The hallway stretches out before me as I walk, tugging at suitcases behind. I follow signs with arrows pointing to customs, pausing as I arrive at the serpentine lines that separate citizens from visitors. “American passport?” an official greets me. I barely catch myself in time to reply “yes,” instead of “sí.” He breaks into a wide smile. “Welcome home!” he says, motioning me into the correct line.
I move, but my mind stays put, surprised by the emotional reaction I have to his words. Is this home? I can’t help asking myself even as I go through the motions of using the new passport self-scanner and answering the questions the customs agent wants to clear with me. I feel bewildered.
I knew these days would be hard, and even so I was unable to prepare myself for just precisely how it would feel. I struggle through the questions posed to me, even though I could’ve guessed what most of them would be ahead of time.
Words are failing me to be able to express the thing I want to say the most. I stutter, pause, and often fall silent. It’s my hands that remember how to drive a manual without thinking, taking over as though they belong to someone else’s body; it’s my lips automatically mumbling con permiso in the grocery store, and gracias as someone holds open the door for me; it’s waking up in the morning and for a moment not knowing where I am; it’s telling someone what my favorite food is, and realizing after that what I said was wrong because I’ve changed and so many default answers are no longer true; it’s coming back to a place so familiar only to find you don’t know it anymore, not only that, but it doesn’t know you. It’s nothing, and it’s everything.
Lo que pasa es que… well, it’s that all the changes big and small have left me searching for something familiar and I haven’t found it. I’m in my “home” country and I don’t know what to do. It should be routine, normal. But it isn’t. I’m in between here and there and it is a precarious place.
What about change and going back is so shocking and, in moments, scary? I’m not sure I can pinpoint that one. Perhaps having to be more conscious of every action because default mode no longer applies. Perhaps simply not knowing how to react or behave in certain situations. Maybe it is not remembering things you once knew, like cultural conventions or the geographical layout of a city. More than that, perhaps just the realization of how different you feel. The uncertainty of how to communicate that you’ve changed without making an announcement: “Hey, everyone, the person you welcomed back is not the same person you said goodbye to.”
In these spluttery, confused moments I feel very small. I begin to apologize, but stop. What am I apologizing for? The experience of belonging to more than one place? Having two sets of vocabulary in my head? Allowing the “other’s” perspective to show me things I hadn’t seen? Letting new places and new friends etch themselves until they are a part of me? No. I will not apologize for that. I will not say I’m sorry for the tears or for vulnerability, for the inability to be the same. It means I have grown, and it means something significant has taken place.