Our guest blogger this week, Hélène Bramwell, is a second language educator, teacher trainer and researcher in the area of applied linguistics. Raised in Ecuador by a Québécois mother and British father, she speaks English, French and Spanish fluently. Her academic background includes a B.Sc in Biology and a M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Concordia University, as well as ESL teaching certifications from Cambridge University. Her research interests are second language learning motivation and identity development in the process of acquiring a second or third language. Currently, Hélène works as an instructor at both College Lasalle and Champlain Regional College, teaching ESL and training novice teachers in the TESL program, respectively. In her own time, she continues her independent project of five years to reach native fluency in German. She develops vocabulary and a feeling for the culture and pronunciation by watching Sturm der Liebe, a German soap opera which airs 45 minutes a day Monday through Friday. Apart from a passion for learning languages and teaching, Hélène is a certified yoga instructor and salsa dancing enthusiast. She also sings with a women’s choir group. She travels back to Ecuador regularly to visit close friends and family.
People ask me where I’m from. This is a loaded question because what does it address, anyway? Is it about where I was born? Or where my parents were born? What about where they grew up? And where they live now?
My answer is usually: “That’s a long story.”
My dad is British, but his parents moved their family to Canada when he was a boy. My grandfather was a farmer, so my dad grew up on Ontario farmland. My mom is French-Canadian. My grandmother’s family name is Beauchamp and my grandfather’s is Rousseau. They are descendants of the first French settlers to the “New World.” Although there is no record of the fact, my grandfather’s side of the family claims he has Indigenous blood.
My parents met in Montreal. They moved to England where my dad programmed code for one of NASA’s satellites. Five years later, with two daughters and one on the way, they moved back to Canada. I was born in Nepean, Ontario in 1988. Three years later, we were on a plane headed for Ecuador where my parents looked for an education different from what they had experienced. Ecuador offered access to an educational system based on the Montessori philosophy that had fewer restrictions compared to Canada.
And so, we received a good old alternative education with no regular classes or schedules where no one told us what to do or what to learn. Rather than being divided into classrooms, our school was composed of a series of activity and learning areas, each monitored by a teacher. There was the library and math learning center, where we learned our square roots on boards with colour-coded beads depicting the numerical relationship of the values composing the equation. There was a small kitchen, as well as carpentry, clay and handicraft workshops. There were small lots of land where we planted a vegetable garden, played on a soccer field, and explored a small wooded area, running around little houses that we built. There were white children from abroad (like my siblings and I), and Ecuadorian children from both rich and poor backgrounds. There were gifted children and those with learning difficulties. We were all in it together, with the rivalries, the popular and unpopular groups, friends and enemies, but we coexisted and respected one another. It was a small world of our own.
I grew out of this bubble and moved on to high school where I began to experience more poignantly the feeling of being a white minority in a South American country. I became increasingly aware of being noticed everywhere I went.
Whether I walked the two-kilometer distance to my high school, or to the main road where I could catch a bus to the city, construction workers would catcall and hiss obscenities from the shade of bushes as they took their breaks.
On the bus, the fare collector always tried to charge me twice as much because I looked older due to my height, an average 5’6” for a Canadian—a foot taller than most Ecuadorians. My height, my blonde hair, and my white skin labelled me a “gringa,” a foreigner, an outsider (Hayes, 2015). To the Ecuadorian descendants of the Incas, violently conquered by Spain and European disease in the 16th century (Alchon, 2004; MacLeod, Vélez Pozo & Knapp, 2018), we were a reminder of the European colonizer, the master, the one with the money and the power, to be feared and therefore begrudgingly respected, but also hated.
For the most part, as soon as people heard me speak Spanish with an accent like their own, with no hint of foreign sounds, they realized I was one of them…in some ways; however, I would always be judged like a book by its cover – I would never be seen as one of them.
And there were dangers to having an appearance such as mine.
In fact, there are dangers to anyone in Ecuador, if they are not careful. Living there, you quickly learn never to take a seat near the window or back of the bus, to prevent someone from sitting next to you holding you at knife or gun point, and robbing you of anything with value: your money, jewelry, sense of safety and trust. Past midnight, a driver never stops at a red light, rather he treats it as a stop sign to avoid being assaulted while waiting for the light to turn green. But among these dangers, and others, you are more likely to be targeted if you are white because it is assumed you have more money. And if you are a white woman, the risk is even higher.
People ask me where I’m from and I don’t know what to say because I don’t know a definitive answer. I was born Canadian, but raised a South American woman. I am strong and passionate. I am loud and love to sing and can salsa with enough sabor to compete with any Cuban or Colombian. I speak Spanish in such a rapid stream of rhythmic syllables that it seems I never stop to catch my breath. I recently watched John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons and I identified as Latino. But I never really was one because the color of my hair, eyes, and skin, even my height, seemed to belie the truth. I guess then, I must say I am Canadian, which in turn belies my upbringing and my cultural roots, but I didn’t grow up surrounded by Canadians learning their sociocultural mores. I grew up with one French-Canadian and one British/Anglo-Canadian. Does that make me one, too?
When I first came to Montreal, I felt like such an outsider. People thought I was Western European because my lack of a Canadian accent in either French or English told them I couldn’t possibly be from here.
Eight years I have lived in Canada. I have come to enjoy the feeling of safety and tranquility so different from Ecuador. In response to gentle reminders from Canadian friends and family members to use an “indoor voice”, and odd looks from people who didn’t know me well enough to say something about it, I have gradually toned down and softened my voice and personality, but it still comes back with a vengeance as soon as I speak Spanish.
I have felt like an outsider my whole life. In Ecuador, the foreigner, the white one. In Canada, the one who fits in on the outside, but with an inner identity that echoes another land and culture. Ultimately though, I don’t feel like an outsider within myself. I am a citizen of the world and feel blessed to have each of my feet firmly rooted in a unique culture and land, so they can speak to each other of differences and universal truths. I don’t compare South to North American life anymore. I accept both pieces of my identity and fit them together like a puzzle. They shape my view of the world. Neither is better or worse, they are simply part of who I am.
Alchon, S.A. (2004). Native society and disease in colonial Ecuador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Flores, P. (1921). History of the boundary dispute between Ecuador and Peru. Columbia University. Retrieved from http://bdigital.unal.edu.co/4492/31/the_historical_background_ecuador_as_a_spanish_colony.pdf
Government of Canada. (2018). Retrieved from https://travel.gc.ca/destinations/ecuador
MacLeod, M. J., Vélez Pozo, H., & Knapp, G.W. (2018). Ecuador. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Ecuador/Media-and-publishing