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The City of Stolen Hearts

I'm thinking of going home now but I don't feel that I've ever really had a home, always merely a place to live, to be, until now maybe (and now I have to leave).

I grew up split in between Latin America and the US and I think as a result of this, I never really belonged to either. As a kid in Latin America, I was far away from my immediate family in the US, and once I went to school in the US, I was just too culturally different. I ended up living among a large Chicano community, which was also slightly closed off to the more general US culture, but it still had deep connections to my own heritage. In the end, this meant that I wasn't integrating myself into US culture very well.

On top of this, I was having trouble with English. To this day, I am deeply resentful about what transpired. My teachers had told my parents that they needed to speak only in English with me so that I could have a greater grasp of the language. I see this as the splitting point from my Hispanic heritage, as at this point my Spanish abilities stopped improving. When I later returned to my home country, I was no longer at the level of my peers, I would probably go on to say that my fluency had degraded. It left a clear impression on me, as I was treated as a foreigner when I was in my home country, and when I was in the US, I simply didn't feel that I was part of it.

It wasn't until I came to Europe that I realized this was not an isolated phenomenon. I remember speaking to a Chinese friend who went to an international school in Hong Kong, who told me that she had gone through similar experiences. She, as well, seems to still be wandering, looking for her place in the world.

This was confirmed when I read Edward Said's memoir, "Out of Place." In it he describes his time growing up as a US citizen in Egypt, eventually exiled from Palestine, going to a British school, and then going to the US to study secondary school and eventually university. He talks about meeting his wife, who was Lebanese, and trying to ameliorate the loss that he had suffered, of his culture, heritage, and language, by going to Lebanon and relearning the language, studying the literature, and so on. I believe he was a professor of literature, and one of the comments he makes here is that the literature he had been studying was very always from the point of view of the west. This would have been a few years after he wrote "Orientalism," I believe, but he started reading Arabic literature in his mother tongue and spoke about what he learned, the shift in perspective.

It's a short read, and might be of interest to people interested in his life. Unfortunately it ends too early. It's mostly focused on his childhood and adolescence, and no so much on his political and academic writings later in life, which might have been of more interest, although I understand why he didn't.

Luckily his daughter, Najla Said, wrote a very touching book called "Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family," which talks about her life growing up in New York City with a relatively controversial father and a rich academic and intellectual environment. She gives a very interesting anecdote about meeting Cornell West as a child, and later on meeting him as his student in University. She also details her struggles with anorexia, dealing with her fathers death, the wake of 9-11 and the reactions to and from the Arab-American communities. I would probably recommend this over her fathers memoirs, if only because I felt I connected more with her struggles than her father's.

In any case, when I say that I'm going "home," I'm not really sure what this means to me.

I haven't been back to Latin America in four years. The last time I was there I remember being deeply saddened, possibly depressed, at the realization that I didn't belong (among other things), for somehow, I had never put into words or clear thoughts what I felt. I also don't feel there is much reason for me to go back since my grandmother died, around 2012. Aside from an aunt I care deeply about, I have no close family or friends there anymore. I could go there to travel, to rediscover my country, but don't know if now is the right time for this. I feel my soul needs to be open in a very particular way for this to be beneficial, and I don't know if I'm prepared for this yet (possibly I go back through the Peace Corps).

Going back to the US has it's own problems for me. I should probably get into the details of why I left in the first place, before addressing my concerns with going back.

I actually came across a poster of the program I'm currently in when I was an undergraduate. I thought it would be cool but was steered away from it by my partner at the time, together with my own concerns about making such a drastic life change. I ended up half heartedly applying to an engineering position that I didn't even want. I remember going into the interview just not giving a fuck. Unfortunately for me and my immediate future, they offered me the position, and the amount of money was beyond belief for me, so I accepted once I didn't get into the universities I had applied to for the PhD. I still had a glimmer of light in the back of my mind hoping money could bring me some level of content. That glimmer disappeared after my second paycheck. I realized I didn't want to buy anything. I was essentially an ascetic without the religion and spirituality. I was spartan and anti-materialist (I used to say minimalist, but I think that's very different; I have come to understand that as an art form, distinct from anti-materialism). So the money did nothing for me. But the stress and boredom of the work, the meaningless of it all, the totalitarian corporate structure, all of that got to my soul.

There was a month, about a year into the job, during the summer, where they had me working 80 hours a week to finish up a project. Together with a complicated personal situation occurring at the time, it really pushed me to the edge of instability. Words can't describe this. I should have quit then, for the sake of my mind and soul. Somehow I managed to drag myself through another year of this, together with university courses I was taking at night, massive sleep deprivation, and dealing with depression I had had since I was young, that was becoming worse by the day.

A little after this I decided to apply to the PhD program I had seen a few years back. Specifically, it was too late to apply to US PhD programs and I didn't need the general and subject GRE's, which I had not done very well on before. I got an email back telling me they were interested and if I could do a video interview. I cut off my hair and shaved my long Stallman-esque beard and did the interview, which went relatively well. Some time after this they offered me a position without funding, telling me that I was on the shortlist for funding. I immediately accepted, as I had saved up enough from the engineering job to be able to fund myself for two years. I slowly climbed up the list as other potential students declined and eventually obtained funding for two years.

In the back of my mind I was leaving hoping that I could leave behind my problems, my pain. That I could start fresh. I think even then I knew this was naïve, but I think I was able to ignore that part of me, warning me. I think, simply put, I was trying to escape the ghosts of my past, old and new.

I think coming here was the best decision I've ever made.

I had prepared myself for a possible culture shock, but it never came. I assume this was because I was already accustomed to traveling between cultures at a deep level, but also because I never felt that I ever really had a home. I suspect people who get culture shock, get it because they miss home. Whatever the case, this didn't occur to me, at least not in an obvious manner.

It definitely wasn't easy. The courses were more challenging than anything I had ever had before. My peers were extremely intelligent, fast and creative, which made for a stimulating intellectual environment. It was very difficult getting accustomed to the grading here, which was usually dependent on how you did on a single final oral examination with the professor. I had opportunity to read and learn much, outside of my main field of study, to meet and talk with students from many of the surrounding universities and attend colloquia and conferences.

Politically I was finally not as alone. I found most people here to have some sense of the world that wasn't entirely tainted by US internal propaganda. I couldn't have even the most basic political conversations with people in the US (at least where I studied and worked) without spending hours trying to cut through propaganda and establish context and history, usually none of which was of interest to them, as their absolute, determined opinion was more than enough, damned the actual history. I remember my first day of work as an engineer, we had a meeting at the end of the day, around five or six, there was an initial chat before the meeting actually begun and at some point my immediate mentor and boss casually said something "ahh, but of course, there are no Democrats in here?" half statement, half question, with the answer being, of course, self-evident. I didn't say anything. It gave me a relatively good impression of the environment there, even though I didn't know it yet.

(I remember a joke I heard when I got here, that the right wing here is still to the left of the US liberals. Untrue, but in some aspects, worth considering.)

My problems did not suddenly go away, as it is probably obvious to anyone else that this would have been the case. But the environment here was much different than what I was used to that it allowed me to slowly improve myself and address my various situations. Unfortunately I made the mistake of trying to do this alone. I had made close friendships but never truly opened up about myself, my history, and my problems. I wish I had done so, at least to an appropriate extent. For the inappropriate extent of giving too much information, I wish I had found a professional to talk to, to help me guide myself to a better place. Eventually I did this and it has made dealing with my problems infinitely better. They're not gone, they're still there in the background, but I think I have better tools now to deal with them when they flare up, as it were.

For one, living here felt more peaceful, more safe. There was less intensity of advertisements, consumerism and materialism. I made much deeper friendships here than I ever did in the US, or in my home country. I remember thinking at some point that if I ever had kids, I would want it to be here, in Europe. I think a year before I came here, I came across an article describing a situation where a woman was arrested for letting her children walk home alone from school. I think they called them "free range kids" in the article. I can't describe how appalled I was at this, that children can't be allowed to wander around their own home town; that it has become so dangerous that kids aren't allowed to go home without guidance. I spoke to some people about this at the time and they looked at my like I was crazy for thinking this. But coming here to Europe, I have found that it is entirely different. Not perfect, and not completely safe, but much more open. People don't live in a constant fear all the time. I think one of Moore's documentaries, possibly "Bowling for Columbine," points out this fear and discusses it in more detail.

Suffice it to say, if I ever have children, or adopt, I would want them to grow up in an open, free environment (not just in words, but in reality), and also, ideally, learning many, many languages, and coming to love international and intercultural environments. It is a travesty that people in the US don't speak Spanish and French fluently, given their two neighbors. Living where I live now, with students from all over the world, easily absorbing different languages, I can imagine how easily people could learn Spanish and French through exchanges, and more cultural integration, not just one way, but both. There is a book "Burning Beethoven" which describes how German language and culture was eradicated from the US German communities during the lead up to WWI. I feel that a lot of those attitudes have really stuck, and the US is worse off for it, linguistically at least, possibly culturally.

This leads me directly to my next point, about what it means to me to go back to the US and what my plans are. For one, I'm planning to take a cross country road trip for a week or two and actually discover the country and the culture. I was reading "American Gods" and it really struck me, repeatedly, that this is not my perspective of America, at all. I grew up in a highly separated part of American society and coupling this with my own background, I never experienced these aspects of the US. I hoping to get a glimpse of this when I go back, alter my own perspectives. So, in the next few days I'm going to be planning this trip in more detail.

Letter 01, Part 02 : The City of Stolen Hearts

The City of Stolen Hearts
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