Friday, February 12, 2010


I’ve learned a new Spanish word recently: agridulce.

Having that word in my vocabulary toolbox would have been helpful ten years ago when I found myself sitting at the dining room table of my Mexican host family’s house in Querétaro, trying to put into words what I was feeling upon leaving Mexico. I’d spent an amazing semester as an exchange student with them, but it was time to pack up my bags and go home. It was sweet and bitter at the same time: bittersweet. I tried to explain the dichotomy to them, to find a translation for the word on the tip of my tongue: bittersweet. They stared at me blankly (it could have been that my already-bad Spanish was made completely incomprehensible by the tears rolling down my cheeks).

Lo siento, Sarita. Sorry. I’m not sure how to translate that.”

Having the Japanese version of the word available to me would have been helpful 20 months ago when I grappled with the same emotions upon leaving Japan. I’d spent an amazing year teaching middle school English in the rice paddies of rural Fukui prefecture, making friends in unlikely places and living dreams I never thought I had. But when it came time to tell my classes how I was feeling, I was at a loss for words and my Japanese team teachers were at a loss for a translation.

Gomen-ne, Sara-san. Sorry. I’m not sure how to translate that.”

I was reading a mindless gossip magazine en español the other day, trying to take my mind off the big changes ahead. I’d been doing entirely too much thinking (worrying) about the future, entirely too much reflection (reminiscing) about the past, and was feeling drained. Just as I was trying to clear my head of my emotions, in creeps the perfect word to describe them, right in the middle of an interview with Tina Fey translated to Spanish: Agridulce. (Literally, “sour and sweet,” or “bittersweet.” Ironically enough, it's also used to describe the flavor or what we English speakers know as sweet-and-sour chicken.)

Be it a reference to a botched recipe for Chinese food, or an accurate portrayal of my complex emotions, ten years later, the word was worth the wait.

Today is my last day at work. I'm leaving Huajuapan tonight and will board a plane on Sunday with a one-way ticket that will take me to a place I’d never thought I’d return to, had you asked me three years ago. I’ll be doing the same things (I’m going back into PR, but this time I’m doing it for a Latino-focused community group, work that I hope to find infinitely more rewarding than hawking sausage or formerly-overweight spokespersons of restaurant chains), in the same city (Chi-town is still Chi-town, for better or worse) with the same people (I have amazing family and friends who have been briefed on the horrors of reverse culture-shock).

The thing is, I’m completely different. I’m not sure how the new Sara – the product of 30 months abroad – will behave in the stomping grounds of her former self.

It’s a daunting excitement. It’s a sad happiness. It’s a comfortable adventure.

Above all, it’s agridulce.

I’m so glad I have a word to convey that emotion to the people around me. And I’m finding more and more that the emotion is universal. Upon hearing agridulce -- followed simultaneously by a quivering lower lip and a big smile -- they’ll inevitably offer me a hug, a shy smile, or a kind word. They identify with me. They’ve been there.

Que te vaya, bien, Sarita.” I hope it goes well for you.

Igualmente.” The same to you.

In the spirit of offering some sort of closure – to myself, if to nobody else – I’d like to say muchas gracias, arigatou gozaimasu and thank you to everyone who has kept tabs on me as the Gringa Culichi, and as my former Japanese version in Muy Oishii. It’s been a whirlwind adventure, full of amazing highs and devastating lows, an experience that I hope to have the good fortune of being able to reflect on for years and years to come. I’m looking forward to seeing how exactly living the experiences of setting off alarms in public restrooms in Japan, playing with street children in Cambodia, getting a pedicure with flesh-eating fish in Korea, seeing social injustice in Guatemala and dodging bullets in Mexico might shape the chapters of my life in the future.

For now, it’s time to close out this one. Publishing the last post of my Gringa Culichi blog – the virtual representation of my globe-trotting life – is just as agridulce as saying “hasta luego” to its physical manifestations: my Mexican friends, the breathtaking Oaxacan landscape and my amazing students here at the university. I talked about bittersweet emotions as the last post of my Japanese blog, and it seems only fitting to do the same here. It's the same emotion in any country, in any language.

Thanks for being a part of it all, the bitter and the sweet.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

File under: Things NOT to miss about Huajuapan

If I had a large-scale construction project to undertake, something that involved the tearing down of concrete walls and the backhoeing and bulldozing of the subsequent rubble, the time I’d pick to start the project everyday would obviously be 11pm.

I’d feel the need to put in an honest days’ work, so quitting time would be scheduled for eight hours later, promptly at 7am.

I’d be working through the night, so I’d obviously need to find a really, really bright light to illuminate my workspace, one that could easily be positioned to also shine directly into the (hermetically sealed) bedroom window of my neighbor across the street, ensuring that she could see the undersides of her eyelids as she fruitlessly would try to sleep, tossing and turning and punching her pillow as she would work through her repertoire of bilingual curse words, doing all she could to keep herself from running into the road in her pajamas, her bloodshot eyes ablaze with rage as she’d yell obscenities at me and my crew like the potentially-violent, half-crazed gringa that three days of sleep deprivation would turn her into.

But I wouldn't worry about her. Instead, I’d feel fortunate that I could undertake this project in the great city of Huajuapan de León, a commuity of 80,000 people that somehow manages to be 100 decibels louder than Chicago, a city of 8 million, a place where the everybody is used to noise at all hours, so nobody would even think to complain, except that grouchy gringa across the street. I’m glad that the municipal government would understand that my concrete wall would be more important than my neighbood's sleep. They’d even give me a permit so that I could park a truck right outside the construction site. I'd have to have some way of hauling away all that rubble. It’s OK that it would be blocking the entire road. Nobody in their right mind would be up at that hour anyway, you know?

I’d leave that big truck idling in the street the entire time, just because. The low, loud purr of that powerful engine could provide something of a backdrop to the scrape-lift-crash syncopation of the bulldozer’s scooping and spilling of rubble. It’d be a nice rhythm to work by, don’t you think?

I’d count my blessings that the project doesn’t fall during the months of December or July, or else my big, idling truck might get in the way of the processions of loud speakers, mariachi bands, fireworks and devout Catholics that parade down that same street at 4:30am. Gosh, we’d sure have a problem if that were the case.

Luckily, in February, the only other living beings up all night would be the street dogs who would bark at my bulldozer and that cranky, pajama-clad gringa across the street. Why wouldn't she just go to bed?

Yup, 11 pm it is. Sounds like a great plan.