My first venture outside of the contiguous United States was in 1994 when I participated in a student exchange program in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. This experience awakened me as it was my first experience on a plane and my first real extended time away from home.
I was geographically challenged with regards to the location of the Islands. I imagined Africa. When I thought about the people who inhabited the island I envisioned poverty-stricken people of color walking around barefoot with no clothes on. I blame this image on the school curriculum that very rarely taught history about people of color, lack of diversity in my own community, Save the Children commercials, and other ‘Single’ stories of the non west channeled down to the west.
I couldn’t imagine a population of people who look like or were very similar to me in other parts of the world. When I touched down, my built-up images were quickly destroyed. I found many commonalities between myself and the other students, but I also basked in the differences. It was my first time really encountering people who spoke a different kind of English, I was really introduced to Reggae and Soca music, and of course I was introduced to Caribbean food, one of my favorite foods to eat. As I have traveled, I am reminded how similar we are across the globe – no matter the color of our skin or the language we speak. Having traveled to Morocco in March of this year and Jamaica a month later, I am reminded how similar and connected we are across the globe. I laughed as the experience of catching a taxi is the same in both of these places yet foreign to how I’m accustomed to catching a taxi in America, Spain, or in England.
By the time I left the Virgin Islands and England (not so much Spain), I felt a sense of belonging in these places and found it hard to come back home. Those places were also my home – albeit temporary.Too often, we focus on the shock of leaving our home country with very little focus on the shock of coming back home. Coming back home was a huge culture shock for me. The way people spoke, their thought processes, the food, and basic everyday living was and is still hard to digest. Yet, this had been my home most of my life.
Although I can’t compare the two situations, I think something can be learned from the military and the correctional systems as they attempt to re-acclimate veterans and prisoners back into society. By the time I came home I was really confused about who I was and where home was. I forgot how to count American dollars/coins, I feared driving as I had existed in an environment where public transport was the norm, and I now had to exist in a society where guns are a right and healthcare was not.
While being home has presented the opportunity to be much closer to my friends and family, an opportunity I am taking full advantage of, I still feel isolated in the midst of all these people. I am that child sitting a lone at the lunch table in the cafeteria. I haven’t quite figured out how to overcome this isolation fully other than keep traveling, watching television programs and listen to music that reminds me of places I once was.
In the next few months, my fiancé will leave his home and travel to the US to start a new life. Although he has left his country before, I can’t help but to conjure visions of Eddie Murphy in the movie Coming to America. I don’t know how to prepare him for this new journey in his life. I find myself telling him the way things are NOT in the US. I’m not sure that is the best method to make him feel welcomed. I am sure he will carry Morocco with him as he steps foot off the plane. I only hope that he finds home in where his heart has led him…me in the US.