Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Ex-Pat in Curaçao

Being an ex-pat (expatriate) comes so close to being homeless.  When I left Mexico eight years ago, I believed I’d become a Citizen of the World, a universal person, a true product of globalization.  What, indeed, is “citizenship”?  What does “my” country mean?  In this day and age of internet, of Skype, of email and blogs and social networks that spread over the entire span of the Earth and wrap it into the wet dream of instantaneous gratification, what is the meaning, the relevance, of the issuing country of your passport, really?

So I came to Curacao.  Or rather, I decided to stay in Curacao.  I came to this desert rock of an island on a six-month lease, thinking I’d outrun unrequited love and a general, overwhelming, case of the blahs.  But two months into the lease, I found I liked it here.  Not only liked it; I’d fallen in love with the island and its inhabitants.  One inhabitant, specifically.  But my decision to stay wasn’t as romantic as that; I really felt I’d found my home in the undemanding multiculture of this island.  Yes, here was the place where I’d shrug off the last remnants of Mexican provinciality that shackled me to the undesirabilities of life, the strict timelines, the “que diran” that constantly monopolized collective consciousness back there where I came from.

And I became a “yu di Korsou.”  Well, sort of.  Papiamentu, the local language, wasn’t difficult to grasp (being so close to Spanish… It helps immensely that, whenever you don’t know a word, you can just throw in its equivalent in Spanish, English or Dutch).  But Dutch evaded me like a naughty toddler in the grip of the terrible twos running from its harried mother.  I was more involved with the Dutch community than with the locals, and they all commiserated.  You don’t need to learn Dutch, they said.  What for?  It’s almost a dead language anyway.  Yes, the Dutch themselves convinced me their language was too complicated, not worth it, why waste your time.

We were at a party one day, shortly after my second anniversary as a “yu di Korsou” had passed, when one of those very Dutch asked me, looking confused, “How long have you been here now?”  Two years, I answered proudly.  “And you still don’t speak Dutch?”  The scoff in his voice made my ears perk up like a dog hearing a funky noise (you know how I mean — they do the cutest thing with their heads when they lean it from side to side).  Wait, I wanted to say, didn’t you tell me a year ago that I shouldn’t learn it?  But I didn’t get a chance, because the man simply turned away from me and refused to speak another word of English the rest of the night.

If I thought he was a specially rude phenomenon, I was wrong.  As the three-year mark of my residency came around, I was more and more left unmoored in the sea of hard consonants that is the Dutch language.  Oh, I tried to learn it, but it IS a difficult language, and I needed to practice.  Whenever I did, people would immediately fawn over me for exactly 32 seconds, and then they’d say something totally incomprehensible.  “You didn’t get that, did you?  Of course not; it’s in the local dialect of where I’m from.”  And… they’d continue yapping away in the incomprehensible dialect.  Turns out The Netherlands has more dialects than you (or I) would ever suspect.  There are places (I’m not joking; this is fact) where people from neighboring villages — for example, one in the province of Groningen and one in the province of Friesland — cannot, literally, understand each other.  What could I expect, lowly Latina whose throat simply refused to imitate the hard G, whose lips couldn’t purse into the necessary shape to make a passably acceptable “ui” sound?  No, it was hopeless.

Eventually my refusal to speak Dutch, the vacant look I let slip into my eyes as soon as someone said something, anything, in that language, became a social trademark of mine.  To my surprise, I earned the begrudging respect of these Dutchies, and, with a few truly rude and obnoxious exceptions, they accepted the fact that, to communicate with me, it had to be in English.  

There was worse to come.  Perhaps I’d have been better off learning proper Dutch; instead, the Dutchies’ Dutchglish rubbed off on me.  I began to notice funky expressions in my own English.  When someone asked if I wanted something to drink, I heard myself say “do me a beer” (Dutchglish for “I’ll have a beer”).  If I heard unfamiliar or weird music, I exclaimed “what for funny music is that?”  When I wrote (AND SUBMITTED!!) a story that had a character walking into a dark room that was suddenly lit, and I described that as “the lights went on”, I knew I was in trouble.

I began, against all my instincts of integration (the globalization dream), to hang out with the other Latinos.  The company I worked for was full of them, because the Latin tax and estate planning market is booming, so no shortage of companions.  Oh, but wait.  They were Venezuelan, Colombian, Chilean, Argentinian, Dominican…  I was the only Mexican.  You may or may not know this, but there are severe differences in the Spanish we speak.  In Mexican, we translate “to check” as “checar”.  In Venezuela, it’s “chequear”.  In Mexican, a bus is “camion”, but in Chile it’s “guagua”.  Then there are the unintended double-entendres: in Mexico, a “ride”, with English pronunciation, is a lift.  In Venezuela, people will ask “me das la cola?” which, literally translated (into Mexican), means “will you give me tail?”  You can see how this might present… problems.

So, in short, my perfect American English began sounding like something out of Alo Alo (that’s another culture shock, but I’ll save that for a later post), and my beautiful Mexican Spanish became a source of giggles and widened eyes for my Mexican friends.  I couldn’t communicate properly with the Dutch, but I could no longer make sense to my American acquaintances.  In Mexico I was laughed out of class reunions, but my Latino friends here in Curacao still laughed at my “Mexican” accent (who the hell said we Mexicans had an accent, anyway?).

I was homeless.


  1. Hello, came here via Austere. In Franconia the language changes from village to village, in earlier times you focuod know where one originated simply by asking about the weather. And "the lights went on" is something I saied meself. English is fun!

  2. Wow, Franconia! Yes, I've heard of the different dialects (or are they officially languages?) in Germany. I think the history of languages is fascinating. Thanks for sharing this, Mago, and thanks for the visit!

  3. I'm fluent in Italian, speak English and two other Indian languages...and now am learning Mandarin. I totally 'get' your post :)

    The best I've found is to stick to my own identity, and accept that I can never speak Italian or Mandarin like a native!

    Thanks for the follow, and it is great to know you!

  4. Hi Guilie! I wandered over here from Clarity. Wow, what a post! So interesting. When I think of ex-pats or dreaming of being one myself I always think of it in terms of a language I know I could easily speak (your basic Romance languages). I never thought about it in terms of losing parts of my own language or not being able to easily master another type of language.

    Enjoyed finding your blog!

  5. Thank you so much, Damyanti and Wendy, for your positive comments -- I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, and welcome to Quiet Laughter! Look forward to seeing you around here more, now that you've found it. Wendy, you're so right: one never thinks of the consequences of living surrounded by a different language, or how your own will be affected by it. It's very funny to hear yourself after a while, he he. Oh, and please: if you ever read something of mine that "sounds" kinda strange, do point it out. I'll be eternally grateful! :)

  6. I'm really glad I found your blog (via Write It Sideways). I can relate to this post-- my husband and I, as international school teachers, have lived on four different continents together. The excitement of travel and "expat life" has a flip side, and you've nailed it-- homelessness. Language is definitely a key to some kind of assimilation, and like you I feel I could gauge my willingness to engage with wherever I was by my willingness to learn and practice the language. There are always days when I just want to withdraw.

    1. Sarah, I'm so glad you found me--just clicked over to your blog, and loved it. Yes, it's fun being an expat, but, like you say, it's got a flip side. I loved the way you put it: "gauge my willingness to engage [...] by my willingness to learn the language". It's so f*cking true :D Don't get me wrong--I love it here, and I've been remiss in not posting more expat stuff here that explores the positive side. With your visit as encouragement, I'll make time for a post on that soon :)


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