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I’m Back!

January 15, 2011

“Home” is a relative term. The concept of home can change dramatically throughout the course of a lifetime, particularly for someone with nomadic tendencies like myself.

It’s tough living in another country long-term. Eventually the newness and excitement wear off and you’re left with the reality that you have no idea what’s going on. The language barrier alone is enough to make my blood pressure rise at least once during the day. Trying to figure out how to explain things, when I lack both the specific vocabulary and the cultural context, is something of a challenge, indeed. Life can be a constant struggle when it feels like you’re on the outside looking in.

As frustrating as it is when it seems as though you just don’t get it, it’s also an amazing feeling when things finally start clicking. That is exactly how it has seemed ever since I got back to Guatemala. It’s a much different feeling entering into a place you don’t know than it is coming back somewhere.

When I first came to Guatemala I had spent a fair amount of time in Latin America. However, everything is different enough from place to place, that it was a bit of a challenge to find my footing. I didn’t get the accent or Guatemalan Spanish words and phrases. Even though I was familiar with “Latin American” culture, I wasn’t prepared for how to go about daily interactions.

In particular, I didn’t understand that things are more about the personal relationship here than they are about getting things “accomplished.” In the States, I feel like we place a lot more emphasis on meeting goals and tasks than we do on building relationships with people. The relationships tend to be a means to an end, or only as useful as what you can “do” with them. They say it’s not what you know but who you know, but we see who we know mainly in the context of what they can do for us. It’s not so much about making real, personal, lasting connections. Here in Guatemala, the focus is much more on the relationship.

Even though I had been in Guatemala for 7 months, I was still looking at it from the, “I just got here and I don’t know what’s going on,” perspective. I let myself feel out of place and out of step. I would be taken aback by things that didn’t happen where I’m from. I didn’t know how to do the relationship-building, something that is considered “small talk” (which is not a positive thing) where I come from.

Returning to Guatemala has changed all of that for me. I arrived this time knowing exactly what things would be like here. Interactions that once felt strange and different now felt comfortable and familiar. Instead of having to navigate the space of trying to figure everything out, I was now in a place where I could go about my day, taking the little things for granted. Even something as simple as knowing the expected personal space when you’re walking down the street can be huge in terms of your feeling of belonging. I once had to think about these sorts of things, which is exhausting to constantly have to be aware and be analyzing. Now, I just do it out of habit. It’s amazing how much energy it consumes always taking up that mental space. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was all the time, and it was because I was putting so much energy into learning what was accepted and expected, particularly in terms of interactions.

This all speaks to the extent to which our socialization dictates how we exist in this world. When we’re removed from the environment to which we are acculturated, suddenly we have to pay time, attention and energy to things that we would normally take as a given. That’s why even when we go to another place specifically to learn about a culture or a language, we still tend to congregate with those who are like us. We need those breaks of turning off our mind and going on autopilot. When we’re with people that have the same language and set of social norms as us, we can stop thinking and just start being. As important as it is for us to move beyond our comfort zones and integrate with the culture in which we are embedded, it is equally important for our own sanity to take those mental breaks. It’s what gets us through those moments of frustration and helps us process so we can move forward again.

Moving forward is the key goal, so finding the right balance between the new and the familiar is important. If we fall back too much on the comforts of what we know, we lose the opportunity to really learn about and feel a part of the time and space that we’re in. However, if we don’t allow ourselves those moments of respite in the known, we risk being overcome by culture shock and burnout. With enough time, effort and patience, eventually the new place will feel comfortable and familiar, too.

After being away, I realized I had been keeping myself at arm’s length because I didn’t want my words or actions to be misconstrued. Sadly, that impaired me from really learning as much as was possible about this place I’m living in and the people here. I was afraid of doing something wrong, so I just didn’t do anything. Being away gave me time to reflect on the many faults with that approach. People here are so forgiving about mistakes. They appreciate just the effort to try to speak Spanish or take part in daily activities. I’ve always been so ready to jump into learning about people and daily life anywhere I’ve gone, and was definitely that way when I first arrived in Guatemala. But, somewhere over the course of a tough 7 months, I lost that. I’m not sure what the real reasons were behind it, but I needed getting away to get some perspective on what I was and was not doing relative to what I came here for. Not only did being away allow me to re-integrate myself with a better understanding of what it means to live here in Guatemala, but it also allows me to re-focus on why that is important. I am back feeling more energized and engaged and have a renewed sense of purpose.

I think the most important aspect of being gone was that it allowed me to navigate the space between what I miss about home and what I love about Guatemala. I’m not losing out on things or experiences there as long as I focus on having experiences here. If you want somewhere to be home, it has to start first in your mind. Losing your sense of comfort and belonging often feels like you have lost your sense of identity. When there is no predictability, it can be tough to remain grounded even in who you are. So, being more in step with my surroundings now allows me to open up, flourish and feel more like myself again. It’s not about losing who you are or where you come from, it’s about discovering new aspects of yourself and new sources of creativity and strength. Living abroad long-term has finally allowed me to learn that important lesson.

This week, I saw peace in finding my element.

More about Shannon Malone…