‘You’re so English’ assorted family members have muttered exasperatedly since I was able to string a sentence together. My seamless assimilation of the customs pertaining our country of refuge should have been a badge of honour, but over the years it came to mean many things. Not all of them pleasant.
My Englishness set me apart from the group I’d arrived in the U.K. with. My parents, grandparents and tíos were all Chilean, I on the other hand, was only so through genetics.
Being English came naturally to me. Schooling, friendships and interests were all anglophone, Chilean-ness juxtapositioned itself awkwardly within my daily life. It was something my parents tried to impress upon me through taking me to cultural events and encouraging Chilean cuisine & customs within the home.
As a child my Englishness and in particular my accent, was a source of amusement for the adults but this mirth gave way to umbrage as I mutated into a woman. It was here that an intense period of inter-family cultural clashes came into the fore.
As my adolescent peers sailed unscathed though the usual rites of passage: first can of Stella, first fag, make up, short skirts and gate-crashing adult parties, I had what my other friends didn’t: Chilean parents, who despite being of left wing extraction thus presumably ‘right on’, were not as liberal as I hoped. Deeply entrenched in catholic traditional & patriarchal Latin American values, the family viewed my normal English teenage behaviour as an aberration. My Britishness was a ‘problem’ and the refusal to speak Spanish or give a shit about Chile became obstructive.
The more refuge I sought in my English identity, the greater the Chilean clampdown was, until the asphyxiation became too much and I ran away from home just weeks before we were due to fly back to Chile for good.
Lured to Chile under the pretence that I would be allowed back if I did not adapt, I set about trying to make sense of the strange country my father called ‘home’.
In Latin America however, my Britishness seemed to amplify. From the clothes I wore, the habits I maintained and the inability to read or speak Spanish properly, my attempts to blend in were forever thwarted by my glaringly obvious foreignness. While it created a little bit of awe and envy among my new Chilean friends, it became a thorn in my side. At home with my father’s new wife, my English ways did not go down well. She was ultra conservative and disapproved of my liberal customs. I did not care what she thought and continued to come home drunk and smoke in my room.
It dawned on me that I could never erase my identity to make way for a newfangled one just to aid my father’s transition back to his homeland, I had learnt to speak Spanish but it was not my voice. It was time to go home although the path back would be rocky. Chilean norms in 1996 were completely indecipherable. 19 year olds seldom worked and I discovered that patriarchy dominates immigration rules: I could not leave until I reached 21 without my father’s permission and he was intent on keeping me close.
In an fateful twist of events, being English eventually facilitated my return to the UK. I found a job teaching English in Moneda, Santiago and built up an impressive portfolio of clients. Thanks to my British English accent that elitist Chileans wanted so badly to attain, I was able to fund an independent lifestyle and plan my exit back home to cosmopolitan London where I would not be called out for my identity, or lack of one.