The United States felt colder, more closed off, and filled with a unique mixture of hate and fear. Boarding flights to the United States require an abundant amount of patience and hours. In New Zealand, militarized police armed with rifles, helmets, and dogs greet passengers at check-in. I traveled light, a backpack with toothpaste, deodorant and a change of clothes. This could not possibly seem suspicious, I thought. Wrong. It attracted attention from every person with a gun. At check-in, the armed guard requested my bag for examination, and again at the standard security check.
Ten months prior, the United States experienced four coordinated commercial airline attacks, resulting in nearly 3,000 deaths. To New Zealanders, the 9–11 hijackers of Middle Eastern descent ancestry looked like me, a Mexican American. I understand, and without protest, I hand my passport and ticket to the gate agent. Slowly looking me over, she enters my information. The machine beeps.
“Please, sir; you’ve been selected for additional screening, if you wouldn’t mind.” Motioning towards another stoic officer, this one holding an AK — 47 just steps from the boarding ramp. She continues, “Please, it will only take a minute.” I proceed to the curtained-off area and am searched from head to toe. Bag emptied and examined. The resident K-9 takes no interest in me. Finally, I could board.
Even before entering the United States, America felt different: not home any longer — not like before. When I returned, friends and family were happy to see me, but relating to them was difficult. People wanted to know what Kiribati was like, and what I liked about living there. Excited to share, I began telling them about the things I cherished most. Talking with people, the constant overwhelming feeling of community, and a slower pace of life were some of my most favorite aspects of life on Tamana.
Kiribati people talk about anything and everything, for hours on end. Conversations lasting deep into the night with nothing but the moon and Milky Way to illuminate the dialogue. Human connections were the foundation of village life. It was the daily gossip between aunties with white sea-foam hair seated on top of carefully woven Pandanus mats deep in throes of vicious bingo games. The back and forth melodic conversations of toddy cutters fifteen meters above the tallest rooftop. Playful explorations of conversation between children running to and fro on calcified coral flats at low tide, and in empty village maneabas when tides returned. The conversations in canoes between men, old and young while paddling to secure the evening’s meal.
Here. Wait. Look over there. Now!
The old men had a gift of reading the sea and all of its movement just below its surface. Raising their thick shaggy brows, pointing with a squint of an eye and scrunch of a nose, young men equipped with the gift of strength followed their direction. They paddle canoes and chase prey with the intensity of a thousand suns.
Inevitably, the catch would fight back, and several would flop out of the canoe or fly away, escaping death by seconds. Biita would joke, that one, while shaking his head in despair, and chuckling in grief, that one must have been the most delicious one. Silently, I applauded each fugitive.
Community, the backbone of Kiribati society, seemed to develop organically. Within minutes of my arrival, families adopted me. Barely a stranger, I became an extended family member to the entire population of the island.
I learned to introduce myself not as an individual, but as a member of a group. This was the way of the island, the way of the village, the way of community. It created a social safety net that benefited all, protected all, and served all. There was no homelessness, or hunger; ailments of more developed societies. Co-dependency worked. In Kiribati, the community was everything, and everyone was part of the community.
Communal living allowed for a slower pace, and at a slower pace, people were your most important assets. Unable to pass through the village without being summoned to at least three houses for tea, talk, or rest; daily trips to the canteen always seemed to be interrupted by, where are you going? Come here, sit, eat! What’s the news? Let’s talk!
Voices from houses alongside the path enquired about my goings and comings, wondering if I had time to visit and talk over biscuits and scalding hot tea, before continuing on. Because of this, I quickly grew a disdain for British hot tea and the colonial legacy, internally repeating
Bloody Brits with every sip.
Genuine interest and concern for others were not only part of village ethos, but also the glue that held society together. Interactions of indebtedness created and affirmed relations that were consistently renewed over time through communal celebrations, shared foods, customary borrowing, and other activities that demanded sustained interdependence and reciprocity.
I often lost people’s attention after a few minutes, and learned to reply succinctly, with a quick it’s good or even better, hot when someone asked me how Kiribati was. To keep conversation afloat, I would enquire about their lives and the events I had missed while being away in what most assumed to be paradise. Some discussed September 11th, but most talked about movies, clothes, jobs, kids, and graduate school. I smiled affirming my full attention. But, like a child, I became distracted by the most mundane objects around me. Lights, grass, cars, solid walls, soft beds, and water fountains.
With just a simple push of a button, clean, safe, cold water would leap towards your mouth ready for consumption. There was no need for empty tins, woven coconut strings, imported plastic buckets, and fire. In the United States, people just pushed a button and drank.
When my Tamana pump didn't work, I would lower rusty tins three meters deep into the ground. Carefully lifting each one out of the well, hoping not to spill water as they clanked and clunked up their way up the porous coral shaft, I emptied each drop carefully into a bucket, and once full, I carried it back to the house for purification. The entire process took more than twelve hours.
After a year and a half of manual purification and cooling, water fountains were magical. Their presence confirmed that I was indeed back in the land of the free and home of convenience.
But, what I loved about here, I missed there, and what I loved about there, I could not find here. This surfaced at night as guilt. Guilt for having what I had in the United States.
It paralyzed me.
I didn’t deserve my American life.
Each night, I cried myself to sleep, longing for Kiribati. My only comfort, a return plane ticket that I tucked inside my pillowcase. A nightly reminder of my eventual return.
The two weeks spent in Cincinnati passed by faster than I thought they would. Each day seemed to revolve around going — going to work, going to school, going to appointments. Going. Most of these goings centered around money. It was a far cry from village life.
Throughout most of the trip, reverse culture shock got the best of me. It stunned and silenced me. My inability to connect with others by removing Kiribati from my mind only served to seclude me further from others, this was clear.
During our time apart, both the United States and I had changed, drastically.
As I prepared my bags, I needed to pay special attention to what no longer was allowed on planes. Stripping was now part of the boarding process. It was strange.
Out of fear, my country had changed.
Out of love, I changed.