Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.

You know that point in your life when you realize that the house that you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of the sudden even though you have some place where you can put your stuff that idea of home is gone. You’ll see when you move out it just sort of happens one day one day and it’s just gone. And you can never get it back. It’s like you get homesick for a place that doesn’t exist. I mean it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I miss the idea of it. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.

~Garden State

One never reaches home. But where paths that have affinity for each other intersect the whole world looks like home, for a time.

~ Damien – Hermann Hesse

The same thing that makes me feel at home in a place is the same thing that will eventually grate on my nerves more than anything else.

When I first arrived here, I loved the way my family talked about Peru. They would talk about the delicious food, the beautiful mountains and the rich cultural heritage, about the history and the people, about the famous Machu Piccu and Inca Cola. For months they praised it and I ate it up. I loved how enamored they were with their home. It was a sort of patriotism that I admired – taking pride in your country and everything it stood for.

Then, as the year progressed, I began to hear the stories in a different tone. After they told me all the stories, I’d already heard it all, but when we have guests over they talk for hours about the same things they told me when I first arrived. Then I realized they were pretty much reciting a script. I realized why they praise their country so much. It’s because they don’t live there, and “home” is no longer a place rooted in reality – it’s a distant reality, an idealized memory that has become a source of pride and identity, because that identity is actually slipping away.

I began to realize that they were taking pride in things that they didn’t even know. The parents have many memories from Peru, but a lot has probably changed in 7 years. The son left when he was only twelve, and talks about the music and the food and Maccu Piccu and all the awesome museums like he’d just visited them yesterday. He’s never visited them. He’s just heard stories of these wonders from his home and he repeats them although he’s never experienced them for himself.

I’m sort of attracted to patriotism and national pride, because I don’t have a fiber of it in me. So I enjoy being around people who talk about their culture and traditions with pride and joy. But after a year with this family, like so many other people who take national pride to an unhealthy extreme, I began to suspect that their idea of “home” is really an illusionary reality they’ve repeated enough times to believe it. To actually return home would be to destroy that idealized memory and contrived idea of Peru and require them to live within the reality of the illusion they’ve fabricated after so many years abroad.

This is a common practice, shared by older people who speak about the past as if everything were different. Of course everything WAS different, but the basic underlying cultural realities are the same in all times and all places, they just manifest themselves in different ways. It’s easy to idealize a place that is far away or in the past and can never be revisted.

I love listening to these stories about these realities, but it angers me when I realize people actually believe them, and claim they are true. If someone wants to describe their home like a Thomas Kinkaide painting, that’s fine with me. It really is. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking that representation is reality. It’s not.

And I’m mad because I don’t share that affinity that I’m supposed to share for my idealized home country. Other language students often pine for the things they’ve left behind. For hot showers (we have them here as well, they’re just different), for chocolates and cheap fast-food and their car and… man who knows what, I tune it out as soon as it begins because it bores me and I don’t feel at all the same way. I rarely miss those types of things.

I’ll give an example because I’m not explaining this well. A missionary talked once about after months overseas in a culture not his own speaking a language not his own, he heard a voice speaking English and was immediately filled with a flood of memories and homesickness. It’s the way the Israelites felt in the Bible, when they were in exile and would hear the songs of Jerusalem and yearn for the days when they had a place to call their own. The same way, it’s the way the Israelites felt BEFORE they reached the promised land. Home, heaven, the promised land… all these concepts only have meaning while outside the longed-for place of promise. Once the promised land is aquired, or once the distant memory of home is returned to… the dream is shattered by the cold reality, and the person finds themself less at home than before.

Anyway, I react differently, and few people understand this. I don’t have a home language – sure I speak english, but I’m not filled with homesickness or a longing for the U.S. when I hear english. I actually feel a little angry, in fact. I feel violated or invaded. Now, when I hear Kreyol… that’s when I feel like a rapidly-inflated balloon, like I’m about to pop with joy and excitement. I don’t say anything, though, I usually just listen. Because who’s going to understand? I lean closer, eagerly trying to pick out words I remember. My brain strives to switch back into “Haiti” mode, but it’s largely faded out. Unlike other people I don’t have lots of memories and traditions to keep my childhood alive.

I remember one of the times in college I felt most at home. I was walking past the gazebo with two friends, one of whom was an international student from Brazil who’d grown up in Africa. They were burning trash or leaves or something, and the deep rich smell of smoke was drifting our way. “Wow,” she mentioned. “Reminds me of home.” I mumbled agreement. I think, though, my eyes were watering and at that comment I really was so overcome with memory for my past that I felt that feeling for home that I rarely get. And the reason is obvious… only with this girl, with that smell, with our bizarrely shared memory that was actually thousands of miles apart, did I feel that longing for “home.” And because of the smell of smoke. Because at least once a week smoke would drift through our classrooms at QCS, giving some kids headaches and causing others to sneeze and cough. In Mr. Hersey’s chess class on the top floor where he used to set up 20 chess boards and walk around playing each of us all at once. They’d burn the trash right outside our classrooms in the ravine. The ravine that I parked my car in along with Steve with his sweet blue car that used to have tinted windows before the police scratched it off. In the ravine where Mr. Root the Science teacher’s aligator used to escape. In the ravine where Philipp tripped and tumbled down, gashing open his head and leaving him with a sweet-looking scar that he said he got protecting his girlfriend in a knife fight. In the ravine where I saw rats the size of dogs. In the ravine where Mr. Leno found two discarded grenades and school was canceled. All that from a whiff of smoke. And the fact that at that time I was a senior in college and it’s the first time I really remembered feeling homesick for Haiti.

I do hear cadences of home. But it isn’t tied to any geographical location. It’s like the quote says … I feel at home anywhere when I find myself somehow magically bonding with other humans in some inexplicable blending of common vision. It’s more like musical instruments all blending together in a sonorous melody than anything else.

And all that, going back to people vocalizing their idealized home culture, the other thing they start doing is misrepresenting the culture in which they currently live. After a year here, and after hearing the same opinions about Costa Ricans and Costa Rican culture repeated for so long… I begin to realize… these are scripts they are reciting as well. After getting to know Costa Ricans, after moving a step beyond the projected cultural values and all that, I begin to see families on a different level, I begin to understand that many of their cultural pillars are widely known, but aren’t all that generally practiced. Everyone has the same script that they start off with – talking about special Costa Rican slang words and expressions (pura vida, tuanis, mae) and praising their staple dishes (gallo pinto and coffee). But my host family ridicules these dishes and scoff the Costa Ricans for their limited diet.

I realized this for the first time when one of my teachers brought homemade gallo pinto for a party we had. It was delicious. I LOVED it. My host mom swore to me she’d only cook tico twice a month, and her husband moaned and complained about how ticos only eat gallo pinto. The think is… in my 7 months here, I never had good gallo pinto in my home. I don’t think my host mom knows how to make it. Or at least she refuses to make it. At this point, I really am tired of hearing my host family whine and complain about the typical local dish. It’s delicious. It may get tiresome if it’s made too often. But real Costa-rican cooked gallo pinto is scrumptious. Plus I won’t even get into the afro-carribean food they make over on the east coast.

So what is it with this national pride? Do I really admire it in others, or do I hate it? I really think it’s important to take pride in one’s country. But when that pride becomes contempt and despises other countries, I do hate it. I truly do. I hate that U.S. people think they’re better than Mexicans, who think they’re better than Costa Ricans, who think they’re better than Nicaraguans. I hate that Peruvian’s think they’re better than Costa Ricans, and Argentines are better than Peruvians, and Spaniards are better than Argentines… give it a break. None of y’all can hold a candle to the best country in the world… Haiti. We’ll leave at that.

Except for one country… Guatemala. I’ve visited Guatemala numerous times, and I’ll confess… that country is the promised land, for me. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll repeat it here. Guatemala is the ONLY geographical location where I feel like I’m home. I can’t explain it. I can’t defend it. I just know that I am filled with such a strong impression every time I arrive or leave… this is my home. Somehow all my past and everything I know most closely situates itself peacefully in the country of Guatemala. And, perhaps, Belize, but I can’t say that for sure.

And the Guatemalans I’ve met… the ONLY people I know who have a healthy sort of national pride. One that drives them to praise their own country but at the same time turn right around and put sweat, blood, and money into making it a better country for everyone there. That might seem inaccurate given all the civil war they’ve had and oppression against the indigenous groups. That’s certainly true at the political and govermental level. But the general Guatemalan seems to be largely committed to bettering their own country. What am I talking about, I’m just trying to construct an imaginary idealized home just like everyone else, so give me a break, it’s the only hope I have.

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