Letter from a Colombian Immigrant in Scotland

We first met Zulma at a bilingual event held by Scottish organisation People Know How, whose aim is to support the inclusion of Spanish-speaking people in Scotland. Zulma – a Colombian national living in Edinburgh – shared her experiences of being an immigrant with those at the event. This letter is a testimony of her integration into a new culture and her learning of a new language, in a city thousands of miles away from her home town.

Zulma del Rocío                       

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Zulma walking in the streets of Edinburgh

My name is Zulma del Rocío and this is my first time living abroad. I am a 32-year-old, Colombian woman. I work as a psychologist and I have been living here in Edinburgh for almost two years.

I boarded the plane to ‘cross the pond’, as we say in Colombia, for reasons that are obvious to anyone from my country: learning English, living in a different culture (the UK and the first world no less!), the possibilities of acquiring new professional skills and enrolling in courses, establishing new social relationships and the ease of travelling across Europe and further afield  – but most of all, to have the opportunity to find some personal fulfilment.

I came across people from many different origins and backgrounds,  and yet I still felt like a stranger.

I have already spoken about adapting to life in the UK, and the difficulties of language barriers, at a pro-integration  event that took place in Edinburgh. I was invited to speak by a professor of the ESOL programme at Edinburgh´s City Chambers. It was there I met the directors of Cosmopolita Scotland, and they thought my story was worth sharing with their readers.

In this letter, I will share experiences of being a foreigner in a new city from a personal perspective, with the intention of giving my solidarity and empathy to people in a similar situation.

Arriving in Scotland with only a basic understanding of the English language, I felt at first as though I was living in a dreamworld, in which many voices appeared to be speaking different languages, and I couldn’t understand a thing. I came across people from many different origins and backgrounds, and yet I still felt like a stranger.

I saw big gothic constructions, double decker buses and buildings of beige or grey everywhere –  and I couldn’t tell the difference between the left and the right-hand side of the road. It was a dream saturated with confusion, amazement and chaos.

Everything around me was interesting and new, and I should have been happy about it, but it was disturbing to feel constantly out of place.

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Cultural integration event with the Spanish-speaking community in Edinburgh organised by the charity People Know How.

The first things I confronted to overcome my fear were the unrealistic ideas I had about what is like to live in a city like Edinburgh. Little by little, the romantic ideas that I had harboured about what the people, the city, and life in general, would be like, started to mix and dilute in contrast with the reality of living in Edinburgh.

During my first few months, I was often fearful and worried. I feared of being different, of being ignorant, of getting lost in the city. I feared of the new and the unknown, of making a fool of myself because of the language barrier, of being caught off-guard and of doing something impolite. Fortunately, I soon learned that I had to take risks if I were to be happy.

Homesickness is also a challenge in the first few months. I had a strong sense of alienation and loneliness, and I felt the absence of my own people. I missed  home, my friends, my family, the food, the land, the air. Although creating the new circle of friends is very important, I found it is as equally important to stay in touch with those at home via social media, as a way of keeping the homesickness at bay.

Language as a communication barrier

The first thing I had to do in order to organise a new life for myself in Edinburgh was to learn to communicate. Not only was I learning the basics of the English language, but I was trying to get used to the Scottish accent (a task more complex than simply trying to learn English). This meant having to get over my fears. In other words, I had to stop asking others to speak for me and instead dare to initiate everyday interactions and speak in English.

I started off by using sentences from memory such as “Hi, a day ticket please!”,I’d like to have a latte” or “Sorry, can you repeat that please?”. But, as you probably already know, language is not only verbal.

I quickly learned that in order to understand the day to day situations that occur in places such as the bus, supermarkets or coffee shops, it is essential to be acutely observant. Understanding one another in situations such as these all comes down to context and a bit of guessing. Learning how to navigate the self-service machines at the library or the supermarket is also an essential life skill!

In order to establish a network of friends and work in the city, I began following groups on Facebook such as Edinjob to check out job ads and Españoles en Edimburgo, a group which I originally thought was exclusive to Spaniards. Nonetheless, I joined the group and hoped I wasn’t being too cheeky – I am Latin American and not Spanish after all. In the end, the group was very helpful, and I learned of other people adapting to life in Edinburgh – and they spoke my language!

One of the first connections I made  was at the library, where anyone can join for free and get good materials for studying English. I spent hours listening to audiobooks! Another connection I made was at the education programme for adults, which is run by the city council.

The programme organises affordable quarterly courses that deal with a variety of practical issues. I managed to take an English course and a drawing course, even at my intermediate level of English. These courses enabled me to interact with both language students and local people. Moreover, the English teachers were very kind and patient.

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The city of Edinburgh from Zulma’s perspective. New College building at University of Edinburgh .

My husband studies at the University of Edinburgh and so I joined The Women´s Club there. It is a weekly space where women gather around to chat in English with retired teachers who volunteer at the university.

Here I met women from many different countries, some with children, trying to adapt to the city. This same group helped me to connect with The Welcoming – a non-profit association that offers high-quality English lessons for different abilities and levels, all at the price of one pound.

The Welcoming also spreads the spirit of community and, just like the name states, makes everyone feel very welcome.

These various connections have strengthened my language skills and contributed to my feeling confident when navigating the city. They have helped me build friendships and shake off that feeling of not belonging.

Before long, I had established a new routine and developed a plan for my life in Edinburgh. I still take English lessons (both formal and informal), but I also participate in cultural and leisure activities within the city. I attend conversation groups, have some foreign friends, and I have worked as a waitress at a cafe and at a nursery school. Thanks to all this, I have been able to fine-tune my ear and understand the Scottish accent. I currently work as a nanny and I am considering extending my stay in the UK. If I do end up staying, I will face new challenges when adapting to a life here that is no longer temporary.

I can say now that I am settling in. I am beginning to understand Edinburgh’s dynamic and vibe. I enjoy life here and I have gotten over the drastic changes in climate (in my country we don’t really have four seasons!).

I take advantage of Edinburgh’s brilliant resources when I can. I love being able to hike without leaving the city, as well as all the educational opportunities available here and the flexibility of my schedule. I always have enough time to have fun and do a wide range of cultural activities. However, I must say that not everyone in the city has been open and friendly. I had a significantly harder time trying to socialise and establish friendships with the local people.

I recently discussed this with a Scottish man and, between jokes, he replied to me that the Scottish even have difficulty making friends among themselves. During our conversation we both agreed that the climate, which tends to be quite cold, influences the fact that people are more reserved and introverted.

It has been quite confusing never receiving a smile back or being greeted with unsmiling faces when using humour to break the ice. This is uncommon and impolite in my home country.

It was also shocking to be a victim of xenophobia at work. When a regular Scottish customer was upset by something, he told my boss, who is also a Latina, that she shouldn’t hire foreigners.

Initially, this made me want to alienate myself but, fortunately, the friendly contact I had with other local people prevented this. More specifically, the pro-integration event I previously mentioned led me to discover new initiatives and other people who are interested in facilitating the integration of foreigners.  

Of course, I feel fortunate to be here in Edinburgh, as in comparison with other areas of the country, or even other Western countries. The Scottish people are thought of as being more open-minded and accepting.

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Documentary “Habitantes de Babel” by Colombian director Alejandro Ángel [Licencia Creative Commons 3.0 NC-BY]

This feeling of tension between cultures is sadly common now, due to the lack of understanding between people as they migrate to new countries. In contrast, I see on a daily basis that the Scottish people are very kind and helpful, especially if you get lost or need information.

When it comes to the elderly, the Scottish are faultless in their warmth, which gives me comfort.  I sometimes think that if I had the chance of involving myself in other social circles, where the locals could get to know me better and without the label of being a foreigner, we could become real friends. Although, it would never be the same as when I talk to someone from my own country, or who speaks my own language, as often that connection is immediate.

To others who are living the adventure of being a foreigner, the experience can be very different than the one I lived. It all depends on how you approach the unknown, your tenacity when facing challenges, your individual way of interacting and your previous connections with the new place, etc.

In any case, some challenges will be similar and to share your experiences is a good way of connecting. And, if the people who are listening are foreigners too then you can even consider them as part of the same land.

Autor: Noelia Martinez

Periodista con especialidad en estudios africanos y gran experiencia en interculturalidad (Escocia, Filipinas, estudios africanos, España). Emprendedora autónoma, fundadora de Not Just Words, empresa proveedora de servicios de traducción (ING>ESP), comunicación y redacción de contenido. Twitter @peli_1982 o Linkedin.

Specialised journalist in African Studies with great experience in intercultural issues (Scotland, Philippines, African Studies, Spain). Self-employed entrepreneur trading as Not Just Words providing translation (EN>SP) communication and content writing services. Twitter @peli_1982 or Linkedin.

3 opiniones en “Letter from a Colombian Immigrant in Scotland”

  1. Thank you,what a lovely and interesting letter .mi novia es Colombiana and living with me in Escosia.Your words inspire me .I know it’s not easy.

  2. I fell upon this page and was very interested to read the article as, being a foreigner living in Italy (I’m English), I’m fascinated by the experiences of those who move around the world and how simmilar our stories are.
    Noelia’s story in particular. I was born in Liverpool and we too use humour to break the ice which, 15 years ago when I started my new life in the north of Italy, I quickly discovered gets a very poor reaction.
    Noelia, I could have almost written this story with you. I too was afraid to seem impolite I felt gagged and wished to wear a badge saying ‘I’m quite intelligent in my own language’ as I struggled with two small children who themselves ‘got’ the language in weeks.
    Travelling from place to place we are optomistic and have nothing to lose. Living with some permanence in a new country however is a different story. I have made the mistake of trying to make only Italian friends but, actually meeting a Colombian who speaks good English and shares my sense of humour prompted me to seek out British people too, which has been a joy.
    I think it would be a beautiful thing to compile experiences and discover the similarities we share. By the way, people who transfer from region to region in Italy also tell me they feel like foreigners!

  3. Hello Lucy – Thank you very much for leaving a comment. The author’s name is Zulma. I am Noelia, the person that uploaded the articled. As yourself and Zulma, I have lived abroad for quite a while and have experienced exactly the same things. I think when you live away from home is good to have a network of different people. It is definitely advisible to mingle with locals, but having people from your country or community makes things easier at times. If you think of Italy, Spain and the UK you might think that as they are not very far from each other, they might have similar cultures. But that is not the case! And as you say, you can feel a foreigner even in your own country when you travel to different regions! Anyway, that is the beauty of this world. Otherwise it will just get too boring.

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