She sat two rows in the front of me, that old woman with beautiful braids. They were woven with light green ribbon that extended down her back. She wore a large hat, although her face was wrinkled from a life of hard work in the sun. With her, she carried many large bags filled with purchases from the market. I marveled at how strong she was to carry such a load, and I wondered why no one was with her in this public transit van to help with her burden.
As we drove through a small mountain town, she told the driver that she would like to be let out by the speed-bump. He slowed to a stop as she paid her fare. The woman sitting next to her, although a complete stranger, helped her move her bags closer to the door. We all waited patiently; older people merit respect and patience.
Just then, a teenager quickly approached the van. The door opened, and he held out his hand as he looked her in the eyes.
“Welcome back grandma.”
He grabbed her heavy load only after he gingerly helped her step down from the van, ensuring that she was steady on her feet. Then, they hugged like they had not said goodbye to each other that very morning, even though I knew that they had.
He had come to help her back home.
“Good afternoon,” I said with a pleasant smile, “would you happen to have change for a dollar?”
These were my first words in the United States after I cleared airport customs. I had arrived a full three hours earlier than expected, and at a different airport to boot. As a consequence, there was no one to greet me, and therefore no ride to the hotel. I needed to make a phone call, and I no longer had a US cell phone.
I entered a small airport gift shop to obtain quarters for a pay-phone. It felt strange speaking to a clerk in English.
The woman looked uninterested in my presence.
“You need to buy something first,” she said dryly.
Welcome home, dear; you are on your own.
Thank goodness my phone call reached the ears of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer/employee of the Peace Corps National office. She is someone well-versed in dealing with last-minute changes in plans. She had me on my way in no time, and with no stress.
Her caring tone also consoled that growing sense of being out-of-place and alone in my home country; I had just been slapped in the face with harsh air conditioning, greeted impersonally, and experienced expansive personal space that seemed to create even more distance between me and my fellow US citizens. I had seen people hurrying around, glued to smart-phones and outfitted with headphones that seemed to isolate them from the surrounding world and from the current moment. It was a disorienting experience to be welcomed home in such a manner.
Maybe I had not noticed these things before, or maybe I was seeing my own culture with different eyes.
It was so refreshing to hear a caring voice on the end of that phone line. I would be ok. I was returning to the USA in the arms of people who understand reverse culture shock. They would understand when I inevitably and accidentally used cultural behaviors that did not fit in the United States.
I was also lucky that I would be accompanied by five other currently-serving volunteers whose eyes would also bulge at the mere sight of hummus. We were all in this together. We would welcome each other home in ways that felt more a bit more familiar, and we would interact at a pace that did not feel like we were living in fast-forward.
This, by no means, is to say that I had a bad time in Washington DC. In fact, it was quite the contrary. I connected with amazing people, created resources to inspire other volunteers, shared my love of blogging and of Mexico, and I indulged! Hot baths, craft beers, nighttime bike rides, and embarrassing amounts of lemon foods all added the final extravagant touches to visits with friends, family, and the US-based Peace Corps community.
After those first few hours, I was surprised with how quickly I found my footing again. With how soon English began to feel normal in my mouth. With how easy it became to straddle two cultures, maintaining footing in each.
This is also not to say that everyone outside of the Peace Corps community greeted me with indifference upon my arrival in Washington.
It is still fresh in my memory how my heart leaped at the knock on my hotel room door. At my shy, slow way of opening the wooden object that separated me from someone I had longed to see. How his head timidly and playfully poked around the corner, finally moving forward to reveal the rest of his body.
After that, I do not remember closing the door, and I do not remember him putting down his bag. All that I remember was the feeling of his arms around me, holding on like he was afraid to let go. I can still feel the texture of his t-shirt against my cheek and the emotion behind the touch. We had been building to this moment for half a year.
That welcome brought tears to my eyes.
After an amazing whirlwind of a trip, I flew back to Mexico. I remember well that first conversation I had after clearing airport customs. It was with a woman working at a sandwich shop.
“Hello! Please sit down; you must be hungry and tired after your travels. What can I get for you?” she asked me with a big, genuine smile. Her tone was so familiar that I felt like I was sitting down in the home of someone I had known for a long time.
Welcome back to Mexico, I thought with a smile. Welcome home.
Home: what does that mean anyhow? Can you really straddle two different cultures and two different homes at the same time? Can you, like a dear friend once told me, wear two different skins? Because I have been finding home in Mexico, does that mean that I have been giving up my home in the United States?
What I have found over the past year is that I have been able to construct a sense of home out of the inherent need to feel like I belong. It was as much survival tactic as it was something natural and organic.
Equally important, I have learned to bring love and support from those in my original home along for the ride. These people are as much a part of my home as those participating in my daily Mexican life. I have learned that, in prioritizing these relationships as well as my own experiences in Mexico, I will continue to be welcomed home again and again in such a loving, sensitive way.
In thinking about “welcome homes,” what strikes me is not how we do it; we all clearly have our customs and our social norms. I certainly do not feel that Mexico or that the United States somehow “does it better than the other;” just differently.
No, what strikes me is the universality of the welcome home. And I was lucky to get two “welcome homes” in one week, from each of my two different homes; from two different parts of me.
Making me smile, DC edition
- The bike infrastructure is simply incredible, and the setting sure is pretty
- Indulging myself with the food, obviously: Moroccan, Greek, Lebanese, Thai, brunch, chocolate mousse, quinoa, basil…I could go on, but then I might start drooling on my keyboard
- Sitting through the most productive meetings in a year and marveling at how hard it was for me to adjust to reacting in a fast-paced American business environment
- Allowing my eyes to widen at the differences and to marvel at how much my worldview had changed, but then remembering that I am from a part of that, and letting it become normal again