Reentering the U.S. After a Year Abroad: Responsible Intentions

Re-entry into my own society. They said it was going to be a challenge, and I believed them. On the airplane from Quito to Houston, I wondered how challenging stepping into my United States world would be after my "gap" year spent in Ecuador. The abundant unilingual English speakers? The absurd prices? The oozing consumerism? These all posed formidable threats.

But the airport didn't shock me. And part of it felt like coming home in a way. In seconds, I was as comfortable as I had pushed to become in my eight months in Ecuador -- that was probably the scariest moment. But nevertheless, I waited for the horrific moment of sheer surprise when the "reality" of the U.S. would shock me. Taking the bus down highways lined with strip malls and Targets and Walmarts? Sitting down in the dining hall to my first "American" meal? Going to the local emergency room with a parasitic infection? Flying home? Arriving home? Hot showers, heating, home?

I waited.

What frustrated me and confused me the most were my answers to the abundant "tell me about Ecuador!" themed questions. I said that it was humbling, it was hard. I said that the transition has been tough -- warm water and not just rice! I said that I was challenged so much. But if I was challenged, really, and if it was humbling, why wasn't I appalled or shocked by the life I had so easily stepped back into? Was my experience fake? Am I a fake?

I sure felt like one.

And I stopped waiting.

On April 24th, five days after arriving to my U.S. family, I waited to board a plane for the Admit Days at my future University. I was playing on my phone (what novel technology!), and soon my boarding time passed. The hour for the plane to take-off passed. My flight was delayed, but it was OK. I would get to the San Francisco airport at some point. The other waiting passengers around me rustled around restlessly, angry.

It's just a flight, I thought to myself. You will get to where you're going.

It's just a flight. For a moment, I remembered Papi Lauro's face in a rare moment of wistfulness. "Mi sueño es de volar en un avión." [My dream is to fly in an airplane.]

It's just a flight?

The first moment had come.

Arriving home after a few days of work, my mom had roasted a small chicken. We're three people. "So that my brother and I would "have food" for the next few days." I've seen one small chicken feed a family of eight for four days.

Mom, why don't you get what a big deal this is?

Again, the moment had struck.

This morning, my coworker and I were lost trying to find a water meter box at an Elementary School, and a bubbly janitor named Henry showed us the way. He asked forgiveness for his accent -- he'd immigrated two decades ago and his wife was surprised it was still so strong. He led us to the box, which we'd walked past twice, to both of our exasperation and relief.

"Thanks!" My coworker said brightly.

"Oh, don't say thanks. This is America, you don't say 'thank you,' you do what you want!" Henry replied, still jolly.

My coworker and I paused in shock.

"Well, I hope that's not true. It's good to say thank you." My coworker insisted.

Much later, as I drove us to the next site, my coworker brought Henry up again. "That was really sad what that janitor said about America. And anyways, I don't know a country that's more giving and does so much aid -- I mean, I don't see anyone else dropping off food packages and painting schools around the world."

Why couldn't he see that my host sister, Marcela, would have preferred 30 minutes of one-on-one career guidance than portraits of white children painted on the walls of her school by the college study abroad group? Why couldn't he see the livelihood of my host parents being drained by gifts of food to my community? Why couldn't he see that all the "development aid" was funneled into highways and bridges that generate wealth for the rich?

But I said nothing. I pursed my lips and kept driving.

It was one of those moments.

Unexpected "moments" have been validating (I'm not a fake after all!), and they have helped me start to lace my "gap year experience" into the context of my life. Yes, my life would be a lot simpler if I didn't know, if I hadn't lived what I did, if I could forget. But the responsibilities that my memories place on my shoulders are too important to trade for a comfortable, sheltered life.

I am responsible for the wealth of opportunities available to me, for the sake of Papi Lauro and all those who don't share the same luck of birth. I am responsible for consuming the earth's resources in the most sustainable way possible, for the sake of my U.S. family, my Ecuador family, and families across the rest of the world. I am responsible for telling those "hard" stories, for the sake of Marcela and others who don't have an audience right now.

Today, I answer to these responsibilities by telling this story. I realize it's not much, that I'm not "changing the world," but it makes my guilt more bearable, the burden a little less weighty. In my lifetime, I hope to fulfill even part of these responsibilities; for now, I commit to telling these stories and recognizing these moments to keep myself from forgetting.

I am so afraid of forgetting.