Archive for the 'Identity' Category

*Itinerary Subject to Change: Temporarily Suspending a Trip Abroad

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Montmartre, Paris at nightfall.

A young American woman sits alone at a café, studying Sartre’s L’âge de raison in its original French.

In front of her sidewalk table the glorious Basilique du Sacré-Coeur glows like an angel that finally got his wings.  It’s spring, but the air is still cold.  The waiter, more homme than garçon, helps a middle-aged woman with the zipper of her fur coat.

Totally engrossed in existential philosophy, the young woman looks up only once and briefly, to acknowledge receipt of her café au lait and croissant aux amandes, and to ponder the meaning of life.

And scene.

That is an excerpt from Me in Paris, a screenplay I wrote nearly two years ago before my family’s one-week vacation to France.  Nevermind the impossibility of that fantasy – it was fall, I’m nowhere near that proficient in French, and coffee makes me jittery – even if it had come true, it would have represented just a few hours of one evening, not the entire trip.  Honestly, I probably would have spent the rest of the time worrying that the almond croissant would transform itself into a muffin top.

Daydreaming with wild abandon is as integral a part of any pre-overseas ritual as getting vaccinated and renewing your passport.  If I remember correctly, my visions for Argentina involved dulce de leche and tango dancers, while those for New Zealand featured bungy jumping and one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords.

Sadly, those snapshots tend to spontaneously combust upon arrival, when you realize that neither you nor your destination at all resembles the picture in your head.  You then construct a new image of yourself from the rubble, only to have it destroyed again.  This creation-destruction cycle continues until finally your idea of who you are in a given place matches reality.  In my case, I started out a peacock and arose from the ashes a hummingbird.

Faced with the promise of Australia, my imagination began painting the walls of my mind as if it were a hyperactive child with finger paints and an innate appreciation of the works of Jackson Pollock.  Prominent subjects of the fantastically colorful mural were surfing, koalas, and the stage of the Sydney Opera House.

However, at some point imagination gave way to realism.  In a flash of lucidity, I prophesized myself living in a backpacker’s hostel and temping at a telecommunications company, friendless, penniless, and with too much stuff.

Not two months ago, I was camping on the beach in New Zealand with my boyfriend.  Today, I am sitting on the couch of a close friend in Buenos Aires.  The idea that I traded all that for the opportunity to be lonely, frustrated, and uncomfortable in Australia made me queasy.  Of all the things I’m good at, bargaining is not one of them.

On two separate occasions, I have moved abroad alone, with no job or contacts, and minimal savings and language skills.  I did this for a reason – to free myself of familial, societal, and peer pressure, and to find out who I was when there was no one there to tell me who I was supposed to be.

The last five years were phenomenal, propitious, and absolutely necessary for my personal development; but now that I have a clear idea of who I am, what I want to do, and how I want to live my life, I can’t justify subjecting myself yet again to the solitude, insecurity and anxiety inherent in going overseas on your own.  It’s not that I no longer want to be abroad; it’s that I can’t stomach the thought of starting over from scratch a third time.

As with all good nervous breakdowns, this one turned out to be a revelation: after so many years of ego-tourism, I am done with journeys of self-discovery, for now. The next time I travel, it will be with one backpack and a budget, I will leave from and return to the same place, and I will not worry about working, making friends, or paying rent.  Unfortunately, I am broke and burnt out, and in desperate need of a break before I can manage such a trip.

When I called my parents from Buenos Aires to ask if I could stay with them for a few months (instead of through mid-May as originally planned) they were both shockingly sympathetic, supportive, and delighted.  I’m uneasy about the prospect of returning to Michigan, but excited to have two summers in a row.

Postponing my trip to Australia was not an insignificant, easy, or expected decision. But of all the lessons I’ve learned from my time abroad, perhaps the most important are: trust your instincts, drop your pride, and all itineraries are subject to change without prior notice.

Can You Spell That, Please?: Speaking the Kiwi’s English

NZed

A woman walks into a bookstore in Wellington.  She is well dressed and well mannered, probably an executive assistant for the CEO of a dairy company, or some such profession.  She approaches the information desk and asks the salesgirl, an American, for help finding a particular title. The salesgirl begins to enter the customer’s request into the computer’s search engine, but hesitates:

“I’m sorry ma’am, but can you please repeat the title of the book?”
Sick and Violent,” says the woman, a hint of annoyance in her voice. Trying not to judge, the salesgirl assumes her position at the keyboard.
“S-I-C…” She stops, and again asks, “Um, can you repeat that one more time?”
Sick and Violent,” snaps the customer.
“Yea, ok, can you spell that for me, please?”
“S-E-C-O-N-D.”
“Oh, second!” exclaims the salesgirl with a sigh of relief. She pauses. “And the last word?”
“V-I-O-L-I-N.”
Second Violin! I thought you said ‘Sick and Violent.’”  As the woman looks mortified, the salesgirl tries to alleviate the tension with a joke, “I swear we speak the same language.”
“It must be my accent.  I’ll go home and practice my English,” replies the customer, with not a hint of a sense of humor. Sadly, this type of misunderstanding happens all the time.

I understand how pathetic this is; but one of the reasons why I finally decided to leave Argentina was that I missed English.  Or maybe it was that my English had gone missing.  I had already been living in Buenos Aires for nearly two years when my friend came to visit.  After a few minutes of conversation, she remarked, “I’m so happy that you don’t sound like a Neanderthal.” She was right: thanks to my job as a customer service manager for a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, as well as my American friends and co-workers, my English was still standing; but it was also starting to deteriorate.

Between living in Spanish and studying French, my total vocabulary had no doubt increased considerably.  However, the quantity of English words under my command had decreased markedly (a fact which I successfully disguised with the help of Thesaurus.com).  I no longer noticed when I Espanglishized my speech: “Sure, I’d love to meet you there.  What’s the direction?” (Dirección being the Spanish word for address.)  And don’t get me started on prepositions – do you arrive at, in, or to a city? Honestly, I’m still not sure.  Yet, it wasn’t until the following conversation with my mother about her upcoming dinner party that I realized just how bad things had gotten:

“So, what time are people going to your house for dinner?” I asked.  My mother giggled, somewhat condescendingly, like she was watching an episode of Kids Say The Darndest Things.
“Oh, Amy.  In English, we say what time are people coming to your house for dinner.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I protested, “I’m not at your house and neither are the guests.  Logically, it should be going not coming.”
“I appreciate your argument, but it’s still coming.”
En serio?
“Yes, Amy, en serio.”
“Whatever.”

With the decision to dedicate myself to becoming a writer, I concluded that it would be beneficial to immerse myself once again in English.  My father was quick to point out, repeatedly, that in New Zealand, I would have to learn a whole new dialect.  As much as I hate to admit it, he was right.  Differences in punctuation, pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary abound.  For example, Kiwis seem to have an adverse reaction to the Oxford Comma (such as the one used before “and vocabulary” in the previous sentence), apostrophes, and periods at the end of abbreviations (as in Mr).  Harbor becomes harbour, theater becomes theatre, organize becomes organise, and so on.  I am often accused of being Irish because, as it turns out, only Irish and Americans pronounce their “R’s”. Just what are togs, jandals and singlets, you ask?  You’ll just have to go clothes shopping in NZed to find out.

Perhaps my favorite part of Kiwi speak is its “as” (not ass, as).  “Sweet as” is probably one of the most common phrases you will hear in New Zealand (and see printed on t-shirts in tourist shops).  Basically, it’s just the first half of a simile, and means “cool” or “awesome.”  The “as” format can be used with just about any adjective –  “It’s cold as outside”, “I’m tired as” – and saves you from having to come up with a clever comparison to describe the situation.  Sure, it sounds like people are speaking in incomplete Mad Libs; but while some may call this lazy, I call it genius.

My least favorite part, in case you were wondering, is how excessively polite people are:
“Your total comes to $100.”
“That’s lovely.  Eftpos [debit card], please.”
“Your card was declined.”
“Cheers.  I’ll use a different card.”
“You entered the wrong pin.”
“That’s lovely.”
“Is that your baby?  I ask only because it’s hideous.  Seriously, get it out of my face.”
“Thanks. You have a wonderful day. Taa.”

They also have a penchant for shortening words and adding a “y” or “ie” to the end of them – brekkie for breakfast, cardy for cardigan – making it sound like the language was invented by two ten-year old girls named Tiffany and Brittany while playing with their Barbies.  Then again, if you’ve ever heard a rugby player ask if you’ve seen his sunnies, you might find the practice more charming than juvenile.

What really gets me into trouble is Maori, especially in place names.  When a customer returns an item, we have to ask for their address, which often goes something like this:
“Can I ask for your city/suburb?”
“Sure, it’s Paraparaumu.”
“Your papa raises emus?”
“Para-para-umu.  How could you miss that?”  At least most cities are spelled exactly how they sound.

The other day, one of my coworkers came up to me with a giant grin on her face,
“When it’s time for your break, there are Shrewsburies, Squiggles, and Tim Tams in the staff room!”
“I want you to know you just sounded like a passage from Harry Potter to me.  What are all those things?”
“Biscuits!”
“What?”
“You’re so cute,” she laughed.

Most people find such barriers to communication amusing, and are eager to explain to me the meaning of Kiwi words, phrases, and product names.  Unfortunately, when I can’t understand their accent, most people seem to find that offensive.  When we learn a different language, we tend to ignore the accent, concentrating on memorizing vocabulary and mastering grammar (this is likely due to embarrassment, as no one wants to speak French like the chef from The Little Mermaid).  However, this is a huge mistake.  It doesn’t matter how complex are your sentence structures if people can’t understand a damn word you say.
Trust me, there is nothing more frustrating than asking the cashier at the supermarket if you can pay with a tarjeta de crédito while waving your credit card in front of her face, and having her spit at you, “no te entiendo.”  On more than one occasion while living in Argentina, I had someone stop me mid-conversation to ask, “what language are you speaking – English or Spanish?”  And then there were the infamous “I don’t hear the difference” exchanges:
Dónde está el libro?
El qué?
El libro.
El qué?
El libro.”
Ah, el liiiiibro!”
“I don’t hear the difference.”
Eventually, I resigned myself to the importance of the accent, and set about relearning how to pronounce Spanish words.  By that point, it was too late for perfection, but at least I wasn’t humiliated every time I spoke.

Just as Argentine Spanish (Castellano) sounds radically different from Spanish, Mexican, or Chilean Spanish, Kiwi English sounds radically different from English, American, and yes, even Australian English.  In “Eh?”, a recent article featured in Your Weekend (the Saturday supplement of Wellington’s Dominion Post), David Killick explains, “Want to talk like a Kiwi?  Easy.  Put a peg on your nose. Now, change the vowel sounds: A to E; E to I; I to U. Talk in a monotone, and finish each sentence with an upward inflexion, like a question.”  So, for all you Flight of the Conchords fans out there, the answer is yis! Kiwis really do talk like that, sort of.  According to the article, many New Zealanders themselves struggle with New Zealand English, deeming it ugly and incomprehensible.  Even Prime Minister John Key has come under attack for his strong Kiwi accent; although the article is careful to emphasize that clarity, not accent, is the real problem.

In fact, the New Zealand accent may be a solution.  I have read elsewhere that New Zealand’s departure from the Queen’s English mimics the country’s attempt to distance itself culturally and politically from its former colonial ruler.  Following this line of argument, New Zealand, a young country just now entering its rebellious teenage years, is using speech to establish and assert its unique identity.   Personally, I support and empathize with New Zealand’s attempt to create (or find, whichever you prefer) itself, even if I can’t always understand what its saying.

I’ve long since believed that the way you speak says as much about you as your actual words.  I finally came to embrace my accent in Spanish because it perfectly expressed my experience in Argentina: I lived there long enough to insert myself into the local community and adopt many local customs and colloquialisms, but not long enough to abandon my native tongue or disassociate from country of origin.   Already, I have versions of my CV and cover letter in Kiwi English, and the words “reckon” and “meant to” have been sneaking into my speech more than I would care for them to (as in “What do you reckon the Prime Minister meant to say?”) There’s no telling how much worse it will get.  Just do me a favor: if you ever hear me say “cheers” in place of “thanks”, smack me. Taa.

Everyone Else Just Sits Here: Explaining Where You Come From

AbroadTable Setting

Perhaps the most inevitable question you face when you travel abroad is, where are you from? But regardless of how common, it is hardly straightforward. Especially when you confront its English-as-a-second-language cousin, where do you come from? The latter variant is particularly confusing when asked by a fellow backpacker, who could simply be inquiring into your travel itinerary.

Rarely do you meet a long-term overseas traveler whose current hometown is also their birth city. In my case, my last permanent residence wasn’t even my birth country. At the very least, most people move to a different city or region to work or study. Some people no longer have a mailing address, having spent months or years carrying their house on their back. Consequently, “I’m not really sure how to answer that,” and “What exactly do you mean?” are the two most popular answers.

Before arriving in New Zealand, I worried that as soon as I left Argentina, my experience in South America would be expunged from my record. People would hear my accent and incorrectly assume that I lived in – that I had come from – the United States. This misconception would only be encouraged by my own declaration that “I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan.” They would want to know my opinion on the latest season of Lost, the presidential elections, and childhood obesity. They would ask me about Michael Moore, student life at the University of Michigan, and why my city is named “Ann Harbor” if it is a city of wild grape trees and lush vegetation. And I would have no comment.

Luckily, my friend rescued me from awkward small talk. During her wedding festivities, she introduced me to other guests as “her friend from Argentina.” At dinner, the tables were named for the cities from which people had traveled to attend the wedding. “Amy Goldstein: Buenos Aires,” read my place card. My neighbor quipped, “This is your table. The rest of us just sit here.”

Even though I was grateful to not have to field questions that would be best answered with “N/A,” hearing my friend tell people that I was from Argentina made me slightly uncomfortable. While technically true (I did in fact come to New Zealand from Argentina), it felt dishonest. I was born and raised in America by American parents. Surely, three and a half years abroad was not enough to supplant twenty-two years in the United States. More importantly, it’s obvious that I am not actually Argentine. Or is it?

A few weeks ago, I walked into a store in Wellington, casually greeting the shop owner. “Argentina?” he fired back. I stopped dead in my tracks. “No,” I replied, slowly turning around, “but it’s funny that you should say that.” Apparently, his hypothesis was based on a combination of my accent and my looks. Once we established that I was an American with an odd way of speaking, he began to guess my ancestry. After correctly identifying my Russian heritage, he moved on to the other half. “Italian?” he ventured. I revealed that I was actually 100% Russian. “Well, there must have been a soldier or something along the way,” he said with a wink.

While I was staying at a hostel in Napier, a few local girls asked where I was from. When I told them the United States, they stared at me blankly, prompting me to add “of America,” for the sake of clarity. “Oh,” they replied, “you could be from Brazil or something.” When I stopped at a petrol station in Gisborne, the cashier, no doubt an acquaintance of the shop owner from Wellington, insisted on divining my origins before allowing me to pay for my Diet Coke. “Your eyes are French, but your skin is Spanish,” he declared after a thorough (and invasive) examination. I immediately started giggling, prompting another customer to join the game. His guess was Greek. “I wish I was Mediterranean,” I confessed. “You’re an Aussie!” the cashier exclaimed with an enthusiastic clap of the hands. Clearly they were not the best judges.

“No! I’m American,” I explained, now unable to control my laughter.

As I made my way to the door, I heard the other customer ask, “Do all Americans have long legs?”

“Oh. Thanks. And no,” I replied before getting the hell out of there.

Generous interpretation of my proportions aside (I’m 5’1″), what shocked me most about all of these exchanges is that everyone failed to recognize that I could be Argentine, Italian, Brazilian, Spanish, French, and Greek, and still be American. Remarkably, in today’s world of multinational states and stateless nations, we still associate citizenship with nationality. Myself included. When I lived in Argentina, I was constantly surprised at hearing someone evidently of Asian origin speak perfect Castellano. Interestingly, I never had this reaction when I lived in the United States. Maybe that’s why Americans never have any trouble identifying me as American. In the States, heterogeneity and diverse ancestry is not only accepted, it is expected and, in many places, celebrated.

Recently, while opening a bank account, I asked the woman assisting me if she was from Wellington. She hesitated. “Well, I guess I should say that I’m from China.” She went on to explain that she had lived the majority of her life, up to that point, in China and that all of her relatives still lived there. But she had been living in Wellington with her partner for over six years. So is she Chinese or is she a Kiwi?

What criteria should we use to determine where people are from and to which group they belong? What carries the most weight: where our parents are from, where we are born, where we are raised, or where we choose to live as adults? What counts more: nature or nurture, birth or free will? What about skin color (tanned or untanned?), lifestyle, religion, or adoption? And if our background and cultural identity are so relative and malleable, do they even matter?

Not long ago, my friend and I were discussing a similar topic. She mentioned the father of a mutual friend, who was born abroad and speaks English with an accent. She explained that when he talks, my friend does not hear an accent, she simply hears his voice. We tend to dissect people, breaking them down into their component pieces. We analyze and use this information to help us understand who they are and why they are that way. We paint them by numbers. But all of those colors combine to create the portrait of an individual who is so much more than the sum of his parts. In the end, when it comes to people, what truly matters is the big picture.

Still, I need a satisfactory answer to the unavoidable question. (“I don’t define myself based on unnatural, socially constructed ideas of identity” is just too wordy and annoying.) I think that I’m going to follow the example set by my newlywed friend and start telling people that I am from Argentina. After all, it is my last country of residence, both legally and sentimentally. And as soon as possible, my parents and I are going to have to have a chat about our family tree.

Nouveau Riche: Moving Abroad and Movin’ On Up

Buenos Aires, Argentina

A funny thing happened on the way to Argentina: my socioeconomic status changed.  Growing up in the States, I, like most of my friends and classmates, was middle/upper-middle class.  I never wanted for anything, and often got exactly what I wanted, probably because I never asked for too much.  As is common to my social class, I learned that what you have does not define who you are, the value of hard work and earning your own allowance, and to judge the way that other people spend their money.  This middle class doctrine was only compounded by the quasi-Socialist values of the liberal, intellectual college town where I was born and raised.  Imagine my surprise when I moved to South America, and my assortment of iPods, brand name clothes, passport stamps, and Bat Mitzvah savings all catapulted me into the upper class, albeit the lower-upper class.

Because Buenos Aires looks and feels like a major European city, it can be hard to remember that it is the capital of a developing country.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the world’s ten richest countries, an economic powerhouse with per capita income similar to that of France or Germany.  Despite its strong start, during the past century the country was plagued with financial instability, thanks in large part to a turbulent political situation.  However, during the 1990s, with the peso pegged to the dollar, Argentina had one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Citizens were once again wealthy at home and abroad.

Then, in 2001, Argentina suffered a disastrous economic crisis.  Convertibility ended and the peso depreciated significantly leading to inflation, as Argentina had no way of quickly compensating for its dependence on inexpensive foreign imports.  By 2002, Buenos Aires was considered one of the cheapest cities in Latin America.  The previous year, it had been the most expensive.  Even though the Argentine economy has rebounded sharply in the past five years, growing at an average rate of 8.5%, prices are rising and people are struggling.  Argentina is like one of those families who continues to keep up appearances after the father gambles away the family fortune, both reluctant to lose its place in high society and confident in its ability to stage a comeback.

Buenos Aires remains a beautiful, even luxurious place, but fewer are those who can afford to take advantage of what it has to offer, and many of them are not from around here.  It used to bother me the way that wealthy Westerners have converted Buenos Aires into the world’s hottest outlet mall, capitalizing on the city’s supply of high style and quality at low cost.  But even if it was not my intention to profit from the misfortune of an entire nation, I, too, have benefited from Argentina’s financial woes.

The quality of my life in Buenos Aires has been far greater than it would have been in the United States or Europe, under similar conditions. I have been able to treat myself to dinners at fancy restaurants, late-night taxis, scuba vacations, apartments in the nicest neighborhoods, and classes at the top dance and yoga studios.  Not all the time or every day, but enough.  And my lifestyle has been financed with nothing more than the money I made as a summer intern at an international consulting firm before moving abroad, and, later, a generous nonprofit salary.

My partners in consumption are either fellow expats or members of the country’s elite. Amazingly, although absolute measures of wealth may vary from country to country, social class stereotypes remain constant.  Having a roommate in Argentina is uncommon, as most young people can’t afford to leave home.  Argentines willing and able to open their doors to a stranger are often those whose parents have purchased them a spacious apartment, among other things, and want to fill the extra space and earn extra spending money.  I have watched such roommates eat Ramen noodles with a silver spoon, because they don’t know how to cook, and I have seen mothers come over to do the dishes and drop off dry cleaning.  On one occasion I heard a roommate chastise a houseguest for leaving clothes to dry in the living room, because, “it makes us look like we’re from the ghetto.”

Finding friends who share the same financial situation, background, and social values, priorities, and interests has been challenging.  I am neither obsessed with appearances nor incapable of caring for myself, and the assumptions can be aggravating.  A group of Argentine girls once confessed to a British friend of mine that they don’t eat fast food because they couldn’t be seen in “places like that.”  Since my friend is from London, they imagined she shared their snobbery, failing to realize that she routinely finishes her Saturday night with a Big Mac and fries.  If I comment on how expensive an item is, the store clerk inevitably reminds me that it’s cheap in dollars.  Leaving me to explain that I don’t have dollars, I earn and spend in pesos.  And people quickly assume that my parents are maintaining me.  Maybe I am well-educated, traveled, and dressed, but I am not a rich kid at heart.  We may dine at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores, and live in the same neighborhood, but we got there in very different ways.  Or did we?

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that I am more spoiled, and more of a brat than I would care to admit.  Thanks to my parents, I have no student loans, and following graduation, I had free room, board, and car insurance, enabling me to save for my trip abroad.  My financial freedom is backed by my parents’ dual income, and the knowledge that my bedroom has not yet been converted into a study.  I am notoriously careless with my possessions: dropping new cell phones in rivers, eating and drinking in front of my computer, and heaping dirty clothes in piles on the floor.  Partly because I am lazy and partly because I know that these things can be replaced.  After all, it’s only money.

Since moving to South America, I have wrestled feelings of guilt; for having so much while so many people have too little and, more importantly, for being ungrateful of what I have and taking my privilege for granted.  Growing up, I never felt relatively deprived, but I never felt relatively wealthy either.  I now understand that much of what for me is an expectation is a luxury to the rest of the world.

These past few months, I have had to cut back in order to stay within my budget.  I walk or take the bus, I cook instead of eat out, and I don’t shop or go to the movies.  I’ve also become domesticated, hanging up and folding, making my bed, and scrubbing the bathroom floor. I’ve learned to take responsibility for and pride in my belongings and to make the most of less.  At some point, I even considered renouncing the pursuit of worldly pleasures.  But, then I realized that having just enough to survive is not just stressful, it’s lonely, because you have nothing left to share.

Fortunately, my reality is not one of subsistence.  While I don’t want it to be one of excess, either, I do want to be able to go out for drinks with friends, have space for houseguests, and treat those people who have taken care of me to dinner. I like being able to do nice things for the people I care about, and that requires resources.  Besides, you are no help to anyone else if all of your time, energy, and money are focused on you and your own survival.   And sure, I don’t need pretty things, but I want them, because there is nothing wrong with having beauty in your life, especially if you appreciate it.  I guess it’s a good thing my mother’s coming to visit me in a week.

Just Say No: Letting Good Opportunities Go

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaPainting

I just found out about an incredible opportunity: STA Travel’s 2009 World Traveler Internship. STA Travel is the world’s largest student and youth travel company.  For obvious reasons, both commercial and social, they actively encourage young people to travel abroad.  The summer internship program is a two-month, all expenses paid trip around the world.  In return, the interns must document their experience through videos, blogs, and photos.  This year, STA is sending two people to Fiji, Australia, India, Kenya, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Scotland, and Ireland.  Candidates must be between the ages of 18-26, active, and have a strong desire to travel the world and share their experiences with others; excellent creative, written and verbal skills; an outgoing personality, and basic computer skills.  The first thing I thought when I learned of this program was, “Damn.  Now I’m going to have to apply for this.”

Rarely does such a perfect opportunity come along.  I have no plans for summer ’09 (in fact, after March my dance card is wide open).  Not only do I meet the requirements, I had already been hoping that in the future New Zealand would serve as the jumping off point for a trip around the world.   And if I were to globetrot as an STA Intern, I would be able to develop my writing, photography, video, and journalism skills.   This program was clearly meant for me.

Every one who knows me knows that I am annoyingly and inappropriately competitive. (Except when it comes to bowling.  There’s just no point competing at something when you know there’s no chance of winning.)  In college, my friend and I made another girl cry while playing Sorry! (Although, I’m not sure that was entirely our fault.  Seriously, who actually cries over a board game?)   So, if I am generously sharing this information with potential rivals, it can only mean one thing:  I’ve decided not to apply.

The day I learned of the program, I was so distracted that I couldn’t even concentrate during my guided meditation.  Instead, I took advantage of the time to mentally write the script for my application video.   By the end of the day, my roommate, who studied film production, had agreed to help with the concept and editing, and my friends had been recruited as actors.  Driven to insomnia, I stayed up all night picking out music and pictures to include in the video.   In the morning, after having slept on the idea (albeit fitfully), my enthusiasm started to wane.   I tried to motivate myself: “You might as well apply.  You’ve got nothing to lose and nothing better to do.”  But by afternoon, the pep talk had turned into: “I kind of hope they don’t pick me.” And there’s just no point applying for something that you don’t even want.

I already have a plan A: moving to New Zealand, looking for a job in writing, getting my own apartment, meeting new people, and staying in one place long enough to build momentum and move forward.  After three years of perpetual motion, my goal for 2009 is stillness and stability.  And this trip would be the exact opposite.  Maybe I don’t have anything to lose by applying, but I would have a lot to lose if I were selected, like my sanity.

I’m not done traveling yet.  There are too many places to discover, cultures to explore, foods to taste, dances to learn, sights, sounds, and smells to experience, ways of living and points of views to consider, and stories to hear and tell.  I’m just done backpacking, budgeting, and traveling and living light.  I’ve been doing it since I was nine, and I’m exhausted. When I was drafting a fantasy itinerary for my own trip around the world, I was planning on visiting fewer countries in a year than the program has scheduled for two months.  The internship is a great opportunity, but for someone else.

Let’s be honest. I’m just too old to travel like a rock star.  Nothing has made me come to terms with how not young I am like this program.  In June, I will no longer fall into the under 26 category, which means no more free trips, discounts, or health insurance.  Certainly, 26 is not “old,” but it’s not “youth” either.  At 26, society considers you an adult, capable of fending for yourself and/or too grown up for child’s play.  Hypothetically, if I were to get the internship, I would turn 26 four days into the trip.  Not applying for this internship is like asking that there please be no strippers at your bachelor party – you’re astounded and horrified by your own maturity.  I think I know how Wendy must have felt when decided to leave Never Ever Land.

Truthfully, I’ve been waiting for years to turn 26.  The summer after my first year of college I worked at a country club.  One day, one of the other waitresses began to lament her upcoming birthday and getting old.  She was 22.  The youngest member of the club (in his 30s) was eating lunch at the bar after golfing.  To console her, he confessed, “The best years of my life started when I turned 26.”  His thesis was simple: at 26 he finally had the perfect balance between security and freedom, and responsibility and leisure.  He was still young enough to have fun and experiment, but wise enough to do so without compromising his individuality, health, priorities or values.  He was still learning, but he suffered less and he knew himself well enough to avoid uncomfortable and awkward situations (like agreeing to travel to ten countries in two months with a stranger and document the entire trip).  And most importantly, he had the resources to do things his way.

When I was a kid, I was too scared or stupid or stuck-up or self-loathing to act my age.  I knew that actions had consequences, and I knew what those consequences were.  Too afraid and vulnerable to get in the game, I waited on the sidelines for my turn to play.  And now my age has finally caught up with me.  Maybe I am almost an adult.  But that’s great, because now I can finally enjoy my youth.

Voting Across Country Lines

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I really don’t see why I should have to pay taxes. I didn’t live in the United States last year.” It was March and I was seriously considering tax evasion.  I hadn’t sent children to school, driven on roads, or asked a fireman to remove my cat from a tree. It hardly seemed fair to pay for public goods that I was in no position to benefit from.  And yet, the IRS had extended its long arms to Latin America. I knew I couldn’t escape death by moving abroad, but what about income taxes?

Even though I lived and worked in Argentina during all of the previous fiscal year, some of my income had been earned in the United States.  For a few months, while I was waiting for my work-residency visa, I was on the payroll of my employer’s New York headquarters. In the end, a combination of peer pressure, the promise of a generous rebate, and fear of future repercussions convinced me to pay my taxes. I couldn’t believe that the U.S. government had followed me to Buenos Aires.

I have been living in virtual anarchy for the past three years.  Residing legally outside of my home country but not a citizen of my host country, I am practically untouched by government.  The notion of domestic politics ceases to exist, and what exactly are “foreign” politics when you yourself are a foreigner?  I knew that all around the world people were dying, temperatures and unemployment were rising, and governments, institutions, and companies were failing.  But the only current events that I cared about were how expensive tomatoes had become, whether I would able to take the subway to work, or if the taxi driver would want to talk to me about Iraq.  Civic engagement became a choice rather than a duty, and I chose to abstain.  Except on special occasions like tax season and national elections.

“Have you registered for an absentee ballot yet?”  That question, recently posed by my mother, burst my self-centered bubble of ignorance and apathy.  My initial response was an obstinate “no.” I tend to turn into a bratty teenager when my mother tells me what to do.  But in all honesty, I felt detached from every aspect of the presidential election – from the candidates to the campaigns, from the issues to the results.  But more than anything, I felt detached from being an American.

In fact, not being identified as a stereotypical American had become a source of pride.  During a family vacation to Colombia, a waiter, with whom I had been speaking in Spanish, asked me where we were from.  “The United States,” I replied. 

“Yea,” he insisted, “but where are you from?”

“The United States,” I repeated with a smile. 

“Oh,” he replied, embarrassed, “I was sure that you were Argentine.”

I have also been mistaken for Italian, Spanish, and Brazilian, and others simply can’t identify my origin.  “But you don’t look, dress, talk, or act like an American,” they tell me. “Thanks,” I always reply, flattered.  Being asked to vote was asking me to take interest in something that I had long since written off – the American public.

Nevertheless, a few days ago, I agreed to go with friends to a Vice Presidential debates viewing party hosted by democrats abroad.  “I’m drowning in a sea of Americans,” I remarked upon arrival. While people were playing Palin Bingo, I was busy inventing my own game – count the North Face fleeces, baseball hats, and button-up shirts. 

When the debates started, the room went quiet.  The only sounds were those of active listening – laughing, cheering, clapping, and jeering.  I looked around the room and found myself surrounded by educated, passionate, socially aware, culturally curious, and adventurous Americans.  We were hardly fit the description of “dirty, American tourists,” and yet we were all made in the U.S.A.

Maybe I would have turned out exactly the same if I had been born in a different place. I can credit much of my willingness and ability to live and travel abroad to having grown up in a country that promotes independence and freedom, appreciates diversity, advocates women’s rights, is financially stable, and is respected internationally, or at least used to be.  I may consider myself a citizen of the world, but this is in large part thanks to the fact that I am first and foremost a citizen of the United States.

I understand now that this election does directly affect me. Especially because everywhere I go, I become a representative of my country and the image of America is projected onto me, even if it doesn’t represent me.  U.S. politics are world politics, and as an avid traveler, I have a particular interest in the number of stable countries that welcome Americans.  And the reality is, no matter how far from home I travel, my permanent mailing address is still my parent’s house in Michigan.  I may be an expat, but I’m not disenfranchised.  So the answer is yes, mom, I’m going to vote.

*If you are a registered voter living in Buenos Aires, Argentina and have not yet received your absentee ballot, there will be a voting party at the US Embassy on October 8, 2008, 9am to noon.

Silent Retreat

Buenos Aires, Argentina                                 

When I moved to Argentina, I lost my voice.  It’s not that I didn’t know Spanish – I had studied Spanish in college and even spent a semester abroad in Spain.  It’s that I didn’t speak Spanish.  And I certainly didn’t speak Argentine Spanish.

Yet, despite my inability and reluctance to speak, I began to make friends.  One of the first things that I did when I arrived in Buenos Aires was sign up for classes.  Rather than enroll in a Spanish course, I took dance classes – an activity of few words.  In addition to teaching me the parts of the body, giving structure to my life and allowing me to develop and explore hidden talents and passions, I met people who had similar interests.   And they began to invite me to do things.  Particularly things that didn’t require a lot of speaking like dancing, watching movies, eating dinner with a large group of Argentines, and listening.

Truthfully, I never understood why anyone would possibly want to hang out with me.  I could not have been less boring. I spent a lot of time questioning people’s motivations and doubting myself – was I was just the token foreigner, the pet yanqui, a status symbol, a chance to practice English, a potential hook-up?  I also spent a lot of time faking it – smiling and nodding vaguely, laughing when it seemed appropriate, and matching my facial expression to the mood in the room.  And when I got really tired, I resorted to staring blankly.

I felt invisible. Many of my best qualities are expressed orally – my sense of humor, intelligence, wisdom, and empathy.  If I couldn’t make jokes, give advice, discuss politics and philosophy, ask questions, or tell stories, who was I? I hadn’t just lost my voice. I had lost my personality as well.

Except that you don’t suddenly stop being you when you stop speaking. People can still see you even if they can’t hear you.  The things you do, the places you go, the way you act and react, your walk, dress, and body language all say as much, or more, about you than your words.

Words are not the only way we have of communicating who we are. Sense of humor is evidenced by how often you laugh, especially at yourself, as well as by how often you make others laugh.  Intelligence is measured by how quickly you learn, as well as by how much you already know. Who I am was understood, even if it was never clearly stated.

In fact, during my vow of silence I discovered that language had been holding me back.  I used to talk about doing things rather than actually do them.  I used sarcasm to conceal my emotions.   I analyzed, evaluated, and justified every action. Without words to hide behind, I was more exposed than ever. I couldn’t talk about who I was, I could just be. And I learned that if you are a person worth getting to know, people will invest time and energy in getting to know you. Even if it does require patience and the occasional game of charades.

With time, I learned Spanish, recovered my voice, and began to talk again.  A lot.  Especially since I now have much more interesting things to say and twice as many ways to say them.  But sometimes, I still prefer to just listen. 


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