My whole life has been a constant juggle between cultures. I was born and raised in Guatemala City, just like my dad, and my mom was born in Hong Kong. At home, I grew up speaking what I like to call Chinspanglish – a mix between Chinese, Spanish and English. My mom often tells me that I used to be fluent in Chinese as a 3-year-old, but I quickly lost it when my Guatemalan grandparents requested I stop speaking it because they couldn’t understand a word I said when I visited. After that, my mom began to reserve the Chinese for special occasions like when she wants to have private conversations in public…and when she gets angry. I didn’t lose my Chinese completely, but it could definitely be better. I spoke Spanish as default because it’s what my dad speaks and what is spoken in Guatemala. However, we would often speak in English because my mom’s fourth language is Spanish and although she speaks it perfectly, there are always things that get lost in translation. So when speaking with my family we often switch between Spanish, English and Chinese within the same sentence. For example, if i wanted to ask my brother for the remote it would sound something like: Ala Kevin, me podes pasar the 电视 (din-see,TV) remote que esta on top of the table, 唔該 (m̀hgòi-thanks).
When I was little I thought that everyone lived similarly. Since I didn’t spend much time with kids other than my cousins, who are also half-Guatemalan and half-Chinese, I assumed that everyone else had the same customs as my family. Everything changed once I started to go to school. It was then that I learned from my classmates that most Guatemalan families eat corn tortillas with every meal, as opposed to white rice. My friends also informed me that not every kid was forced to go to Chinese school on Saturdays like I was. They actually did fun things and played outside on the weekends while I got quizzed on memorizing Chinese characters and learned Chinese folkloric dance routines.
The way we celebrate certain holidays as a family has always been a little odd. Both the Guatemalan and Chinese cultures honor ancestors during All Saints Day on November first. On that day, all of the extended family on my mother’s side gathers at the cemetery to visit my grandfather and my great-grandmother. To strangers walking by, what we do at the cemetery seems completely strange as we bow to our ancestors, place incense in front of them and ring a bell to let them know we are visiting. Then we are start a fire in a tin can and burn fake paper bills. The belief is that the smoke will take the burnt money to them in the afterlife. I’m not going to lie, we get stared at a lot, and people have even asked if they may burn some as well.
After the whole cemetery ceremony, it’s time for the second round of traditions with my paternal grandparents. My grandmother and aunt prepare Fiambre every year, a very traditional Guatemalan dish. Fiambre is a special salad prepared days in advance and only once a year. It’s composed of pickled beets, baby corn, onions, pacaya flowers, carrots and every type of vegetable you can imagine. These all turn into an intense purple regardless of their original color because they are cooked for hours with the beets. On top of this you can add basically anything you can find in your kitchen, from cheese to cold cuts, hard boiled eggs or even cow tongue – if you’re into that kind of food. Fiambre is definitely an acquired taste, and I’ve grown to like this traditional dish, but its sweet, salty and confusing textures of all the mixed purple veggies is definitely hard to get used to. For many years, my parents used to stop for a Happy Meal at McDonald’s on our way to my grandma’s for All Saints Day, because I refused to eat the Fiambre I now love.
One year after the traditional meal, my dad took our family to a Giant Kite Festival outside of the city in Sumpango, Guatemala, where people fly 50-to 90-feet tall kites that they have made to send messages to their loved ones in heaven. We went a few times to see this festival on All Saints Day and I remember seeing the hundreds of colorful kites that were 100 times my height fill the sky above us.
Another holiday that my family always celebrates twice is new years. Once we celebrate with champagne and fireworks in January, and the second one in mid-February, which involves a dinner party at the Chinese Association in Guatemala with Chinese dragon performances, folkloric dances and my grandma’s Chinese friends singing karaoke until no one can take it any longer. All this while everyone wears their red underwear to have good luck in the new year.
For all of elementary and middle school I was the only half-Asian girl in the grade, which in everyone’s eyes made me the only Asian girl. People back home wouldn’t think of me as Guatemalan- even though I’ve always felt like one-because I didn’t really look like them. Similarly, my teachers and classmates at Chinese school didn’t consider me Chinese either. I was stuck in the middle – not belonging to one or the other, but I learned to embrace the richness of both cultures.
To add to this cultural mix I went to an American high school, where I learned much about this third culture in which I live now. Most of the kids were either Guatemalan-born Americans, or Americans whose parents had moved to Guatemala as missionaries. Once again, I found myself at the intersection of multiple cultures, getting used to the peculiarities of each one of them and combining them all to make my own mix.
The perks of growing up in the middle of such contrasting cultures are endless, and I have grown to appreciate all of them. For example, eating is never a problem – after accidentally trying donkey meat in China, I’ll eat almost anything. It wasn’t too bad, I thought it was beef and it tasted like it. I have become very picky about my teas and coffees because there was always a wide array of Guatemalan coffee and Chinese tea to choose from. Considering myself a Fusion cuisine cook every so often when throwing together some leftovers is always a good excuse when I’m too lazy to go grocery shopping . . . tamales and lo-mein anyone?
But when that fails, there is always the option of ordering Dim Sum without getting over-charged and getting mystery dishes forced upon you.
Other benefits include having friends and family on the other side of the world we can go visit. Plus renewing passports and residency paperwork are great excuses to travel around. Having a Chinese name is pretty cool, and being sort of trilingual comes in handy as well.
Despite having so many cultural differences with friends back home, I’ve always considered myself Guatemalan, because it’s the country that I was born in and where I’ve lived my whole life. I know the country more than any other place in the world. I speak Spanish with Guatemalan slang and proudly sing the five-and-a-half-minutes long national anthem – the world’s second best anthem according to my music teacher and every Guatemalan I know. However, I never leave the Chinese part of me out either because it is a big part of who I am.
Juggling cultures has always been a fun experience and I enjoy learning about every little peculiarity each culture has that makes it different from the rest. I’ve learned to embrace, appreciate and take advantage of my unique cultural background and family history. My story is just a small part of the broad diversity at Northeastern, where you can find people from all over the world. Our Husky community is so diverse and the different cultures represented at Northeastern is part of what makes this place so interesting and special.
Monica is a journalism major with a minor in communication studies and the Campus Crawl editor for Woof. Originally from Guatemala, she is an aspiring writer with a serious obsession with pandas. She also enjoys traveling and photography and believes that anything can be solved with a good cup of coffee. When she is not wandering around Boston, she loves to cook and work on all kinds of DIY projects found on Pinterest.