You know how they say that pets resemble their owners or couples who’ve been married for years start to look alike? Well, the same can be said when you live in a foreign country—it’s inevitable that you’ll pick up a few new mannerisms and cultural quirks from your newly adopted home. It’s been no different for me in Bogotá!
Keep reading for the little ways I’ll be taking Bogotá with me when we leave.
The strangeness of making new friends is what I set out to write about earlier in the week (before I was overcome by emotional navel-gazing) and has been second in difficulty only to the weepy goodbyes said to those people I mentioned on Thursday.
As a classic introvert, moving to a new country and making friends from scratch was already a bleak prospect. After factoring in the language barrier and some cultural differences, I was looking into an abyss. I mean, can you even remember the last time that you—as an adult—made a friend? And I’m not talking about that time you were at a party and scored an invite to a group lunch, all the while nestled in the comfort of your own social circle.
In your home country, it’s easy to take for granted how your already established relationships form a kind of safety net: they provide a place for you to meet new people and should you have a social swing-and-a-miss, you already have friends and so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. When your support system tally is one (because I have a spouse), every new interaction is imbued with pressure. A few weeks ago my friend Cherise and I were laughing at all the thoughts that whirl us into anxiety as we put ourselves out there: Am I coming on too strong? Do I sound stupid? Was that joke dumb? I was telling her how it gets easier, which is kind of true…I mean, I still feel awkward and uncomfortable, but now I’m used to it!
In all seriousness, I completely believe that making friends is like any other skill and if you keep at it, it will eventually feel more natural. If you’re looking for some more practical steps or ideas about where to meet people, go back to this post about overcoming culture shock. For me, however, the whole process of making friends started in my head. Keep scrolling for a couple of the roadblocks I had to overcome in order to get my social groove back.
Social class isn’t exactly polite dinner conversation, but living in Colombia I’ve come to learn that your last name and address say more about you than just where you live.
In my first months in Bogotá, I didn’t notice it quite so much—the way the way the porteros (doormen) in a friend’s building would let her expat friends in with no problem, but the Colombian ones would wait while he called to ensure that they were, in fact, guests. Another friend told me that when applying for membership at a country club, they wanted to know all about their parents—what kind of work they do, their religion, and whether or not they are divorced. Startlingly, I only just realized that there’s a chain link fence, topped with a curlicue of razor wire, that separates the low-tuition school where I volunteer from the most prestigious school in the city, attended by children who’s parents are senators and diplomats.
As we were discussing the social order of Bogotá in a Saturday Spanish class, my professor told Cody and me that there is a reason foreigners may not see the sometimes subtle—but many times direct—borders in class that are still prevalent in Colombian society today. She explained that foreigners are kind of exempted from the rules because firstly, they’re assumed to have money (and by default are put in a higher group) and secondly because we simply don’t fit in firmly rooted rubric of Colombian social structure.
If you’ve traveled at all—even from one part of the U.S. to another—you probably have a funny story about a cultural difference or misunderstanding. Moving abroad is no different, though when facing a new language and reconstructing your life from scratch, it’s easy to brush aside the idea that you’ll soon be navigating through a mire of cultural differences as well. Sure, there are books and blog posts about avoiding big blunders, but it’s impossible to prepare for the little day-to-day differences that will catch you off guard.
A few weeks ago I was in a spin class sprinting to an EDM version of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On when I found myself surprised by one of these strange—but common—moments. As we started a 90-second sprint, the instructor dismounted and began weaving through the bikes to check our RPMs and shout out general encouragement to the class. He stopped at my bike—where I was furiously pedaling—and asked my name. He then took my hand and said, “Danielita (little Danielle), my heart, you must return to my class, you work so hard!” Hmm, that was different. The thing that stopped me from running for the hills is that he continued through the ranks of spinners, talking to the other ladies in the same manner. Later that day I was thinking of all the funny little differences with which I’ve been confronted at the gym, and how they trickle over into other parts of everyday life.
We received all kinds of suggestions from well-wishing friends as we prepared to leave San Diego. The advice that remains clearest in my memory—and in hindsight has proven the most valuable—was when our friend Kyle put her hand on my arm and said, make sure you break out of the expat bubble.
At the time I took this to mean don’t make any American friends, which now makes me laugh at my naiveté and how I shunned native English speakers during our first months in Bogotá.
Once I realized I wasn’t ruining my experience by having friends from my home culture, I branched out. One night I was invited to dinner with a group of American women, all co-workers from the international school where they all worked and initially met. Besides my friend, none of the women could speak Spanish. I was astounded because they had all lived in Bogotá for almost two years! Taking in the conversation from the evening, the idea of the ‘expat bubble’ finally sunk in. If you can’t (and aren’t trying to) speak the local language, if you frequent places where you don’t need to utter a word of Spanish or if you find yourself more often than not surrounded by people of a similar cultural background, you’re probably in an expat bubble.
Each morning and afternoon as I walk our dog I see them, dotting the walkways along the park or on the corners of the busier streets: small wooden carts, sometimes pushed or with a bicycle seat, generally with an umbrella, each offering neat rows of snacks, sweets and cigarettes. The fancier ones have glass cases perched at one end, where cups of fruit wait or empanadas steam up the glass. No matter where you are in Bogotá, you aren’t far from a bag of peanuts or a cough drop. To my eyes fresh from the U.S., these little carts and stands dotting the sidewalks in Bogotá initially seemed disorganized, unattractive and cluttering the already crowded streets. Now, I see them as a charming part of the city’s backdrop and something I’ll miss once we leave.
“The countries bordering the equator possess another advantage, to which sufficient attention has not hitherto been directed. This portion of the surface of the globe affords in the smallest space, the greatest possible variety of impressions from the contemplation of nature.”
From Cosmos: a sketch of a physical description of the universe, Volume I by Alexander von Humboldt,
This quote was presented during a lecture on the artist Frederic Edwin Church and I was immediately struck because it perfectly articulated something I’ve tried many times to express regarding my impressions of Colombia and secondly, because I felt validated in the amount of time I’ve spent trying to tell people what a beautiful, unique place Colombia is. Ha, I can continue to shamelessly tout the beauty of my new home!
That was pretty much what I wanted to share, but in case you’re curious, here’s a bit more about Church and his trip through Latin America.
Hello everyone, I’m sorry to have left you all hanging! As I mentioned, I was in the U.S. for the past week and a half visiting friends and family. Of course catching up, reminiscing and eating took up quite a bit of time and energy and the blog unfortunately fell by the wayside.
This was my first trip back to the U.S. in about six months and though I’m not sure how often the average expat visits their home country, even that brief chunk of time made the differences between my former and new home seem glaringly different! Now that I’m back and settled in in my adopted home, I thought it would be fitting to do a quick little post about some of the things that I think are so coolabout my newly adopted city.
I recently read a blurb about a “Happiness Barometer” survey of over 55,000 people in 54 countries which revealed that Colombians were the happiest people in the world. In fact, the study says they’re about two times happier than the global average. We discussed this in Spanish class one day and my professor said that she had a hard time understanding why foreigners get frustrated so easily, because most Colombians keep in mind that there is always someone else who has it worse and that there’s always something to be grateful for.
Looking back on my experiences these past eight months, I realized that one of the things I’ve come to love most about our life in Bogotá is the principally happy, friendly, and caring nature of the people we meet.
We all know of Rick Steves from his PBS shows or travel guides (and don’t forget those ubiquitous khaki pants). Dorky or not, I love his books and when Cody and I first dipped our toes in the travel pool Rick was our guide.
A couple of years ago I read his book Travel as a Political Act and it showed me how there is so much more to traveling than art and eating. Consciously experiencing different cultures challenges you to examine your beliefs and helps you become a more well-rounded person.
Reading the book again while on vacation over the holidays, I saw it’s value from a different perspective. It helped me better understand my current feelings toward my home country and as an expat myself, I think would be a great resource for those facing the same life change.