The way back home

Alien on Campus

Going back home for winter break after my first semester at UC Berkeley was not what I thought it would be.

First of all, I didn’t even go “home.” While I was away, my parents sold the house I had lived in for 10 years and moved to a different house farther away from the city. I’ve never been one to attach sentimental value to the places around me — I wasn’t worried I’d lost the streets where I’d danced in the rain with my brother or the park where I’d had my first kiss. But coming back to a new house felt alienating — I just didn’t feel like I was home.

On top of that, there were things that I noticed about my family, my friends and my country that I hadn’t before. I’m a devoted environmentalist, so the first “shock” for me was compost.

Composting in Mexico, or at least in Monterrey, doesn’t exist. People put their scraps of food together with the rest of the landfill. When I saw my family do this the first day I returned from Berkeley, I thought it was atrocious, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been bothered by it before — it was such a stark contrast from the importance that compost is given in Berkeley.

And I continued to rediscover many things about my own culture in Monterrey throughout the following weeks.

One Sunday, my entire family gathered at my grandparents’ house for an early Christmas celebration. I hadn’t spoken to or seen my extended family in many months so I was surprised and mildly disappointed when they greeted me as if I’d seen them the previous day and didn’t ask anything about my life in Berkeley. They just weren’t interested in hearing my stories or knowing about my classes and my friends.

I realized how, despite being loved by many of them, my life was pretty irrelevant to my family members. And this truth hit me hard.

It wasn’t only that I felt invisible and disregarded — I also felt completely out of place, as if I were losing what had been my home for most of my life.

I became bothered by the dynamics in my family — the way the women were the ones offering help in the kitchen and the way conversations concentrated around football and fashion, which differed from the constant deep discussions I had with people in Berkeley.

During that family gathering, we exchanged gifts. While all my male cousins and brothers got books and interesting gadgets, we females got cute boots and baby dolls. My 4-year-old girl cousin received a kitchen play set — the same gift I’d gotten at her age.

Gender roles, sexism and homophobia were strikingly present in my own family. Even though I’d understood this before leaving for college, now these social injustices disturbed me greatly. And what was worse: We didn’t even talk about it.

Something similar happened when I saw my friends from high school. Aside for my best friend, my relationship with most of my friends became distant and superficial. When I saw my friend group, we mostly just talked about their university and classes (all of them attend the same university in Monterrey) or gossiped about people from high school. I didn’t feel like I could talk about the topics that really mattered to me, because I didn’t feel like they wanted to listen.

Everything was different. Or rather, everything was the same and I was the one who had changed. I just didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere.

Distressed, I opened up about my fallen expectations of coming back home to my mom. She told me that what I was feeling was called “reverse culture shock” — the psychological, emotional and cultural effects of re-entering a country — and that many people experience the same thing.

I began to understand that it was OK to see my culture, my family and my friends through different eyes. This didn’t mean that I was an outsider or a misfit — it just meant that I was growing.

Once I realized this, I let go of the expectations I had held of going home and embraced my new self and the new perspective I had. I began asking my friends about the things that mattered to them instead of hoping to get a chance to talk about the things that mattered to me. I wanted to understand their perspective and the ways that they themselves had changed in college, even if it was completely different from my own experience.

Going back home taught me that I can’t control how others treat me when I visit. But I can make my best efforts to communicate my thoughts and feelings and to understand others’ points of view. After all, my family and the close friends I made in high school will always be a part of me.

Alejandra Márquez writes the Wednesday blog on her experience as an international student. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ale_marquez20.