Updated: Apr 6, 2020
A very old photograph taken in Panama when I was about 7 or 8 years old.
This is a story about belonging everywhere and nowhere. And about a collision of worlds.
So I grew up in Panama to a Panamanian father of Italian heritage and a midwestern American mother of, well, German and I think some Irish? Who knows! We’re all so blended these days.
I attended a Panamanian High School and traveled frequently to the United States to visit extended family. This created a weird environment (inside my head) in which I felt confused for a long time about which reality was “me”. Was I American, or was I Panamanian? Every time I returned went to the States or returned to Panama I felt like I was immersed in a haze for the first week, confused and dazed and feeling like my other reality had been a dream.
To boot I never really felt like I belonged in either culture, and no matter where I went I was pretty different from everyone else. In Panama I was constantly confused with a foreigner due to the color of my skin, and in the States whenever I revealed I was from Panama and spoke Spanish I felt an immediate distance between myself and whoever I was speaking to (although later I would find out this had more to do with where I was traveling to in the States, *cough* South Dakota).
After a while I found out that my situation had a name. I was a TCK (Third Culture Kid) and apparently what I was feeling was very common. According to the Internet (honestly, thank God for the Internet! Life changer) TCK’s go through life feeling displaced in both cultures. Not belonging. Different. This can lead to depression and a feeling of “never being home” that follows us throughout our lives. Phew, what a relief! Yes, I am being sarcastic. Although at least now I knew there were others out there I didn’t feel like there was something quite so deeply wrong with me.
I was deeply troubled by this information for a long time. This disturbed feeling followed me throughout my early adulthood as I struggled to integrate myself into American society, since I knew early on that I wanted to go to College in the States. It followed me as I tried to make friends (unsuccessfully) and feel at ease at my job (waitressing). I could bore you for pages with the stories, always uncomfortable, of people finding out where I was from.
But as I moved on to Chicago I realized that 80% of my problem had been where I was living. Chicago being a midwestern city I still encountered some of that distance, but I met so many people in my same situation. My very first roommate was Russian (we’re actually still friends to this day, and get this, her name is Sofia) and I met people from all over the world through my 3 year stint in the windy city. Slowly but surely over my adulthood I began to realize I was only just the beginning of what is becoming a world full of blended people from all sorts of circumstances and countries, and it dawned on me that maybe my unique background was the beginning of something that would be extremely normal in the near future. A mix of people brought together by the thrill of belonging to many different places, and discovering the world through our random encounters together.
Slowly I began to realize that perhaps wondering where I belonged was the wrong question to be asking myself. Perhaps instead I needed to ask myself where I was going and what I loved? Perhaps adventure was where I felt most at ease, and I was a born traveler at heart? This thought felt good to me for the first time in my life, and I was quickly able to come up with many answers.
I loved the Ocean, I wanted to spend more time near it. I loved western United States, I wanted to be there more as well. I loved northern California, I couldn’t wait to visit the wine country. I’m pretty sure I’m going to love Bali when I get there, it’s going to be a trip. God, I loved visiting Mexico and Puerto Rico and the Grand Canyon. I can’t wait to see where else my life will take me. Maybe the entire world is my home, after all.
Deep in my heart I knew this to be true. Somehow travel had always found me in my life, despite circumstances, financial and other. And I’d made friends from all walks of life, all far from me at the moment but still so close to my heart and often just a phone call away (once again, thank you internet!).
And get this, my prediction became true. As I graduated from College, returned to Panama, and then found myself unexpectedly back in the States again things changed dramatically. Everywhere I went I met people from different countries. Venezuelans displaced in Panama, Americans moving to Panama to escape the rat race, Brazilians, Peruvians, Mexicans and even Argentinians in Idaho, and of course California represents practically the entire world in one American State. When I visit the midwest I no longer feel out of place, I simply chuckle to myself. Oh we’ll invade you guys next, I think to myself.
And when I roadtripped throughout California, Arizona and Idaho I was even more thrilled to meet so many people who didn't think it was odd I was from Panama at all. People who were equally as weird as me, into Yoga, learning about the world, always asking questions, and seeking the many places they belonged to as well. Proudly I realized these were my people, the eternal seekers, from everywhere and nowhere at once, united by curiosity and adventure.
And when I return to Panama I no longer have this displaced feeling. I laugh and have fun with my family and old friends and enjoy shocking people who think I’m a foreigner with my perfect Spanish. And I head straight toward the beach. God I love the beach. In a similar way that I love the mountains, only with more intensity.
The beach and the mountains are my home. And road trips through the Sawtooths and Moab and San Fransisco and Sedona and Flagstaff and Oregon are my home. And I see in my future glimmers of the Caribbean, Indonesia, Australia, who knows? Part of the fun is figuring it out.
But my next stop will be Panama, and like Mecca I will be returning to it for the rest of my life.
Because you never forget the land where you were born.