A Reality Float
This weekend I was at salsa bar in Portland. I escaped from a twirling-wonderland on the dance floor for a brief re-hydration break.
The bartender gave me the acknowledgement nod.
Me: “Agua, por fa.”
Bartender: *Weird look*
Me: “I’m sorry…. WATER, please.”
Bartender: “In a glass?”
Me: “Agua Pura, en botella.”
Bartender: “WHAT?” *disturbed now by the amount of time I was taking*
Me: “I’m sorry! Water…purified…I can’t remember what’s it’s called!”
Bartender: “In a bottle?” *raising an eyebrow in an expression that added “you freak” onto the end of his otherwise polite question*
Me: “YES! Thank you!” I gasped.
Yes. Assimilation back into American culture is on my thoughts today. If you follow this journal, you probably know that I had a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what I’d feel and think upon re-entry into this society. Well, big surprise, almost everything has turned out to be contrary to my expectations. Of course I should have known better. For anytime I think I can advance on the chess-board-of-Expectation, Life has a way of slyly making some totally unforeseen move, forcing me to toss my previously successful strategy out the window ranting “you are good for nothing!”, where upon Life confidently and mockingly proclaims “checkmate.” So after successfully adapting to “home” for one month, I’ve taken some time to reflect on a few of those self-created myths regarding my re-integration into American reality that are currently fertilizing the flowerbed outside my mental window.
Myth #1: That bouts of depression and sadness would be unavoidable and that I would constantly talk about the past year and feel frustration in being unable to covey concepts that only existed in a Central American reality.
Contrary to what I expected, I have NOT yet had a single urge to break down crying in the shower in desperation of my discontinued adventures in Central America. Neither have I had the urge to pull out my hair and run screaming to the nearest airport to purchase a ticket to Anywhere, Buthere. In fact, I am totally and completely content.
Now as I had correctly guessed, the year abroad HAS taken on a dream-like quality. Of course the capital-case BUT comes before the fact that it is a dream I remember with VIVID clarity and with lasting impact. It’s almost as if the year was filled with SO many adventures and comical moments, that I actually NEEDED this downtime in order to fully relive, re-appreciate and LAUGH over the delight they were really responsible for. Have you ever caught a stranger on the street alone, and grinning or laughing hysterically to his or herself? Well that person is me. I now regularly find myself during moments of reflective solitude (on my runs, while in my car alone, laying in bed in the morning, etc) suddenly breaking out in mad fits of laughter. So not only am I not sad, but the memories only continue to entertain and delight.
Also, in direct contradiction to my prior assumption that I would have an impossible time relating my experiences to people at home, I have found that friends and family actually DO want to hear my stories, and are VERY patient and genuine in their interest in understanding my experiences. Of course, ironically, once I got here, I didn’t really feel like talking about my experiences any more. Instead I found myself totally content with full ownership on the patents of those memories, and even so much as treasured them, just for BEING my own.
So here I am – happy. A state of being that I’m beginning to suspect is nothing but a permanent trait of my character. I give Genetics the Grammy for this overly optimistic disposition of mine knowing that my own name will probably get a mention somewhere in the thank-you speech. The only down-flaw with what I call my “prozac-perspective” is that I can’t seem to give an objective opinion on my experiences:
“What did you think of Guatemala?”
“I LOVED it!”
“What did you think of the chicken busses?”
“There were GREAT!”
“How did you like working in the dump?”
“It was AWESOME.”
Sometimes, when asked for an opinion, I neglect to realize that SOME people don’t LIKE countries with especially high crime rates. That some people don’t see rides on overcrowded and dangerous busses as adventurous. That some people aren’t comfortable working in a community filled with dangerous fumes, diseases, and gangs. Which is why when I’m asked for opinions or advice, I most often find myself simply handing over my tattered and torn Lonely Planet Guidebook.
Probably the most important falsity of the myth is that I don’t feel any immediate inclination to return to the places where all those fond memories were born. Although that time and those experiences have influenced my character development significantly and irreversibly, I am cheerfully satisfied with my performance in that Guatemalan play and find myself ready and eager to move on to my next set.
Myth #2: That the joys of new passions discovered in Central America would be nontransferable to my life in America.
As evident by the opening quotes, Central America has left ample evidence of her lasting influence on my life. Suddenly I find Spanish everywhere! It’s in the aisles in supermarkets, over loudspeakers in airports, in bookstores and magazines, on multiple television channels and certainly in conversations around every corner. This weekend alone, I had at least six conversations in Spanish with different individuals from Guatemala, Salvador and Columbia. And it’s not that I seek these people out now – no, they were always there. It’s that my eyes and ears have just been opened to awareness of their presence. Yesterday, I even attended (and was severely humbled) at an all-day Salsa workshop in Portland. And my wonderful and dear father makes sure there is an endless supply of both avocados AND mangos in the kitchen solely to appease the unrelenting appetite for these treats that I acquired in Guatemala. Unbeknownst to me, all my favorite things about Central America had smuggled themselves into my baggage looking for a little adventure abroad of their own. How silly was I to think that those newfound passions would be deterred by a four-hour flight!
Myth #3: That I would feel unchanged.
Although totally happy, nothing could have prepared me for how DIFFERENT I feel.
A year of absence from American social influences has proved enlightening, if not a bit disturbing. Suddenly I feel bombarded with pressures and demographic norms and numbers and rules as to how to live my life.
I should get married before I’m 30? I should commit to each career for 2 years before considering a change? I should have started saving for my retirement when I was in my early 20’s? I need to go to grad school? It’s best to have children when I’m young? I’m wasting money by renting instead of investing in a house? 2 weeks of vacation from work each year is enough?
Now laid before me — in a light that only a year abroad could have shed — I can see the absolutely overwhelming influences of this American society. Twenty-five years of age here directly translates to twenty five years of demanding instruction by school, family, bosses, church, magazines, doctors, friends, movies, parents, teachers, co-workers and books on what exactly it takes to be happy in life. AS WELL as the guidelines to the who’s, what’s, when’s and where’s of attaining that happiness. And although Society has some serious muscle, I certainly was never force-fed. I would say it took more of an innocent and playful “putt-putting” plane approach, coming in for such a happy landing, that I didn’t even know it was mashed peas I was being served. I’ve never considered myself particularly susceptible to societal notions of “ideal”, but I am forced to admit that this atmosphere makes me squirm. Society keeps on feedin’ and I know I no longer have any obligation to eat it. I have put my spoon down, but regardless, I am uncomfortable at this dinner table. When faced with those tiers of expectation, how can anyone feel less than a failiure? No one can live THAT life. I will happily raise my hand and declare myself defunct from that ideal right now.
So here I am. I have absolutely no desire to let any type of precious metal near the fourth finger on my left hand like 95% of my friends. And I do NOT want an American flag sticker on my car. Fancy cars hold absolutely no wow-power for me and I could care less which big shot law firm the guy sitting next to me at the bar works for. I’m in the moonless-dark when it comes to the dinner discussion lingo pertaining to house down payments, wedding registries and Italian shoes. And two weeks of vacation from work a year will never be enough.
Being age 25 in the States, and being 25 on the road, are two totally different things. On the road, I am young. In America, I am “of age to start accepting certain responsibilities.” On the road I am free of commitments. In America, without a commitment to a career or significant other, I am “not preparing for my future.” On the road, I am chasing down my dreams. In America, I appear to be “running away from responsibility.” On the road, I am opening multiple doors to new worlds of opportunity. In America, I am closing doors and “passing up opportunities that I can only take advantage of while I’m young.”
And on the road, I am surrounded by others who share my excitement for the pursuit of something different. On the road, we’re all alone, all “in between” careers, all out of our element, and all vacationing from influence. And I’m learning that as wonderful as being “independent” and “alone” and “different” are, there is still something very special about having a community of people who share your same tastes at the dining table of life.
And above all else, on “the road”, the person I agree with, the person I AM, the 25-year old that I am comfortable BEING — feels at home. There, is my table.
Of course, I had to come here again to so clearly recognize that difference.
I feel as if I’m not so much “caught” but “floating” between realities. I understand this American one, know all the rules and can play the game, and even enjoy it (after all, it wasn’t so long ago that I took it quite seriously). And as long as I learn to “play” only for the sake of “playing” (and not “winning” — whatever prize that would be) — it can be quite fun. I take my turns and watch peacefully as others take theirs but I have no real interest in this pursuit. It’s not my game. My pursuit, my “place” is not here — not now anyway. As for what reality I’m floating TO, I’m not sure, and THAT, I admit, is a bit scary. But I do know I’m more comfortable with “the float” than I am at the dinner table discussing color schemes for wedding napkins. MY place is being set at a dinner table somewhere else, amongst unknown friends, in unknown lands — where mashed peas are not on the menu. And in this transitional period, I know that place will await me patiently. As I, smiling and squirming just a little bit in my seat, continue to await my path to that table.