“You’re Foreign, You don’t Know the Country”

“You don’t understand Colombia”, “You don’t know how we do things”, “You’re Foreign”, “You cannot have an opinion”, “this is how we do things in Colombia”…asi es!

My verbal adversary, seeing and feeling no other way to close the argument, inevitably pulls one of the aforementioned aces out of an endless repertoire of mildly racist statements. And that’s it; I just shut down and refuse to entertain any discussion that is based along these lines. The idiocy and ignorance of it all leaves me with no option than to remain silent and walk away. There is no retort or response to qualify such a statement and any attempt to justify my position becomes a petty, floundering and altogether trivial riposte.

Colombians or Amazonians?

Is it that Colombia has been so closed to immigration over the years that we “foreigners” who live here and ply our trades, contributing to the overall well being and economy of the country – a country that without doubt we love – have been so thin on the ground over the last decades, that we are going to be condemned forever to remain as “outsiders” in the eyes of the average Colombian?

I don’t think so. But there is work to be done.

I feel this stems from a deep rooted issue and insecurity within the country which is the over-zealous regionalism that manifests itself along geographical, sporting, language, race and socioeconomic lines. And foreigners have been absorbed into this pattern as another semi-autonomous department.

My dispute last Saturday evening with some university students here in Mompós demonstrated this aptly. A group numbering eight or nine and ranging from the ages of 17 to 19 had parked their car – lowered naturally – in the park in front of my house and had their speakers – in the boot, flashing lights, heavy bass – pointed at us contaminating a preciously rare cooler evening in town with highly amped popular vallenato.

Displaced Embera from the Choco in Bogota

My wife and I approached respectfully and calmly. Could they turn the music down a little please?

“This is a public park.”

Yes, fine, we are not asking you to leave, nor to turn your music off, nor to stop drinking, just to respect others.

“Hija de puta, perra.”

Directed at my wife. Then a threat to hit her. All the while we maintain calm and ask politely once more.

“This is a public park, we are permitted to be here and we’re not turning down the music gringo.”

That’s fine, but please can you consider us, your neighbours. There are people sleeping.  It’s midnight.

“What are you going to do about it gringo? You’re not from here, you don’t know how we do things, and you’re not Colombian.”

I just shut down and walked away, why even address this? There’s no point as the regionalism so present in Colombia has become a byword in the local vernacular for anyone beyond their means of comprehension. It is irrelevant that I have been here in Colombia for 6 years, it matters not that I have been almost permanently based in Latin America for 13 years and am well accustomed and acclimatized to the idiosyncrasy of the region.

A traditional sancocho soup, from the coast, the interior or somewhere else?

Just as a costeño lambasts a cachaco for being corroncho and a rolo laughs at a costeño for their behaviour in the capital city and that pastusos are a figure of fun or that a paisa will try and sell you anything and a chocoano can be marginalized for “talking too much”. There’s too much suspicion in someone hailing from beyond their region.

And so why should I, as a foreigner, expect to be treated any differently? Just see one of the comments on my last blog from a disgruntled reader.

A geographer once described Colombian territory to me as resembling a piece of crumpled up paper. I found this to be a fantastically visual depiction and one that of course explains so much. Without a difficult geography, for example, the UK could build effective highways, rail system to communicate the towns and cities and thus create a system where the country is united. There is certainly regionalism, but arguably this manifests itself in accents and sporting events more than anything.  In Colombia each town and city more or less has had to develop its own economy making the regional capitals less dependent on Bogota for example.

This, of course, strengthened the regionalism between departments and left Bogota very much the size of a large pueblo, relatively speaking, until recently when more importance – in an international context was placed on the need for a center for business and investment – has been expected and thrust upon the capital. And let’s not forget the droves of internally displaced people who have moved from the countryside to Bogota’s streets.

A recent study conducted by the World Bank has shown Colombian cities to be slow in terms of traffic and poorly connected to one another. The article then written in Portafolio went on to detail the economic costs of transportation and the issues this has presented the country. One wonders why a survey was done in the first place, those of us that live here can declare outright that there is no infrastructure that rivets this impossible national geography together.

Barrancabermeja, Colombia

To get past the mild racism that is effectively produced by having five or six countries within one universal border requires making significant in-roads into regions without access, without government representation, connecting the main economic and industrial hubs and making the country accessible.

It was refreshing to me when, in two cities, my nationality was not an issue and business was business, nothing more. These two cities were Barrancabermeja and Barranquilla.

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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23 Responses to “You’re Foreign, You don’t Know the Country”

  1. alvaro says:

    I recognize this probleem, me being a half colombian, I'll never be a 'real' colombian. Nevertheless, I wouldn't blame only the colombians, or latin americans for having this behaviour, it's something global. Look to Europe (I live in the Netherlands) and we see the same stereotypes about foreign people (especially black and muslim people). In Colombia it is regionalism, in the Netherlands itis xenophobia towards foreign communities.

  2. sfoswald says:

    Very true observations here. It's not just white people that can be racist.

  3. Richard says:

    My Peruvian friend GL Anna wanted to share her thoughts but couldn't post so I am taking the liberty of posting her comments here:

    "It is ironic to see how this kind of "nationalism" (see discrimination) affects to the foreigners in both sides of the world (latin america and europe)
    As a South American in Europe, I have to endure the most unbelievable and bureaucratic "test" of my life just because I dont belong to the EU… I feel it is so unfair, as I try my best to be integrated in this country (not just in the social aspect but legally as well).
    I have to fight against the "cliches" for being latina and just to be patient in my day to day with the people who try to make me feel like I don't belong here.
    Why can't we just forget about nationalities and take the best that each other has to offer?
    Economic limits are disappearing, unfortunately the mental ones are getting stronger everyday."

  4. Arlen says:

    I feel like it's an overreaction to try to draw some big picture conclusion about Colombians from an encounter like this. All that it really shows is that some people are dickheads, and there are a few pretty much anywhere you go. I have no trouble imaging what some groups of young drunk guys in Australia would say to an older couple who asked them to keep it down. It'd be along the lines of "fuck off" and plenty of invitations to get violent if you persisted. If anything I've found Colombians much less likely to be aggressive and look for fights in my 2 years here.

    • Richard says:

      Arlen, again, another fine comment, and I wouldn't even think of approaching a group like this in the UK for fear of being knifed, it was more a study of the bigger picture of regionalism, which, upon reflection, I should have clarified further. I think, as gringos, we also make up part of the regionalism here.

  5. Steve says:

    Don't forget that being a gringo also garners you additional positive attention. Many people want to meet you and interact with you because you are different. If you are in your home country, you are just another clone.

    • Richard says:

      Steve, you are completely right with this comment, we are given far more leeway as gringos and preferential treatment on too many an occasion, I think my example was simply an opening gambit to be able to address regionalism here in Colombia.

  6. Lili says:

    Ay pobre gringo pffff

  7. Herman Arroyave says:

    I disagree. Think former Colombia presidential candidate and Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus.

    • Richard says:

      Very interesting, and I like your point Herman. But Bogota has always been a different society from the rest and Mockus came from a very recognized position as the Rector of the Universidad Nacional giving him widespread and immediate recognition within the city….but just look at how he floundered beyond Bogota in the presidential elections.

  8. Esben says:

    Its interesting to hear about examples of this problem. It has for me most clearly been made out in the Japanese promotion of a unique identity, called nihonjinron, and theres so much literature about it! They also have a very strong sense of region, yet still belong to the bigger image of Japan.
    Its sort of the same in Colombia, I reckon. Colombians seem much more proud of their country than we Danes tend to do I think.

  9. reb49 says:

    I have visited beautiful Colombia often, but never more than a month or so at a time. So I can't say I have ever felt an outcast. Everyone I met was quite kind & friendly. I agree with most posters that discrimination is world-wide, certainly not exclusive to Colombia. But I did appreciate the author's analogy about the crumpled piece of paper comparing how the Andes can cause regionalism and infrastructure nightmares. This will be a problem for Colombia as it continues its economic future. But the economy of Colombia is on fire, no one in all Latin America comes close, only Brazil.

  10. elisabetta says:

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    the University of Lugano, and I need help for my Master Thesis.
    I am analyzing the potentials of Colombia as a new, successful destination for
    I believe this Country may represent the perfect destination for this kind of
    tourism thanks to his natural and cultural diversity.

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    to divulgate it. it is just for who backpacked Colombia. gracias!!!!

  11. Robroks says:

    "These two cities were Barrancabermeja and Barranquilla."

    Wow! I know killa has a lot of mid-easterner background and immigration, as well as being a port, but am surprised by this and barranca especially. Have you spent much time in either? What was the difference? Thanks for the blog.

    • Richard says:

      I have spent a good amount of time in both, but the most important experience I garnered from both is that there was no issue with not being from Colombia, business was business and doors were opened on this front. This was very refreshing indeed.

  12. Karl says:

    Moved to Cartago,Valle two years ago from Philly ……. plenty of very poor Black people here in Colombia,especially along the coasts….but also plenty of very poor people of all other colors as well…cannot say it is due to racism. I can say that I have never seen or had an incidence of even mild racism here and that the people are warm and very friendly to me. Maybe some who read this will think that I am naive to say that I have not seen ay racism here but I was raised in New Jersey and lived more than 30 years in Philly so I have had quite a bit of experience on the subject. If you are ever fortunate enough to know The Colombian People, you will understand my comment.

  13. different alvaro says:

    This is quite the example of a foreigner coming from another country and trying to enforce their ways and thoughts on the local culture. What you need to understand that it is a different country with different values. It really irritating to see when foreigners come and all they do is complain. If it's so bad why not leave to your country? It's the same here in the US when others come here and complain. The majority will dictate what is right and wrong. If you are are a lone fish walking in a sea of ignorants complaining about how they should live then , maybe you need to reevaluate who is being ignorant. The park thing. Those words should not have been aimed at your wife but in the Colombian context it was very rude what you guys did telling them to turn it down. It's the norm to have music blasting even if you are trying to sleep. Those are U.S. values.

    • Richard says:

      Sighs. The same old comments, if it's so bad why don't you leave? Really, are you going to tell me that loud distorted music is culture? Relax, it's an observation on regionalism. And my values are far from being US values.

  14. Oscar says:

    Dear Richard, I understand how you feel. Let me tell you that sometimes I feel the same in UK – I am Colombian. I really love the UK, I found many advantages comparing it to Colombia. However, in some ways I found Colombia with other advantages if we compare it with the UK. Also I can say that I found here in the UK some language, race and socioeconomic lines even geographical when people share all those mentioned before. You can find twats here as well, youngsters o elders, posh or homeless, listening to music or not listening, etc. I think we foreigners see things better in our own country because obviously we are adapted to those conditions. However, I think every country share some degree of situations – I expected not to find here traffic, pollution, thieves, lacks of transportation but unfortunately I found them. Moreover, no matter how much we try, we will always be foreigners. No matter how much I try to improve my English (or knowledge about English culture), I will always be a foreigner. No matter, how much Colombian Spanish or Colombian culture you learn you will always be a foreigner as well. Of course we don't want to leave. I wouldn't like to leave the UK – now I have family here and I like this country. I am almost sure you would not like to leave Colombia either. I think what we should do is to take that pain in the ars for not being a local and just use it as a positive point. What I mean is sometimes we cannot change how other people think about us, so the only way is to change the way we think about them. Here people don't understand the way I think, but it is not their fault. It´s not my fault either. It is a challenge. Maybe we world's foreigners found our own hometown like a not enough challenge for us and we decided to make it more complicated. I have lived in China and Italy, and let me tell you that it was a challenge-Italy more difficult than China, believe it or not. In China although they have beens in ice cream, they make you feel at home. In Italy although you could have a pizza in piazza, they don´t make you feel accepted. I think acceptance is one of the most important factors for the happiness of a foreigner. Well I give you two analogies. 1. The animals cannot use the same language, however they are able to understand each other-in positive way such as mutualism or negative way such as parasitism. 2. The pearl is form after a parasite or grain of sand lodges itself in an oyster's soft inner body. From the first analogy I try to say that you will find twats and nice people everywhere – even in heaven cause the devil came originally from there, wasn´t it?. From the second analogy I meant that from that disadvantage (being a foreigner) we can make it an advantage. How? I don't know? but we will hahaha. Take care mate! "Jiayou" in Chinese means "ánimo" which in Italian sound like soul "anima".

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