Fake it ’til you make it: The “Foreign” Colombians

I was once asked out on a date by a guy who was half-Argentinian. I mean, he said his mother was from Argentina and he had that lovely slurring “juh” accent all Argentines have, except when I mentioned this to a good, Colombian, friend of mine he said, “Darling, you do realise that guy’s more Bucaramanga than he is Buenos Aires?”

I obviously looked a bit confused, so he followed that up more gently with, “What I mean to say is… his accent is fake.”

And it turned out that, as usual, I was the last person to know, or suspect, that things were not quite what they seemed.

The same friend tried to make me feel a little better.

“I knew a girl at university who said she was Mexican,” he said.

“She spoke with a Mexican accent for two years until one day, someone realised she wasn’t Mexican so she went back to speaking normally.”

“But where was she from?” I persisted.

“Colombia,” he said and that was that.

I became fascinated by these non-“non-Colombians” because, it turns out, there are quite a few of them. In fact, I’ve discussed this subject often, with various friends and the conclusion is always the same: I may be a writer by profession, but that doesn’t always mean I understand people and I’ve certainly struggled to understand this.

I mean, I find lying difficult and I find long-term charades near impossible. I do know foreigners, here in Colombia, who pretend to be from more glamorous parts of their own country than they really are and I probably do that too. “London,” is easier for me to say than: “I come from a town one hour south of London, that’s really a million miles away from it,” although I have to say, I always feel a bit fraudulent and, if pressed, tell them I’m a bit more Kent than Kensington and, if really pressed, offer them a Colombian town – one hour outside Bogotá – that makes for an-easy-to-understand comparison.

Perhaps I’m unusual. Who doesn’t love Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s timeless invoking of Truman Capote’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Yet who remembers she’s really Lula Mae Barnes from Texas? Everyone knows, but nobody cares. As OJ Berman says of Holly, “She is a phony but… she isn’t a phony because she believes all this crap she believes…My guess, nobody’ll ever know where she came from. She’s such a goddam liar, maybe she don’t know herself any more.” And that’s Holly, Holly. I told you four lines ago and I bet you still can’t remember she’s really Lula Mae.

And Holly – who when asked at her own party, “Who are all these people anyhow?” replies, “I don’t know, word gets around,” – reminds me of Jay Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald’s hero who, yeah, wasn’t Jay Gatsby at all, but James Gatz from North Dakota. I have loved books ever since I could read them and yet, I’m still surprised by all of this?

I asked my boyfriend, who is generous and kind no matter how humanity fails him, and he laughed and shrugged and said, “Well, you know what it can be like, being Colombian. I guess some people just prefer to opt out,” which seems a good enough explanation if you’ve ever tried to get through customs in Miami, on a foreign passport, on a flight from Bogotá and your memory of the “little room” involves an overweight immigration officer looking at you (advert for an anglo-saxon) and your boyfriend (costeño, costeño, costeño) and saying, “Hmmm, can you blame me for being suspicious here?” and it’s only your super-lovely, super-patient, accustomed-to-being-Colombian boyfriend who stops you drawing on the full force of your height, British accent and acidic ability to be informed, condescending and downright furious at the same time.

Except, it does have one major drawback and that’s that you begin to suspect, well, everyone.

My friend of old came to our house for tea and happened to mention a French guy we know.

“Are you sure he’s really French?” he said. “I have my doubts.”

“For God’s sake,” I said. “I’ve been to his house, he cooks amazing food, he’s snobby about wine and he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist. He couldn’t be any more French.”

“Hmmmm,” my friend said and looked down at his perfectly brewed tea, in its union flag mug.

“Hang on a second,” he said. “Are you sure you’re…”

“Don’t even go there,” I said.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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23 Comments

  1. Karen Attman

    An expat friend of mine recently confessed that she fell in love with a guy who claimed to be Italian (she saw his Colombian passport later). I guess it’s more common than we could ever have imagined.

    (She married him anyway)

  2. Alex

    I found this very irritating. Truth is, most of these guys are lacking identity. I’ve seen people living in Spain, with the Colombian Flag on their forehead and trying to imitate the Spanish accent. When I used to tell them, what was all that about, they were like: “I’ve been living here for years (more like a couple of months), and the accent sticks”. Then I give them the example of a guy like Messi, who has lived since he’s been 12 years old in Barcelona and he can’t sound more Argentinian!. That’s the end of it.
    Anyhow, I believe this is just something wrong, for ever reason these guys say. Pretending something you’re not… well, that just sucks. Besides, I think our accent is kind of nice! :).

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Maybe the Spanish accent has more allure? Living in Colombia has definitely changed my own accent… and my English. I seem to take a lot of elevators here and occasionally speak on a cellphone. Sometimes you have to adapt to survive.

  3. Clare

    A fellow expat I worked with here in Bogota was from Bristol but told everyone she was from Kensington – including me, who could hear her Bristol accent. It felt rude to ask why she was never honest…!

    I also worked with a guy from Ecuador, who had spent about 20 years in the US. He pretended he could speak no Spanish whatsoever and we were translating for him in meetings…until his Facebook popped up in ‘people you may know’ to a lot of us and we saw he only wrote in Spanish there and owned various properties in Colombia and had taught Spanish in schools in Cartagena (?!!)

  4. Ceri

    This is so interesting but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who pretended to be something else. Actually, that’s a lie. The amount of Americans who pretend to be Canadian while backpacking is crazy! I guess I tell people here that I’m English because there’s no real word for “Welsh” in Korean and no-one has ever heard of Wales. They all assume I’m from London and I tell them that I’m from a town “3 hours away from London” which is true.

  5. Steel

    I loved the Mrs. Golightly reference in fact this is something very common and its not exclusively Colombian. In fact I know a lot of Cubans and they rather say they are from somwhere in Spain and I knew a guy who use to woo girls saying he was Italian despite his very strong cuban accent. But I’ve seen Nicaraguans saying they are Mexicans and Americans saying they are Irish because their great great great grand father was Irish. I’m Colombian and proud but amazingly two girlfriends assumed I was Italian and surprisingly I met someone in the USA who called me brother and said to me hey brother what part from Israel are you coming from but that’s not all, following week I went to Medellin and a Jewish lady stared at me and told me. Excuse me sir may I ask you if you are from Israel? Of course I said no but it was weird for me 2 times in the same week in 2 different cities miles away from each other.

  6. Anne

    So funny and so true! I met a Colombian guy who claimed to be half English. Both his parents were Colombian, but found out later that his Colombian father had lived a few years in England. He told everybody he met proudly that he was English-Colombian!? Now I’m also suspicious when Colombians with a thick Colombian accent claim to be from somewhere else.

  7. Sandra

    What about the hundreds of gringos pretending to be Canadians to avoid the natural aversion many have for self-denominated Americans? They even carry Canadian flags on their backpacks and use a fake accent including use “eh!” more than it should be!

  8. LoveITLoads

    Yes in my time here I have met a girl from Bucca who claims for the last 8 years to all and sundry that she is form Brazil, a Rolo who dyes his hair red and learnt to play the bagpipes and tells everyone he is Scottish. And a Rola who for the last 14 years has told all Colombians and non Colombians she is from England born and raised. Still can not get my head around it at all.

  9. Britt Feng

    I was born in China, but we immigrated to Canada when I was 9. Quite frankly, even Canadian citizenship and passport aside, I feel way more Canadian than Chinese. Good luck explaining that to the Colombians…. I’ve been living and working in Barranquilla for a year, dating a costeño too. Funnily enough, when we’re together, people sometimes assume he’s foreign too. He’s morenito, but I guess maybe because he has a beard (uncommon here at the coast), and combined with la chinita, he seems foreign? Lord knows. It’s a funny country but thats why we love it jaja.

  10. coolspot

    I am so glad my paisa baby doesn’t do this. although it could be fun I guess. she is very white, so i guess maybe she could say she is from spain? this one time in panama city, panama…… a cab driver noticed my Spanish wasn’t so great and for some reason he thought I came from Cuba. so I just played along. it got me a free cab ride. but what’s that like saving 2 dollars? I just thought it was funny. for some reason he automatically assumed i was a Cuban immigrant. that’s the only time I pretended to be someone other than myself. and it was only for like 10 minutes. cool website. I like it.

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