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.