The other morning as I was biking, I suddenly felt the most delicious fall breeze on my face. The kind of breeze the holds the promise of leaves changing colors, apple cider, and the coming of crisp frosty mornings. Except it was April. And I live in Quito, located almost exactly on the equator line, which means there are pretty much no seasons. And actually, it’s been almost 9 years now since I’ve experienced anything close to full cycle of New England seasons.
But there is a part of my heart that hasn’t forgotten. And that part of my heart yearned for it to be fall- to be able to experience again the crunch of stepping on fallen leaves.
And I thought, maybe its time for me to go back. but in that same instant I knew that going back would just mean that I would then be there, missing here.
There is something terrible about having your heart split in two. No matter where you are, there is part of you always missing another; another person, another place. And I wondered if it isn’t just better to never have to know that pain, to always live in the same town, hold close to you all the same familiar sites. Like there is a certain bliss in ignorance. But then at the same time I knew it wouldn’t be possible for me. My heart has always been too wide and wandering, desiring to see more, to know more, to experience more.
And, unlike some people, you wont hear me gushing about how I just love, love South America and love Latino culture or spanish (sometimes which I occasionally hear in almost obsessive, fetish like terms) nor how its just I’ve always felt a calling to be here. Nothing like that at all. I cant even identify with those people, really. But rather, its just become what I know. Its not so much that its a “special” place for me, but just simply its become my place. My entire professional life has happened here, in this culture. Ive known love and loss. And on a very superficial level, Its become my expectations that I should always have fresh fruit juices available to me for only a $1.
So then I start to get worried I might never be able to go back. Is there a point of no return? I always say I’ll go back in a couple years, and then a couple years becomes a couple more and then a couple more, and pretty soon I’m going to hit a decade living out of the US. I have to get my American pop culture knowledge from reading the New York Times online. Its gotten that bad. (although in my defense, other expats have told me that they do the same). We once were interviewing to hire someone for my company here, and I found what I thought was the perfect candidate for the position, multiple years of experience working abroad. but she decided in the end to move back to the US, fearing that if she didn’t do it then, she never would be able to. That stayed with me, years later. And Im afraid of crossing that invisible line too.
Yes at the same time, I know I wont ever fully become Ecuadorian. Yes, I’ve largely adapted (running chronically late was a bad habit I had from before that fits in just perfectly here). And I’ve long up on trying to plan out my schedule months ahead of time. But, this sense was confirmed by a British man who has been here 30 years; when I asked, he said, no, he still feels British, not Ecuadorian. I wonder about immigrants to the US who so strongly insist that they are Americans. I respect and accept that, I just don’t feel it. Maybe because they had to struggle so hard and long to be accepted in their new culture and country, whereas I have always been welcomed with open arms.
I did have a strange flash moment where I realized, was I to have biological children, I would want them to be “Americans.” To have their self-identity be American, like mine. I couldn’t figure why that mattered so much to me, but it was something I felt, viscerally.
I think its because that despite the fact that on t
he surface it might appear I’ve rejected my
own culture, being away from it has actually made me appreciate it so much more. Like I needed to be able to step back a bit to get some perspective to be able to see all its given me (the same thing sort of happened with my relationship with my parents when I went away to college, I suddenly could get past the petty fights and see how much they loved me). Because I can now see that while it has deep, ugly flaws, still my country and culture have also given so so much.
Privilege, its an ugly word. But its true. More than I ever realized. I have so much privilege. Being born in the American family, which I did nothing to pick or earn, has given me hundreds of advantages. I recently met a man from Egypt who was traveling in Ecuador. I found that curious and unusual, so we chatted for a bit. He mentioned he had some extra time before his return flight he was unsure how to fill, so I suggested the typical routes of Peru or Colombia. But he replied he wasn’t allowed to enter those countries with his passport. I was so shocked. I take it so much for granted that I can enter pretty much any country in the world I want (see my experience trying to get into Bolivia) without even thinking about it at all. Its just a matter of buying the flight.
Or, take another example. The dream of studying abroad, doing a masters in Europe. Something a lot of middle class Ecuadorians my age strive for. Except that means taking an English proficiency test. And coming up with something like $2,000 for tuition and another $18,000 for living costs (what I would consider amazing price for a masters, and even then I have easy access to low-interest student loans if needed) Translating all official documents. And getting approved for the visa. Taking the GMAT in English. So many significant hurtles which for me would be not much more work than a simple bit of paperwork (well, except for the GMAT, but still at least I’m taking it in my native language). I didn’t earn any of these benefits, I didn’t pick to be born in the US, but I was, and I get all of this for free as part of the package.
So it leads me to the question, what should I do with all this? I cant just hold it all in for myself, working to get a bigger house and fancier electronics and fancier vacations. Or the expat dream of having a house in each country and getting to split my year going back and forth. No, there has to be something more I can do with this split heart of mine. Here I am, 31 and still trying to figure. It. Out. Thought I would have by now…
Anyway, for the moment, here’s to apple pie made with babaco, humus made with chocos, mortinos in my blueberry muffins, queso fresco on my nachos, mora in my berry cobbler and every other mixed culture food combination that perfectly illustrates what I means to have a bit of everywhere mixed in, seasoning your soul.