Not too long ago, I was fortunate enough to hop on a plane to London to see my Chilean cousin, his English wife and their beautiful son for the weekend. But there was more to be excited about, my Chilean family was visiting to celebrate the little one’s first birthday and baptism. I landed in Gatwick airport, and hopped on a train straight to Bognor Regis, a sea-side town in the countryside with a famous neighbor of Southampton. I enjoyed the scenic hour and half ride from London where all the festivities were- his Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
I was prepared for a somewhat relaxing weekend, focused on family and catching up without any sightseeing. Chilean family who I’ve only had the opportunity to see a less than a handful of times, once in Chile in 2003 and 3 times in London! I was eager to see them, catch up and speak Spanish with them because finally I had attained a well-rounded conversational level and nine years earlier, I missed out a lot on the conversation with my mediocre skills and their lack of English.
My uncle was quick to be affectionate as I had known him to be like when I meet him for the first time in 2001, he was the grandpa I never had. What I hadn’t anticipated was his inquisitive nature about my goals and decisions I’ve made so far. He had heard from my cousin I was having visa troubles and was quick to jump on me about not my visa. Interestingly enough, I had just come to terms I would ” over stay” after trying to do everything by the book had failed. (Surprise surprise, you’re in Spain). He asked me if I had done X and Y and I proceeded to explain, not only had I already thought of his suggestions, I had gone above and beyond asking numerous questions and taking time away from relaxing on the beach (which would have been a better use of my time) to find the answers. That’s the trouble when Government employees in Spain don’t know their right hand from their left and more frustrating, don’t really care if they help you or not. (I’ve had the rare person be helpful in the Extranjería).
I went to the USA embassy in Madrid, contacted the USA consulate and made 2 trips to the extranjeria’s office in Almeria in my attempt to get everything sorted because for better or worse, I always try to do things the right way. So much so, that sometimes I feel I take the more difficult route in my quest for knowledge and doing the “right thing,” cause I’m American. Who knew culture and how I was raised had such a big influence on my actions?!
No matter how much I explained myself, none of my answers sufficed. He just looked at me and said, “Don’t overstay” you don’t want to be banned from Europe. I cringed at the thought but tried to close my ears, knowing what 9 months in Spain had taught me- that rules are made to be broken and the higher officials don’t seem to know the rules anyway…
But then he started nailing me for my life decisions. Que haces con tu vida? Y tú carrera? He asked and I felt like my dad was sitting right beside me firing too many questions that I wouldn’t have “good-enough” answers for in his eyes. Has pasado tiempo en Malí, Congo y other African countries, naming countries in Africa that I have yet to see and then had the audicity to say, How does this help you in life? What are you going to do next? When are you going to stop and have a “real job.” Maybe that’s not exactly the translation but that’s what I heard. What I understood. I sat there listening. I explained myself in Spanish but knew I was talking to a wall. He wasn’t interested in hearing my opinion but rather wanted me to listen to what he had to say.
But what bothered me the most was he paid no heed to the fact that my 9 months in Spain had allowed me to improve my Spanish, which meant we could have a conversation.
We could communicate. He could tell me his opinions and I could try to explain my reasons.
Did it really matter what exactly I was doing in Spain? Or I only worked 12 hours?
I was abroad. Learning tons about myself and improving my Spanish. A language my dad failed to teach me.
Failed to give me apart of his culture. My culture.
I didn’t argue. Nine months earlier I would have but I took my social and culture cue I had learned from my good friend Angelica on cultural differences her and I shared yet didn’t. Our many conversations enlightened me about cultural no-no’s my dad didn’t realize he needed to teach me and therefore, didn’t learn. Meanwhile, she’d listen in surprise at things “I got away with” that she’d never be able to do within her family, like disagreeing with her older sister, no matter how crazy or off base she may be because “You don’t argue with your elders or elder siblings, among many others that I wished I had understood while my dad was still alive. It would potentially allowed us to avoid a lot of unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding.
When he finished questioning me, I politely excused myself and went upstairs as tears streamed down my face. Thankfully my cousin saw me and asked what was wrong. Fernando recounted his own experience with said Uncle, and explained it’s taken him years to reach a point of comfort with his decisions and know that he may not always approve of his choices but they have a level of understanding.
I felt better. Grateful someone could understand the pain and frustration I felt. Nothing like being attacked for the life choices you’ve made that have only enriched your life for the better and have made me the incredible person I am today.
Then laughed about the situation realizing that we’d likely never understand each other; too big of a gap between culture and generation. Some things in life are better left as they are without trying to go bonkers explaining yourself when the other isn’t really in a space or place to listen or understand. He still lives in a world where you get a “good” job and stay with it for life. He may never understand how much I’ve grown, learned about myself and the challenges to leave your own country and live in a different culture. That’s ok. He doesn’t need to. That many things in life don’t have a monetary gain that are just as valuable if not more than a “good and stable” job will ever give you.
I just need to honor myself and know my life choices are mine and I’m grateful for the road I’ve taken.
Have you ever been a similar situation? How have you reacted? What would you have done?
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