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Second Languages and Maintaining Identity

I'm so happy to welcome Kristen Bruce as a guest poster today. Kristen was actually the first friend I met on Twitter. Soon I started reading her blog, Add to the Beauty. It's been fun to connect to another writer who shares my love for Central America and the joys of cross-cultural life. I am hoping that she and I can meet in person one day!  



It is interesting how our identities can be so fluid. Oftentimes who we are depends on whom we are with and what we are known for in that particular social circle.

In most of my circles in the U.S. I am identified by my fluency in Spanish and my love for the Latino culture. Here in Honduras I am identified as the American girl with an accent who struggles to correctly express herself in español and is hesitant to eat enchiladas with her hands. I often get the patronizing, “Wow, you said that really well!” And I want to say, “I sure hope so because I have been working my butt off for the last six years to learn the language and have had Fluent in Spanish on my resume for the last two!”

In some circles, I am a good singer. In others, I barely scratch the surface of being a mediocre vocalist. In some circles, I am the funny one. (ok, never mind, that’s just my family who thinks that.) In some circles, no one laughs at my quick wit at all. In some circles, I am outgoing and sarcastic and opinionated and in others I am polite and borderline timid. It is reasonable that we have to adjust ourselves to our surroundings but this causes a discomfort in me. Over the last two months that I have been living in Honduras I have been sorting out how to genuinely portray my identity. My core. Who I really am. Not my identity as a “missionary” or as a “teacher” or as an “American” but just me. I want to be seen for the things that make me human just like everyone else.

I often find myself here in Central America wanting to explain or defend myself by saying, “No, really, in English I laugh at jokes the first time they’re said. I promise!” Or, “Just ask my friends back home - I do know how to contribute to an intelligent conversation!”

Communicating has been somewhat challenging but I think I have mastered that. I am able to have a conversation in Spanish. When it comes to conveying abstract ideas or deep feelings, I struggle. I know the importance of carefully choosing words and painting detailed pictures with what I say and write. But the majority of my attempts at expressing myself here feel like a child slinging paint onto a canvas hoping that at least some of the colors land in a pattern, wanting so badly for someone to walk up and say, “Ah, I see it.”

I would like to give a huge thank you to those precious, patient souls who have dug through all the muddied words and fragmented sentences as I struggle to convey the things on my heart. Thank you to those who don’t judge me on the basis that I can’t always understand the funny Honduran chistes. And thank you to those who are sticking with me as I am figuring out how to stay me in this foreign country.

Kristen is a recent Lee University graduate originally from Alabama. She is currently teaching English in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and considers herself a nomad until further notice. She edits videos, take some photos on the side, and is an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Kristen blogs at www.kristensarahbruce.com.

7 comments

  1. I can totally relate to the struggle to maintain one's identity when you are in a second culture speaking a second language. I spent a semester studying in Guatemala, and I would say my Spanish was good when I went down there. It got A LOT better after 4 months, but you are right, some things like one's sense of humor are really hard to translate but are an inextricable part of who we are. I was SO thankful for the relationships I made where people were patient with me, and tried to get to know me as much as I tried to get to know them. It is my gratitude for those people that causes me to randomly get choked up at things like certain spanish songs or the Guatemalan national anthem. I'm a softie, I know. :) You articulated well a common experience, I think.

    Random side note: my parents were missionaries in Central America for 5 years, and I spent the first 3 years of my life there- the last 6 months in San Pedro Sula. Unfortunately all I remember is being really hot and wanting to be in the pila all the time. :)

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    1. I totally understand! There is no shame in being moved by gratitude. :) And your memories of SPS sound pretty accurate. If I fit I would also be jumping in the pila every afternoon possible! Thank for your comment, Deanna.

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  2. Kristen- you bring up some good points about identity and maintaining identity in a foreign or new culture. I am from California but have lived in Guatemala the past 2 1/2 years. I have come to understand that I cannot maintain my same identity, because the longer I live here I feel like my identity changes. Who I am and by the nature of living in a foreign country continues to shape my identity in ways I could never have expected. Have you found the same to be true?

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    1. Absolutely Michelle - great point. I tell people all the time that I am who I am today largely because of the influence that my trips to Latin America have had on me. I am grateful that I was able to travel outside of the country so early on (my first trip to Honduras at age 15) that it really has shaped who I am as an adult. And of course you have to make compromises and assimilate into a new culture if you are living long term... I have learned great lessons in adaptability! I think it is good and very necessary to be fluid. But I think there certainly are core distinctions that make me ME, and sometimes I have to fight to maintain that.

      I can say with full confidence that had I not had the exposure to Latin culture I would be a different person. I personally prefer life with Latin flair anyway. ;)

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  3. Ugh Kristen...what can I say to convince you to move to asia with me!? Everything you said is identical to how I feel when I'm running around the world photographing people. I wish so badly I could speak my heart to them. At least you can say a few sentences...I can't even say a single word most of the time. All I can do is smile and laugh like a crazy person.

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    2. Girl, let's go! I read your "revelation" post about the importance of stopping to learn names and stories - SO GOOD. I know that in the chaos of running everywhere that can be hard and oftentimes exhausting. On top of the strained communication. You have such a good heart, Mia. We will travel together one day, I'm sure!

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