Home

“Ndi gutaha.” 

“I’m going home.”

Those words rattled in my head with every bump of the crowded bus from Kayonza to Rwamagana. They bounced with my every step up familiar sidewalks and down dirt roads until I rounded that last curve by the banana plants and saw the familiar red gate rising at the end of the path. 

Home is a complicated concept—a network of small towns and rising cities and beloved people around the world—and somehow in the past six weeks, it’s expanded to include a cement and mud-brick compound on the outskirts of Rwamagana town. 

It’s been a rough week. For site visit, I left the comfort of my host family with my school’s Dean of Studies, a near stranger, and travelled to a different district to spend four days learning a new town and new people. 

Sometime amid the tears of fear and frustration this week, I realised culture shock had caught up with me. 

The name makes it sound like a sudden surprise at clear cultural differences, but the truth is it’s less of a shock and more of a pervading exhaustion. You go along thinking you’re fine, but it builds up little by little until, out of nowhere, you’re tired beyond belief. 

It’s a gradual wearing down beneath the grindstone of a million tiny things you don’t even notice in the moment. 

It’s the disproportionate effort required to communicate. It’s being stared at, shouted at, and touched on the street. It’s considering starving rather than take one more bite of unseasoned beans, and then taking one more bite. It’s struggling to keep my shoes clean and knowing that no matter how dirty someone else’s feet, mine are the ones being judged. It’s having to question the cultural assumptions behind any question. It’s not knowing the fair price of anything. It’s wondering whether I’ll ever have cheese or ice cream or chocolate ever again. 

It’s my fight-or-flight never resting, because I have no prior knowledge by which to predict any situation. 

At the beginning of this journey, someone gave us this advice: 

“Fall in love with your country as soon as possible.”

Someone else (probably on Welcome to Night Vale, to be honest) said this: 

“Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.”

In the moments when life here feels like a storm battering me, when I think I will break if I’m bent any further, it’s all too easy to remember what I dislike about this country and to forget all the things I love. 

But there are things I love, even when I’m drowning under waves of culture shock and exhaustion. 

I love the rolling hills patterned with fields of beans and rice, the dry rattle of banana leaves in the wind before a rainstorm, the music rolling out the doors of boutiques and down the street. 

I love the warm greetings of shopkeepers I know and the tendency of old ladies to pull me in for a hug instead of shaking hands. 

I love the uninhibited joy of children and adults alike whenever there’s a game or a song or a good conversation. 

I love the goats by the side of the road and the tiny, impossibly blue swallows that dart and dive and swoop bat-like and the magpies and hawks vying for the right to circle any place that might have food. 

I love the sunsets and the dark storm clouds and the vibrant dirt roads. 

And today, when I knocked on that big red gate and heard a patter of feet and the bolt screeching back, I discovered I love the look of surprised delight on Simbi’s face, and I love hearing Nziza chanting my name before I ever reach the door, and I love Hiro’s silent, tight hugs.

I love walking into this place, so strange to me a month ago, and knowing I’ve come home. 

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How to Say Goodbye

I’ve made a lot of goodbyes in my relatively brief lifetime. Long ones, short ones; temporary ones, permanent ones. Some I saw coming for years, and others appeared out of nowhere, bumps in an unexpected turn in the road.

And I’m facing another one.

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I hate goodbyes—the messy emotions, the awkward eye contact, the lingering guilt of being excited to leave while I’m folded in one last hug. I’ve avoided them, skipped out on them, brushed past them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to do them properly.

But what makes a proper goodbye?

I’ve heard formulas and read advice—mostly checklists of things you ought to do and say and feel, places you should go, people you must see one last time.

I hate seeing an inherently emotional experience laid out like a to-do list. Goodbyes are deeply personal, painfully beautiful moments in which we pass from one world to another. They are, to me at least, too mystical for the mundanity of mnemonic reminders and check boxes.

It’s not about a formula; I think it’s about balance.

See, I’ve tried wallowing in the impending loss, and I’ve tried waltzing away without looking over my shoulder. Neither leads to satisfying transition. So I’m striving for balance, for an intentional halfway between disregarding my present and fearing my future.

I’m preparing to arrive in Kigali while preparing to leave Arizona, nurturing the anticipating and tending the grief simultaneously. I walk a fine line, noticing all the lasts while envisioning all the firsts.

I wonder if I’ll have a new pet as my dog licks my fingers, and at the moment I envision some vague, furry shape in my future, I realise my absence will be an eternity for this solid furry shape in my present.

I buy seeds to plant my favourite herbs and vegetables in my future garden, and I know I will not see the first flowers and fruits of the baby trees growing now in my present garden.

I hope my unknown host family will like me even while I’m exchanging bad puns and sarcastic banter with the family I’ve always known.

A photo by Kalle Kortelainen. unsplash.com/photos/HnWoAM0bMec

Every day, every moment, I am beginning goodbyes.

Goodbye to my books as I stack them in bins for storage. Goodbye to short shorts as I pack for a more conservative culture. Goodbye to soul-baking desert heat as I look forward to a milder climate.

Goodbye to the sunflowers we picked along the highway and planted in the backyard, and goodbye to the overgrown tomato vine that supplies my breakfast so often. Goodbye to morning cuddles when my mother flops on top of me to wake me up, and goodbye to evening scuffles when my brother tries to correct my faulty karate form.

It’s goodbye to more than that, though. It’s goodbye to effortless communication and innate cultural understanding, to time-proved friendships and subconscious patterns enforced by years of interaction. It’s goodbye to knowing how I fit into the social structure.

It’s goodbye to everything familiar.

Every day, every moment, I am beginning to grieve, to see the world through the lens of an upcoming ending.

Every hug, every wave, every “see you later” might be the last. Every flash of light against familiar walls and rooftops is the sun setting on this part of my life. Every drop of rain as the monsoon season finally wrings itself out is time washing away what I know.

Saying goodbye properly, I think, is not a matter of right or wrong, of checking every correct action off a list before you step onto a plane and into your future. Goodbye isn’t a ritual of words and hugs, a cliché of tears and tissues.

Goodbye is a perspective.

It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.

It’s knowing that the road always curves, that goodbye is inevitable, and that, whether or not you ever loop back to this stretch, the road beyond the bend holds adventures, joys, sorrows—life.

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Third Culture Patriotism

“Happy Confused National Identity Day!”

I received this text message from a TCK (third-culture kid) friend on the 4th of July a few years ago. As TCKs, our emotions about national holidays range from patriotism to ambivalence to loathing—often simultaneously.

I find that anything about patriotism triggers a foundational uneasiness that turns my stomach to knots and makes my fingers tremble.

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I’m an American citizen. Hurray for Independence Day! Bring on the fireworks and barbecue! But I didn’t celebrate American Independence Day until junior high, when we moved back to the States; instead, I spent much of my childhood in Panama, celebrating basically the entire month of November. ¡Feliz Día de la Independencia! Bring on parades, pollera dancers, food, and fireworks!

I tear up when I hear a particularly moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. I also tear up for the Panamanian Himno IstmeñoI appreciate all the rights and privileges I have as a U.S. citizen and take pride in the struggles and accomplishments of Americans through the years. Although I don’t have Panamanian citizenship, I also feel a deep sense of sharing in the struggles and accomplishments of the Panamanian people.

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And I have it easy; I only have two countries tugging at my heart. I have friends whose identities are a fusion of five or six different countries, and I know there are people out there who claim even more.

Pain rises on this day of patriotism. As I sing the national anthem, I feel that I betray my Panamanian heart. As people around me pledge allegiance to a flag I’ve lived under only half my life, guilt washes over me: I don’t feel national pride. America is nice. So are other countries. Most of the world’s counties celebrate independence; the entire globe is an ever-shifting puzzle of revolutions.

Whereas Americans seem to feel patriotism as a call to support their country, I feel it as a call to disown my identity. Just like the horrifying “Where are you from?”, patriotism asks me to make an impossible choice.

Usually on the 4th of July, I choose to ignore patriotism and focus on the celebration—delicious food and synthetic stars fired into the night sky.

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This 4th of July, I choose something different: to celebrate. Tonight, as I watch fireworks flare above the Manhattan skyline, I will allow myself to celebrate American freedom.

And in November, though I won’t be in the country to see the parades, I will celebrate Panamanian freedom.

Because freedom is worth celebrating wherever it appears.

To the other TCKs out there: Remember that you’re not alone. There a hundreds, thousands of us feeling this juxtaposition of conflicting emotions, this pressure to choose. Remember that celebrating one home does not mean you’ve renounced the others. You have the incredible opportunity to expand your heart and love so many different cultures, people, and traditions. Celebrate them all. If you feel patriotic, wonderful! But remember, too, that it’s okay to feel neutral, even on Independence Day. You’re unique.

Today, I remind you of this freedom: the freedom to feel as much or as little as you need for as many places as your heart can hold.

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Every Takeoff

My stomach lurches every time the plane’s wheels leave the runway.

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No matter how many times I fly, every takeoff feels like the first time. On days when the security queue feels like a recurring nightmare of struggling in and out of shoes, belts, and jackets, when every terminal looks the same, when I think I’ve lived my whole life in this one uncomfortable airplane seat—takeoff feels new.

As the wind reaches under the plane’s wings, tugging us away from the grime of the earth and into a sky so crisp I could crack it with my fingers, excitement rushes through me.

I am going somewhere, and I love to be going somewhere.

Travelling. Visiting. Flying to school or flying home.

My greatest delight is to soar through mother-of-pearl clouds and then shudder to earth in a new place—a corner of dirt I haven’t touched yet, a city whose streets I don’t know, a town grown a little older since last I saw it.

Every takeoff feels fresh, the sudden lift like the turning of a page, the adventures waiting at the end of the flight a mystery. Somehow I’m always certain this time will be the climax. This adventure, this new city—it will somehow be significant.

Somehow it will make me different.

And every time, it turns out that I’m still me.

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Still the same person when I fly home for holidays. Still the same when I fly back to school. I was me in London and Edinburgh and Dublin; I was me in Baltimore and Winchester.

Now I’m me in New York City.

If I expected something drastic—perhaps a shock rippling through me when my feet first hit the famous streets, perhaps a sudden shift from small-town-girl to New Yorker—I must be disappointed. I remain me, still myself in a new city.

But maybe, in the end, I am different, carrying a little of each place with me wherever I go.

I like to think I’m braver for having taken the subway downtown and back alone this morning. I like to think I’m more hospitable for the time I spent on the Mexican border, more open for the time I spent in Indiana’s cornfields.

And maybe, just maybe, there are pieces of me left behind, corners of myself that chipped off and stayed in those cities when I boarded yet another plane and felt that familiar rush of adrenaline as the wheels left the runway.

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Why Summer Doesn’t Have To Be Comfortable

Summer is uncomfortable.

University goes by in a blur of coffee, late-night cramming, and hysterical laughter. And then finals week comes crashing down, and suddenly you’re watching every single moment fly by individually but too quickly for you to catch, and you have to soak in your last few days with your friends while simultaneously studying like mad (because, let’s face it, you’ve been putting that off all semester) and packing and finalising your summer plans.

And then whoosh—you’re home.

One more year gone. (I like to think it’s run off to live happily with all my unmatched socks.)

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And home, it turns out, is uncomfortable. For example:

  1. How did my brothers get so tall?
    Last I looked, they were about waist high and I could sit on them if they got too rowdy. Now they’re taller than me, and I just hope I trained them well, ’cause I can’t force them to do anything anymore.
  2. Do I still have to listen to mum?
    I mean, yeah, she’s still my mum, but I’m also officially grown up and able to take care of myself and determine when I should sleep and whether another cup of coffee is good for me, right?
  3. What is this place and what did you do with my room?
    It’s disconcerting, because it has some of my stuff in it, but not all of it, and my sister now guards the place like a sphinx, and I live out of a suitcase on my bedroom floor.

It turns out I’m…c’mere and let me whisper it, because I’m uncomfortable with this word: I’m an adult. 

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An honest-to-goodness, real-live adult. I know how to pay my own rent and clean my own bathroom. Last year I set up and paid for my own internet all summer, and I’ve stayed in a sketchy motel by myself.

And being an adult makes coming home…well…uncomfortable. I’m in this limbo stage. If I want to do something, should I do it? Ask my parents? Tell my parents? Can I still yell, “MUMMMMMMYYYYY!” if a sibling gets in my space? Do I go on all the family outings?

We’ve found a relatively happy medium: I check with them because I’m in their house, I play nice with the kids, and I help with the dishes—because they feed me for free, and that is a great gift. Being home is kind of nostalgic. Pictures of high-school me on the walls, my siblings’ school things scattered around the hallways, my old junk still crammed in my dresser because I never got around to cleaning it out…

Some days I consider staying home. Free food, my parents’ insurance… But that’s not an option. Not only because my parents would disapprove, but because life is about growth, not comfort. Learning to walk was uncomfortable. Learning maths was uncomfortable. Learning to live like an adult and pay my own bills and find my own jobs? You bet your sweet life that’s uncomfortable.

But people are kind of like hermit crabs: we outgrow our shells, and no matter how happy we are in this place, there’s nothing comfortable about staying once the shell’s too small.

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So yeah, I’m loving being home for the summer, marvelling at how tall my brothers have gotten and eating plenty of home cooking. But I’m also looking forward to leaving, finding a new shell, stretching and growing and letting myself feel uncomfortable.

Because if I’m going to have pains, I’ll have growing pains, thank you. Because life is about being uncomfortable.

 

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Broken Things

When my brother’s wrist broke, he looked perfectly fine.

None of us knew it was broken. He played like normal. But he reacted to the slightest jostle. A bump against the counter or an unintentional shove while roughhousing brought an abrupt flood of tears and disproportionate anger. Two weeks later, an x-ray showed the fracture.

When my heart breaks, I look perfectly fine.

Nobody knows I’m broken. I live like normal—I smile, I laugh, I sing. But I react to the slightest jostle. My tears flood on the inside, and my manners ice over to hide the disproportionate rage at whoever inadvertently bumped my wound.

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The sign-in sheet is clearly marked: Name. Class designation. Hometown. Major.

Wait. Go back.

Hometown.

My heart skids to a thudding, trembling stop. I freeze, pencil wavering above the page, forcing slow breaths as black spots swirl before my eyes.

Hometown.

I was born in Michigan’s golden autumn. I lived in four states by the time I was two and spent most of elementary school drenched by Panama’s tropical rainstorms. In junior high, we moved to wide deserts beneath Arizona’s vivid sunsets. After I left for university, my parents moved again.

Hometown.

A word that evokes warm memories and loyalty in others stirs in me only agonised confusion. Usually context gives me the answer. Like a clever student with an unexpected exam, I gauge the circumstances, read between the lines, and choose a response:

“My parents live in Arizona.”

“I was raised in Panama.”

“I was born in Michigan.”

 Hometown.

I can’t guess this one. Panic tastes like acid in my throat.

The girl behind me offers some help: “Where do you live?”

Wherever my pillow is. Right now—my dorm.

My face burns as I scribble the first address that comes to mind and rush away, that break inside me throbbing.

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“Time heals all wounds.”

No. Time acclimates us to pain. Time buries scars under layers of new memories. But deep wounds never really close up.

They put a cast on my brother’s wrist. It healed. Now you’d never know it was broken.

There is no cast for my heart.

But maybe, in a tiny, infinitely significant way, those golden autumn leaves balance out the bleeding inside me. The thundering tropical rains and sunset lightning storms over desert mountains—maybe, inexplicably, impossibly, they soothe the ache.