 thoughts on “Living in Spain: Understanding my dad and my culture

  1. Pingback: 6 Lessons I’m Learning Living Abroad | Roamingtheworld

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  4. Oh, Lauren, I’ve really loved this post. I think it’s absolutely fascinating that you’re getting in touch with your roots and coming to an understanding with the relationship you had with your father. And I know it’s cliché, but better later than never… you’re filling in those gaps now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if your Dad was somewhere nearby, guiding things along. And pretty soon you’ll be celebrating your return to Spain. 😉

    • Thanks Michi. Often I feel like my dad is here watching me… I dream about him in Spain more than I ever have before.
      I’m so grateful for this understanding and awareness.

  5. Such an insightful post, Lauren, I must say I shed a tear at the end too. I love the way the world has shaped you into the woman you are, and helped you to understand your Father and your heritage. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  6. I remember the first time I met your dad, my uncle, I couldn’t stop crying as I saw him exit the plane. He was the closest thing to ever meeting my own father, his brother, Antonio. Thank you so much for sharing what it was like growing up with him as I never got to meet my own father. Lauren, I have learned so much from you over the years, thank you!


    • Trina, Thanks for reading. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you not ever knowing your father… and despite it being a struggle for me at times/a lot of the time, My father taught me so much. Everyday I’m in Spain, I learn more about myself and realize how life must have been for him to uproot and start anew. Same for Antonio.

  7. It was sad reading your post about my uncle- el tio Jorge as we used to say was very special; short temper, caring and not easily understood by his own family. He really was as you described. I remember he was brutally honest and stubborn but he loved his family over everything else. You could move to Chile for a while instead of Spain and work teaching English, the culture although similar is very different in many ways, you might feel closer to him there.

    • HI Marjorie,
      Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog. I hope to one day spend more time in Chile…

      Teaching English could be a possibility but most of the programs are volunteer only : ( But when the time is right, I’m sure it will fall into place.

  8. Hi Lauren, I have read your blog quietly for almost a year now, appreciating your perspective and self-reflections about life, places, people, and growing up. You are a very special lady and I’m very happy you and my daughter, Jessica, crossed paths in life.

    I can’t remain quiet in this blog entry. You have touched my soul and I shed few tears reading this entry. You and I are part of ‘bicultural’ families! I grew up in Colombia (South America) and came to the USA to attend college when I was 18; I chose to stay and live in the United States and married my American husband while living in California 26 years ago. Forming a bicultural family has been more challenging that I ever imagined! Two grown children, 26 years of marriage, and 40 years of living in the US have not changed how my husband, children, and I see life situations so differently in many occasions. I’m part of the melting pot, a blend of cultures, and don’t completely fit in this culture and neither in my own any more!

    I understand your dad’s wishes and dreams, those are part of our Latino roots; and your dilemmas are the result of us (parents) trying to juggle two cultures while raising our children. I didn’t want to impose my culture on our children because I wanted them to grow up like other American kids, I didn’t want my kids to be singled out by their accent or some of their customs, so I let go; but I have regrets about not passing on my cultural background and language at an early age. I see them today so thirsty for knowledge about their roots, the language, my country, my family – my culture – I wish I could turn the clock back to fill up the gaps, but it is done. Even if I didn’t pass on – my culture – at an early age, I see my children, especially my daughter, so proud of their bicultural background and their Latino roots, I feel elated. Because of it, we have become closer friends, spent many hours of lively conversations, traveled together to visit Colombia, met extended family, and rekindled the family ties. It has not been easy, but I’m proud to be part of a bicultural family!

  9. I had no idea of your family history or that your dad had passed away. I’d love to talk to you more about it, just the discovering of your ancestral roots and connecting with it is so strong.

    I had a similar experience, even though I’m 3rd generation, and I regretted not being interested in my Greek side when my grandparents were alive, or even when I had a Greek Exchange student to learn and take advantage of. It didn’t interest me until I went to the country…then it all changed.

  10. Wow. We have so much in common. Firstly, my parents divorced when I was nine too and I had a lot of conflict with my Dad too -because we had very strong personalities too. South African culture is also centred around family and in many ways SA and Spain are exactly the same. As a Muslim, most of us only leave home when we’re married – and Islam is very centred around community and family too. So I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about.

    I got to see SA in a new light when I moved to London. It made me realise just how “British” we are. And when I visited Amsterdam a few years later I realised how “Dutch” we are too. People always think of the culture of SA being primarily black with us hunting in the Jungle and riding Lions and Elephants. Reality is quite different – we’re much more Dutch and British than what we are “African” in that sense. I still think we’re unique though and have managed to carve a unique culture as South Africans for ourselves.

    • We do have a lot in common! I hope one day soon will get the opportunity to meet in person, somewhere in the world!
      I’ve been so grateful for this experience for so many reasons and everyday I learn more about myself, my family and what’s important. And How Lucky I am.

  11. Really interesting post. It sounds like a great experience. I’m having a similar ‘ah ha’ moment, as you put it. I’m English and grew up in California. Right now, I’m living in Spain and realizing just how tough expat life can be, and that it must have been the same in lots of ways for my parents.

    I hope you get to spend time in Chile soon too!

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it? Expat life is often portrayed as glamourous and though it has a lot of perks, it’s not all a fairytale…

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