My first thought this morning was that I was much too warm, but that I didn’t have enough blankets. I was vaguely aware that it was late morning, but it was much too quiet: no dogs barking, no trucks outside, no clanging at the shop across the street. I became aware of a heavy vibrating mass on my back, and a second one pressed up against my side. Slowly I become aware that I was lying diagonally across a queen-size bed. My bed. I open one eyelid: the clock my grandparents gave me for my high school graduation reads 10:36 in large fluorescent green numbers. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I’ll fully regain consciousness and discover that it’s December 9th, and that I get to ride an airplane to Mexico tonight. “It can’t have been a dream,” I tell myself. “I know too much about Misa to have made it all up.” I lift my head and see my packed suitcase on the floor. Tentatively, I reach for my Droid and look at the “Countdown to Apizaco” widget on my home screen; what once read over 300 days now reads “0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.” I land back on my pillows as Striper jumps off my back with a growl. Again I reach the conclusion that air travel is just too fast for the human psyche to keep up. After 20 days in Apizaco my body is home, but my brain is stuck somewhere over Texas and my thoughts are trapped in central Mexico.
Okay, so waking up this morning wasn’t exactly like that. But if I could have scripted the event, that’s how it would have gone down. I’ve been writing this blog in my head for a week now, knowing that I would need to find a way to process the transition back into my real world. This is not a blog about my time in Mexico, but about how the time has affected me. I cannot go forward until I stand still and process how going back has changed me, and I can never go back without being changed. It is this part of the process, and the next few days thinning into weeks that I think are the real reason I don’t like to go back very often. I have probably spent months of the last 17 years trying to work this whole identity thing out in my head. I don’t know if it’s normal for TCKs to do that, but I’ve never been normal. I’m pretty sure that I feel these things more deeply and analyze them more fully than anyone else I know. I have always known that the bi-cultural me has a Mexico side and an America side, and that I am fully neither. I have come to understand that I function well within each world if I can isolate it. I am more American now than Mexican, and I’m okay with that for the most part. Trying to explain this so concretely, though, is oversimplifying in the extreme. It’s easy for anyone to understand that I, in a sense, flip between two different personalities following the norms and rules of the culture I’m in. But to leave it there is like saying that under the candy coating of a peanut M & M is just chocolate, while completely ignoring the massive nut. And this conflict turns me into a massive nut.
I think I figured something out this trip, though: it’s not just two worlds colliding. . . it’s four. There’s the obvious conflict between my American and Mexican cultural identities. But there’s also the less obvious and infinitely more powerful conflict between the Mexico I knew and the Mexico I continue to discover. And understanding the conflict between the second two causes me to reexamine the dynamic between the first two.
I love the Mexico that I knew. Passionately. I remember it as a simple place with careful rules that made everything clear. You knew what was expected of you and what to expect from others. When I left when I was 15, I was loved and had close friends and a great boyfriend and a place in my world where I belonged. I knew that my friends were very poor and had worked 40+ hours a week since they were younger than I was so their families could eat, but they practically lived with us and shared everything we owned; I never really thought about what it must have been like for them to go home at night carrying the weight of
such worry in their hearts. I knew in the back of my mind that I was special because I was American and white and blonde, but the people that mattered to me had known me my whole life and, to this day, I really don’t think they thought of me that way any more than they were forced to. When I came to America, though, I discovered that I was a perfectly ordinary person – smart and musically gifted, but odd and perfectly normal. Certainly not special enough to command the same amount of attention and care that I was used to. I don’t know that I was exactly spoiled, but I had lost my place in a carefully arranged world and was never able to truly find a new place. And the Mexico I knew became romanticized in my mind as Home, the origin, the place of simple hope and innocent living. The older I get the more I realize that this view is simply the view that I had on life as a naive girl who just didn’t have a clue. The thing is, I LIKE thinking of Mexico like this. It’s comforting to believe there is such a safe haven in the world. A place where a 13-year-old girl can walk to the market alone to buy the day’s groceries with no worries other than how many guys will start reciting all the English words they know to get her attention (ki-chen, tay-bel, window, dore). A world where 3 guys will take turns carrying her stuff and opening doors, while she brings them their dinner at night. I like these memories. I cherish them. I don’t mind that they are built up in my memory as a sort of shrine to innocent childhood. I know that there are drug cartels and kidnapping and poverty and immigration issues, and I do care. . . but that is not MY Mexico.
But it wasn’t just me that grew up.
My dear friends grew up. They’ve all left the church now. One is angry. One’s in jail. One is celebrating 3 years of sobriety – I’m so proud of him. The most special of all to me seems to have simply given up. My town grew up. There were 2 paved streets in the town 32 years ago; now the city is so big that the roads can barely hold all the cars. 15 minutes away is a shopping center with a SAM’S Club, Super Wal-Mart, and Home Depot . . . Wal-Mart has a free shuttle into town. My parents technically live a block past the city limit, so their street isn’t paved yet, but there’s a main thoroughfare right behind their house and a big gas station a 2 blocks over. We used to practically live out in the country, but all the land has been filled and the horizon is now stiff with buildings rather than blanketed with tree-studded fields. I don’t really like it. Even worse, I continue to discover that 20 years ago things were not really what I allowed myself to believe them to be. As I sat and reminisced with an old friend a few weeks ago I commented how simple things used to be. He looked at me with his big sad eyes, still caring and protective, and said quietly, “Well, they were simple for you, and we protected you.” Realization of what I’ve always known and never allowed myself to truly dwell upon hit me like never before: his childhood and adolescence, so intertwined with mine, was more radically different than I could ever have imagined. Knowing and understanding are two different things.
It’s not that I mind the changes necessarily, but I hate the destruction of my rose-colored memories. I don’t want to replace them with updated and more accurate information. The protection of any stable understanding of my life depends on them. When they are shaken down and seen in clearer light I am forced to study my own identity outside of my surroundings, outside of what I believed to be true. I wonder how much of what I thought I knew and understood about the world was jaded and skewed because I was so sheltered and protected by the people who loved me.
Which brings me back to the first conflict. Sort of. It really wasn’t such a big deal this time. The culture shock was minimal. Usually I’ll come home and feel guilty over how much I have and appalled at the selection in the cereal aisle, but that’s about the same in both places now. What is sold at the SAM’S Club my parents go to is 85% imported from the US. If anything, I’m intensely bothered by the decreasing contrast between the two worlds. It just isn’t fair to Mexico to be poisoned by American greed and gluttony. But I suppose it’s the way of the world.
What does strike me is the grief that I’m feeling today. To be completely honest, being away from my parents and family isn’t particularly difficult. I’m used to it. It’s a necessary component to the rhythm of my life. It’s not a good or bad rhythm, it just is what it is because that’s how things are. I tried calling my mom 5 times today and couldn’t reach her. I’m not heartbroken; I know she’s okay and knows I got home safe. I miss them, but that’s not the source of my grief. I just really like Mexico. I like the smell of cement and the sound of dogs barking and walking on uneven sidewalks, and the bustle of streets crowded with pedestrians. I enjoy the thrill of jaywalking and delight in the intimacy of kissing everyone on the cheek when you say hello. I love the cadence of the language and the joy in the music and tastes of Christmas. I find joyful refuge in traditions that run as true as blood, things like the precise way in which a piñata is broken . . . as essential and fundamental as the triple-dog-dare protocol. Despite all the changes, I think I truly am at my best and truest when I am there. Maybe it’s just that I’m only there on vacation, but I feel freer there. It is home – not because my family is there, but because it is where I began. I suppose it’s kind of like salmon swimming upstream, fighting to get back to the fresh waters that fostered their lives even though they know they’ll get bounced right back down again. There is something about being in Mexico that makes me want to find a new purpose.
But yesterday, after standing in the Volaris check-in line for an hour, enjoying a lovely Italian dinner in the airport with my parents and Misa, and emptying my carefully crammed backpack so the TSA guard could declare my laser-inscribed Starbucks crystal “muy chido,” I got on an airplane and flew away. I lugged my 70 pounds of luggage up the stairs and into my apartment at 1:30am PST, read my Christmas cards, and went to bed. This morning, I woke up in California. It didn’t really hit me until I crawled out of bed starving at 12:30 and realized that the only thing there was to eat was canned soup and a handful of Wheat Thins. As I unpacked I was hit alternately with happy memories and waves of tears and self-pity that I wasn’t still there. And my conviction is renewed that God gave us feet instead of wings so that we could process and enjoy change at a slower pace. Air travel, while still my favorite way to move about the globe, is just too jarring.
So now, as my mind reverberates with the cacophony of mental vibrations resulting from the clashing of my many worlds, I am forcefully reminded of the word God spoke into my heart when I was 17: “I have given you a homeless heart.” Today, I feel that deeply. Here I am in my little apartment, the place I have called home longer than any other, but I feel strangely out of place. This awkwardness, this sense that I have traded brightness for stability, will continue until the vicious and monotonous pace of work and life sweep me up again. In a few weeks this grief and inner conflict will be a distant memory, and I will again be comfortable in this habitat that I call home.
The question is . . . do I want to be comfortable?