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Though at first she didn't totally fit in with her classmates and friends in Chile, Katrina (third from left) grew to love them.

My dad said he had a big surprise so my mom, brother and I all crowded around the phone. As I stared at the telephone I heard, “We’re moving to Chile!”

My dad, who is an FBI agent, told us he was being transferred to Chile, a country in South America, and we’d be living there for five years. It was the first time I had to move and I was excited. All I could think about was meeting new friends and having new houses to hang out in. I didn’t know how hard it would be to move to another country, where I would have to make new friends who spoke a different language.

We left for Chile in January 2001, three days after my 11th birthday. My mother is from Chile and all her family lived there, so we stayed at my grandmother’s house for the month of vacation before school started. (In South America seasons are reversed, and December, January and February are the months of summer vacation.) I spent days by the pool and played video games and soccer with my cousins.

At the same time I was nervous about starting at my new school, Nido de Aguilas (which means “Nest of Eagles” in Spanish). Not only was it a new school, it was an international school, which meant that students were from around the world and the classes were taught in English. The same thought kept going through my mind, “What if I don’t fit in because I don’t speak Spanish?”

On the morning of my first day of fifth grade, when my mom pulled up to Nido de Aguilas, I was fascinated with the hundreds of colorful country flags lining the long driveway—some I recognized and others I had never seen. As I walked to my  classroom, a group of students walk by and I whipped my head around to stare. They were speaking English, Spanish and some other language I couldn’t identify. Everyone seemed to have their own bizarre combination of languages that I didn’t understand. I felt sick to my stomach because I didn’t know what to expect from my new classmates. 

To my surprise, I was not the only new student in the class. When I shared that I was from California, everyone fired questions at me like, “What age did you learn to surf?” and “What movie stars have you met?” After introductions, I sat down and asked the kids around me where they were from: Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Colombia, South Africa, and those were only a few. Most of my classmates moved every few years because of their parents’ work. One of my classmates had a father who worked for Coca-Cola and was relocated every few years. Other classmates were “Army brats” and moved based on their parents’ assignments.

Since everyone was used to new students, they welcomed me and I made friends quickly. One weekend my friends were talking about what to do and decided to go to the mall and see a movie. I expected kids from other countries to have a different definition of fun. I laughed to myself because it’s exactly what I would have done back in L.A. I liked my new friends and my new house because it was bigger than my old one. But I missed little things about L.A., like being able to buy Limited Too clothing and watch TV without subtitles.

I wished my friends spoke English around me

I was also struggling to understand my friends. I connected more with the students who were native Spanish speakers from Chile and other Latin American countries. They seemed more like the friends I had in L.A.—they were laid back and wanted to have fun.

My friends spoke Spanglish, a rapid mix of English and Spanish. I understood only bits and phrases. My friends would tell jokes or stories and they went over my head. It would sound more like a bee buzzing in my ear, “CachaiqueIbeacheschucheque.” I would ask my friends to slow down or speak English and they would roll their eyes and try for a while, but then they would drift back to speaking Spanglish. Even though I spoke to them in English, I knew that if I didn’t push myself to understand Spanglish I would lose my new friends. I decided to try to learn.

I thought that if I listened to my friends’ conversations, I could teach myself. After a couple weeks, I tried using the Spanish slang word “bakan” (pronounced baa-can), which means “cool.” But I sounded like a baby attempting its first word: “bukooon.” Things seemed to move in slow motion as I saw the weird looks on my friends’ faces and heard them say, “Whoa, were you trying to say …?” Inside I wanted to curl up in a ball. I never wanted to try speaking slang again.

I was so frustrated that at the beginning of sixth grade I stopped calling my friends during the weekend or hanging out with them. Instead I hung out with classmates who spoke only English. But I missed my old group of friends, so after three months, I decided to stop hiding and hang out with them again.


But my attempt to learn Spanish wasn’t showing any success. At the end of sixth grade, my friend Camila invited me to her apartment and said she had a surprise for me. I had no idea what it was. I got to Cami’s house and saw that she had prepared a poster board of all the slang words, what they meant and how I should use them. I was so grateful that I was speechless. One of the first words Cami taught me was “cachai.” “OK so, when you hear ‘cachai’ you need to think of ‘to catch,’” she said. I just stared at her. “Yeah, because ‘cachar’ means ‘to understand.’ So you can use ‘cachai’ at the end of a sentence instead of saying something long like ‘Do you understand?’ So pronounce it, ka-chai.”

I took the poster board home. A couple times a week I would lock my bedroom door and repeat the words over and over again. Since my friend had shown her faith in me, I was confident I could learn this slang. After that, I worked much harder. I listened to my friends and tried to use the language more. Slowly it became normal for me to use slang around my friends.

Thanks to practicing with friends and my Spanish classes, entering eighth grade I was placed into a native-speaking Spanish class. At the beginning of the school year when everyone compared schedules, my friends would usually ignore me because I was never in their Spanish class. This year when my friends said they had Period 4 Spanish together, I chimed in “I have Period 4 too.” Everyone was so excited. They asked, “What? You’re in our class now?” In my head I couldn’t stop cheering myself on but I just replied, “Yup.” I didn’t want to make a big deal in case I wasn’t ready for the class. I didn’t have to worry. When I got my first test back and saw that I got a 95, I stuck it on my fridge.

I finally felt I belonged

Being able to speak Spanish opened up a whole new world. I could now go to restaurants and order my own meals, read billboards, connect with family members who didn’t speak English, and especially speak Spanish with my friends. As simple as those activities seem, not being able to do them made me feel like an outsider in what was suppose to be my home. I felt comfortable and no longer focused on how I didn’t belong, but on how perfectly I fit in.

Katrina and her friend Martin Fazio, 15, in downtown Santiago.

Santiago was now my home. On weekends in high school I would dance till 2 in the morning in clubs for teens, go to ski resorts to spend the day snowboarding with friends, take a two-hour drive to spend weekends at the beach and go to concerts.

Going to an international school, I became used to saying goodbye to friends once or even twice every year. Every time one of my friends would leave, I would think, “If it’s so hard to say goodbye to one friend, how am I going to feel when I have to say goodbye to all of my friends and this country?” Each goodbye made me feel sad because it reminded me that my time to leave was coming closer.

During my last month in Chile I begged my dad on the verge of tears, “Please Dad, somehow please get your job extended for one more year.” Or in the highest times of desperation I informed my parents that I would be willing to stay in Chile and live with my grandmother while they went back to the U.S. As you could guess, my parents immediately said that was not an option.

On my last night in Santiago, the drive to the airport felt like the longest hour of my life. In a minivan with my family, I turned on my iPod and listened to “Time Of Your Life” by Green Day on repeat. I stared out the window and tried to take in everything. The snow-covered Andes mountains triggered my first tear.

Arriving at the airport, I stopped crying and tried to smile because inside 20 of my friends held poster boards filled with pictures and letters. It showed that they weren’t going to erase me from their lives; we would be friends for life. I hugged my friends one last time. I began to cry even harder, this time from sadness and anger. I didn’t want to go back to L.A. I hadn’t kept in touch with my L.A. friends. My life was here and I didn’t want to start over again.

I can handle any challenge

Katrina saying goodbye to her cousin at the airport after five years in Chile.

While waiting for take-off a flight attendant asked me what was wrong. I told him I just had to say goodbye to all my friends. The flight attendant looked at me, with my bloodshot eyes and drippy nose, and looked at my posters and gifts and said, “Honey, I would die to be in your position. It looks like you will always have a home here in Santiago and friends waiting for you.” I began to calm down by thinking about how grateful I was. Living in Chile helped me realize that there are so many different people in this world and that it is all right to be unique. It taught me there isn’t anything I can’t do and to take advantage of every day because you never know when things could change.

I had a difficult time adjusting to L.A. I missed my friends. It was my sophomore year of high school and I thought, “What’s the point in making new friends if I’m going to college in two years? I’d rather not get attached and then have to say goodbye again.” Then I reminded myself that I wasn’t happy when I first moved to Chile, but when I let go of my fear it turned into a great experience. It showed me that I should do the same in L.A. I made a great group of friends and now couldn’t imagine my life without them.

People ask me, “Where would you prefer to live, Los Angeles or Chile?” I don’t think I can answer that question because there are good and bad things in every country. I love how in L.A. the beach is only 10 minutes away and the water is not below freezing. At the same time, I love how in Chile there was a ski resort 20 minutes from my house.

I love living in L.A. but I also do things to make me feel like I’m back at home in Chile, like watching the Copa América, a South American soccer tournament, celebrating Chile’s independence day and speaking Spanish with one of my best friends who is Argentinean. I visited Chile a year after I moved and also spent last Christmas there, hanging out with my friends. It felt as though I had never left. I still talk to my friends in Chile at least once a week and stay in touch with my family. I am a girl with two homes, one in the United States and the other in Santiago, Chile, and I would never trade that for anything.