Bookmarked Year: The South America Experience (#344)

I have this theory that there are different parts of our lives – moments in time – that become “bookmarked” so to speak.  These moments become themes of our very existences.


One of mine happened when I was 15…


It went something like this.


“Don’t they understand I’m not a nerd, I’m just foreign!” I demanded completely exasperated.


My older, male, cousin just laughed.  “No, I don’t think they understand that at all,” he said.


“The only guy that would sit next to me was a kid whose pencils match his pencil case.  I asked him to borrow one and he nearly had a coronary deciding, which one of his precious pencils to loan me,” I stammered at my cousin hoping he would have an answer.


pencil case


“They don’t get it,” my cousin Pedro said and smiled at me again.


“No, they don’t get me.  They don’t get me at all,” I agreed.


In a very short span of time, I had gone from popular sophomore in a public, NY area, high school to complete nerd and shutout in a private, Colombian, high school.


My Colombian classmates did not know that I was not a nerd.  They just knew I was different and that was nerd enough for them.  I had cooties.  High school AIDs, which isn’t AIDs at all just a way to go, “Ewwwww, run from that thing.  It’s gross.  It’s got AIDs.”  Kids are such assholes.


I sigh now thinking about it.  I sighed then.  I sighed through the whole process.  I sighed, shrugged, and got fat.  Sometimes when I don’t know what else to do I eat.  It’s a first world problem, but this time it was happening in a third world location.


I remember some very distinct moments from that time, that bookmarked year, close to 25 years ago.


I remember my classmates all getting up and saying their names and a little bit about themselves on the first day of school.  Normal, sure, only this time it was entirely in Spanish – a language I barely spoke.  So, I got up and said my piece in English.  There was a pregnant pause and then some light applause.  It’s common in America to have foreign kids in classes.  Less so in Colombia.  I was like a reverse commuter from some kind of alien planet.  The kids took a very long time to get to know me.  Until they did it was a lot of poking at me like a specimen on a glass slide.


I remember the school bully a guy oddly named, “Pinoch.”  Pinoch, quite literally, had tape in the middle of his glasses holding them together and yet he was the bad guy.  He was the bully.  So weird.  In my American high school, he would’ve been the nerd.  Who knew?



This guy is the bully? Come on!


In Spanish class I had to take a test – a high level test – along with the rest of the class, in a language I barely spoke.  Pinoch unleashed thinking now he had me.  Now he was going to make the American, nerd-girl pay.  Pay for what, I have no idea.  My government’s imperialism, perhaps?


“What’s the matter, Rebecca?” he asked.


“What’s the matter, Rebecca?  You don’t understand?” he asked again each time saying it with a touch more douchebag dripping from his voice.


Finally, I belted out, “Don’t feck with me,” to Pinoch.  It killed.  It killed because I said it in Spanish.  That’s the way I’ve always learned things – the survival method.  The whole class died laughing and the Spanish teacher exhaled.  I mean what was he supposed to do?  Discipline the nerd-American girl get eviscerated by shitbags, Pinoch?  What was I supposed to do?  Cower and keep quiet?  That was never my style.  I was dealt a shit sandwich, so I threw it back.


I remember other things too.


I remember getting drunk because there was no drinking age.  I had very little understanding of how to control my alcohol intake back then – what I could handle and what I couldn’t.  Thankfully, for the most part, my cousins looked out for me.


I remember going to a big concert with my cousin and her group of friends.  I remember my female cousin being a bit bitchy.  So I said, “Feck it,” to myself and went off with a different group of friends that I knew.  I even got a ride home from them.


When I arrived that evening, in a separate car from my cousin, my aunt was in tears.  Surely she had thought I went missing.  Her American-nerd niece kidnapped.  How -in the feck- was she going to tell my mother?  I felt so bad.  But, in that moment I also knew I was made of strong stuff.  A survivor.  At 15, I knew how to get myself home in a foreign country – safely – with or without my family at my side.


Probably the biggest thing I remember from that time was having to defend my Americanness.  It was so hated there.  My Americanness -especially at that age- was not something I could undo.  When you’re born in a place, the dna of that place is a part of you.  I remember trying to defend where I was from before I had the words to do so.  I usually failed.  I wonder -still- if other cultures are ever forced to do that to such an extreme extent?


I remember more, but you’ll have to come back (for the next South America Experience post) for the rest.



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Photo creds:

nerd, pencil-case


19 thoughts on “Bookmarked Year: The South America Experience (#344)

  1. Hi Momma! I can’t relate in that I’ve never left the states, but as a half-breed, I’m constantly forced to defend my Italianness in a country that simply sees me as white.

    It was particularly interesting to live in Ft. Lauderdale though. For some reason, I was perceived to be Cuban. I got cussed out more times than I can count for not speaking Spanish. They always apologized once I explained I was Italian not Cuban, but damn it got tiresome. After a while, I learned to lead with “I’m Italian” rather than “I don’t speak Spanish”

    All the best!

    1. elene, that is so funny! and sucky! lool. i’m always amazed when ppl do speak to me in spanish because i do look very irish. when i answer them in spanish, they are often very startled, which is fun in another way. thanks for reading and commenting. it’s greatly appreciated. xoxo, sm

  2. How do you say that in Spanish? I’d love to learn Spanish so I could say nice things to the maids in my Vegas or Guadalajara hotel. Actually, now I’d only have to go to Detroit to find a housekeeper who didn’t speak English. As for finding my way home in a foreign country??? I’ve always been pretty naive and have absolutely NO sense of direction. I’d have peed my pants. Twice.

    1. no me jodas. though i may have the spelling wrong. and eh, with gps we can all find our way across the moon now if we need to…but, back then it took some inventiveness, shall we say and a bit of street smarts. i’ve got more of that than book learnin’ – as they say. who they are, i have no idea. 😉 xo, sm

  3. Wrote a comment but didn’t show. Won’t do it again incase you need to ok it is all. How are you? Long time no write lol

  4. I went through something similar when we came to Australia. Not the first year, that year was great because we were in a small country town and the local kids accepted me. When we moved to the big city though, and I started primary school, things got ugly even though I knew how to speak English by then. I wish I’d had your feck you attitude back then. The thing is though, these bookmarked moments are what make us who and what we eventually become.

    1. completely. that colombia experience is a huge part of who i am. as was living in the uk. i’m indebted to those experiences, while at the same time they were often difficult. i would’ve hit someone for you. i’m just saying. wink, wink. xo, sm

      1. -hugs- I wish I could say I’d hit someone if they messed with you but I still can’t hit. However if you need someone to yell really, really loud then I’ve got your back. 😀

    1. i think it might have been. xenophobia is much more ‘unfiltered’ in children. i’ve been back as an adult. but, there’s part of me that always thinks, ‘i know how you all REALLY feel…’ loool. it’s also different when there are other americans or even canadians around you. but, that time, it was just me. and at times, it got a little bit ‘lord of the flies’ – yet, at others, i think some of them were impressed. more or less. i’ll write more about it soon. thanks for reading, ems. oh, and i’m going to send you an email about something i’m working on too, that i think might interest you. xoxo, sm

  5. As an immigrant child in the USA, I frequently had to defend my non-Americanness…a child on the defensive, with little advocacy, not pleasant in any country, dear SM! xoxoM

  6. What a culture shock – I was sent to Virginia for a summer when I was a teenager and was teased mercilessly for my “western” accent. I learned to play puttputt and watched a lot of Nascar. I was never so glad to get back to the safety of Vegas.

  7. I have a built in compass. I can always find my way no matter where I am. However, I have no talent for languages. I live in a country were everything has to be done in two languages. All the labels on the packages end up with the price sticker on the English side so I have no clue how to use whatever it is. Bilingualism is a pre-requisite for any government job and a lot of others. We are all required to take French in school but it just didn’t take for me.

  8. The unfiltered snottiness of children, they are terrible creatures. Your experiences made you especially aware, of yourself and your differences. Your ‘feck you’ attitude was your natural defense.

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