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The Truth: Why Living Abroad Has Made Me Understand My Parents

I always remember what it was like being a little girl. There were many times of confusion, and while I understood in some strange way that I was lucky, I couldn’t help but compare myself to my peers. I looked different from a lot of them, and while a lot of my friends were of different backgrounds, I could never understand why I couldn’t find anyone exactly like me. It seemed as though I wasn’t just a minority, but a minority within the overall group of minorities. Even then, when my parents would sometimes take me and my sisters – and my then-baby brother – to events with people from their country of origin, it confused me even more. There were more kids who looked like a completely different ethnicity from me than kids who I thought I could relate to. Little did I know about my parent’s origins. None of it ever made sense.

Growing up, I didn’t know why my parents seemed to work so hard. There were days when I wouldn’t see them until nightfall, when I felt like my sisters were like second and third mothers. I didn’t understand why they would always remind us of why hard work would always pay off, or why they were so intent on us reaching (if not surpassing) our academic potential. They pushed us hard, easing up a little on me as the baby girl of the family. I never realized that they really did ease up on me at the time, or that my sisters had to grow up so much more quickly than I did simply for having been born ahead of me. I didn’t quite understand the sacrifices my parents made for me to live a peaceful childhood, nor how much my natural self-discipline actually meant to them. I thought I was like every other girl at my school, minus the Anglo-Saxon looks, and therefore felt entitled to a similar childhood. What I didn’t seem to process was that as the child of refuge-seeking immigrants, I was never going to be exactly like everyone else. What took me many years to conclude was that this was not only okay, but something that would make me who I am today. While it’s seemingly ridiculous to say that an ability to jump fearlessly into something new is genetic, I believe it really is.

You see, my parents were also travellers. For a while before I was born, they too lived abroad, in different countries. They often took leave to India, just a few countries away, where they felt a connection to the land. Had I been born a few months off course, I could have been born there, or France, or somewhere completely different. It was while they were “on the road” that they received the phone call – the one that told them to never go home. It was a phone call from my grandfather, saying the war had gotten too difficult, and that it was time they went somewhere safer. My parents had been researching different countries for a short time, seriously considering moving to Australia, Germany, or the United States. In the end, they chose Canada – the country that told them their medical degrees were no longer valid, and that they could either return to school, or start working low-end jobs. Of course, at this point, my parents had my sisters and now me, meaning their first priority was to make enough money to support their family. To them, the safety of their adopted land was more important than anything, and so they it was there they went.

As a 24 year old, I can’t imagine being forced out of my country to uproot to an entirely difficult culture, where a different language is spoken, and where I’m told that what I’ve worked towards my entire life is no longer valid. Though my parents weren’t 24 years old when they were faced with this heavy burden, they were only 28 and 30, less than 10 years older than I currently am. It took me several years to realize that my beloved home – the country I was prouder of than their homelands – first broke their hearts before mending them. Though it then also took me a little while longer to realize that while it stripped them of their passions, in their words, it gave them the freedom they never would have had if they had stayed away. Despite years of teenage-me being angry at Canada (as though it was one person to be angry at), I’ve come to grips with their eventual happiness and acceptance of their path.

Fast forward, and I find myself living abroad. I can’t help but feel as though I’m experiencing some of the things they experienced. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel out of place, like there’s a big Canadian flag stamped on my forehead despite me not fitting any completely inaccurate blonde haired-stereotype that Spaniards have of Canadians. I feel strange, as though I’m not meant to be here, and yet I assimilate well enough. I often get frustrated that I can’t simply explain things in English or French, because the language here is different. Yet, I find myself uttering the correct words in Spanish, even though I didn’t study it past a couple of beginner’s courses I took in first year of university. At the same time, I know I’m on a short-term adventure, and that there are a lot of other foreigners in my position. I know that the local language wasn’t that different from French (one of the languages I grew up speaking), and that I was brought here for a good job, neither of which were my parents’ experiences. I know they never would have been happy had they stayed in their homeland, because of their need for freedom, knowledge, and open-mindedness. Still, I know they could have stayed to be closer to something familiar. They could have done that, but they chose the difficult path, and for all the right reasons.

It goes without saying that my parents are the strongest people I know. When I have a difficult day in Madrid, or feel any sense of frustration, I try to remind myself that this is a minor setback in comparison to what they – and many other refugees – have had to deal with. I remind myself that I chose this, and that with all of its downsides, living abroad makes me feel powerful. I’ve somehow managed to pick up a language, gotten invaluable experience, and been given a life of seeing different things, people, and places. I may have a bad day or two, but most of my time here is nothing but spectacular, and sometimes all it takes is letting myself feel that way.

It’s hard not to feel as though my parents are a source of encouragement. My mother’s gone on to work for the United Nations, embassies, and different places of medical care. My father’s since received the required medical clearance to practice again, something that took more drive than I think I would ever have. In the end, they’ve taught me that hard work does pay off.

Learning to navigate my life away from home.

So, while I have my moments of feeling upset for being so far away from my loved ones, for living in a place that causes teenage-like angst in me at times, it’s also given me time to reflect on my own upbringing. It’s given me time to remember the things I took for granted, to realize how difficult it really is to move somewhere new. It’s given me the perspective I never thought I would have – that of a foreigner living in what’s perceived to be “someone else’s country”. Now, I never imagined I would really understand what my parents went through, nor did I think I would come to these conclusions in Spain. While I don’t think I could ever fully know what they went through short of becoming a refugee myself, I know that living abroad has taught me more about them than I bargained for. For that, I’m thankful.

12 thoughts on “The Truth: Why Living Abroad Has Made Me Understand My Parents

  1. Extremely thoughtful and moving post. It’s amazing how much you learn about yourself, your family,”home” and the world just by leaving what’s known and moving into the unknown. For me living abroad raised the question, who is an expat and who is an immigrant?!? Kudos to your parents and to you. Keep learning and enjoying.

    • Thanks, Christine! It was a little hard to write this post, considering I don’t like thinking about what my parents have been through. It’s been inevitable having to face the facts, though, and understand just how brave immigrants and refugees really are. You’re also right about the expat thing – I believe permanent expats are immigrants (particularly the ones who gain legal status), but there’s a fine line between the two.

      All the best!

  2. beautiful blog post!

    next time you feel frustrated, think about those who have died and are not lucky to experience ffeelings.

    • Thanks! I definitely agree – sometimes, we need to simply appreciate that we get to experience good things. My parents have helped me realize how lucky I am and how much I can do with my life, and that keeps me happy/strong.

      • i just forgot to comment about that blonde haired stereotype that you say us Spaniards have of Canadians…..well i do not agree with it….as far as we know North America is a place of European immigrants since the 1500’s with the Spaniards, and later with British, Irish, Italians and more Europeans who travelled to NA mainly in the late 19th century, so there are blond haired people along with dark and brown haired people.

        i can tell you that Spaniards have always had a blond haired stereotype with the Swedish since the 60’s when Spain opened its doors after several decades of isolation, and huge masses or invasions of Swedish tourists came to fill coastal places like Marbella, Benidorm, Mallorca, etc

      • Indeed. North America is a mixture of European, Asian, African, etc immigrants, as well as native Americans who were there long before.

        Sweden is quite blonde from what I’ve heard, but I think something like 50% or less Swedes are actually blonde! Still, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark etc are still much more blonde than many other places.

  3. Wow this almost made me tear up a little bit. Just by judging off this post, I can tell that you’re an extremely intelligent and wise girl/woman and your perspective on life surpasses the majority of people your age.

    It made me feel a little sad, knowing the stresses that I have placed upon my family through some of my personal behaviours during my teenage years. It struck a chord inside of me and subconsciously reminded me to appreciate my parents and what they’ve sacrificed for me. They also made the uncertain leap across the entire world to the tiny little country of New Zealand to pursue their dreams and set up a good life for my sisters and I.

    Your parents sound like wonderful people.

    I’m glad you shared this and even happier that I had the privilege to read it.

    Thank you 🙂

    • Thank you for the amazing comment! I know what you mean about feeling guilty about not being a super mature teen, but then again, teens in general are horrid (haha, I genuinely believe this), so as long as we learn from those years and don’t repeat that behaviour, it’s all good!

      Where did your parents move to NZ from? I’m guessing England or somewhere within northern Europe? I love hearing about fellow first-generation kids’ stories!

  4. Read this beginning to end! As the daughter of immigrants, and now having chosen a similar experience in Spain, I can relate to this post. I now have huge empathy for visitors and immigrants to any country, as I’m going through it now.

    As for the Canadian stereotype, I’ve experienced it once in a while here in Spain. A teacher literally said on my first day that she’d expected to meet a tall, blonde woman when she heard a Canadian was joining the staff! We’re actually best friends now.

    • Thanks so much for your comment!

      The experience abroad definitely helps us understand our own parents’ experience those many years ago. It definitely must have been tough for them. I’m glad those of us who get to go see it through their perspective more now.

      Ha! I love that. One of my best teacher friends at my school is blonde. People generally think she’s English or something like that, so it’s funny when we’d be somewhere together and Spaniards would assume I was the Spaniard and she was the foreigner. Nope!

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