I wanna go home. I wanna go home. I wanna go home.

A mantra I say to myself when I feel past the point of dejection. We’ve reached full “hell no” territory. Weight hunches my shoulders and slows my feet down to a plodding walk and keeps my body anchored to my bed. When tears constantly threaten to fall, when even a good hug doesn’t feel like it could fix my frustration, when I can’t hold my head up in class, when I feel empty and cold.

Home for me isn’t necessarily one place. When I say, “I just wanna go home,” I want to return to a place of safety. Home is a place of my childhood: pretty much unreachable at this point. It’s a place of security and warmth and knowing what I am doing and who I am supposed to be. It’s a place where responsibilities only extend to having to clear the table and finish my spelling homework. A numbness spreads through my body and takes over my limbic system, and even when I am physically home, I curl up under the covers and cry, “I just want to go home,” over and over, craving that sense of belonging. I miss the overwhelming love and excitement; I miss certainty, clarity, ignorance of the things to come. The weight eventually lifts – I can walk fast and get out of bed when I should, but until that lightness returns, I just want to go home. Please.

At my host family’s house, a place I called “home” for eight weeks, there was a clear plastic sheet covering the tablecloth – it stuck to my sweaty palm when I lay my hand on the table.

The first evening, I sat on the edge of a dining room chair, and I did not move. I did not know if I could. I did not know if I wanted to.

Sitting, I was at a normal height. Standing, walking, I towered over my host family. I was a head taller than my host mother, Mamá, the tallest of her household which also included Abuelita, her mother-in-law, and Stefani, her daughter and my host sister. My body was so large, gangly, out of place. It was one of the first things these strangers mentioned to me.

I stayed in my chair and reminded myself that all I had to do is get through the first night in a foreign house with a foreign family speaking a foreign language.

At the dinner table, my host family asked me questions, and I nodded. I nodded a lot, to almost everything. Abuelita and Mamá looked at me expectantly, wide-eyed and ready for my answers. I stumbled through, scrambling for words that could be used to describe the words I didn’t know. I was learning, sure, but I wondered how much misinformation I was giving and how much of their own stories I missed because I simply couldn’t keep up. But I smiled and nodded and often looked desperately at Stefani. My shoulders were slumping; I was unable to keep up, my American-public-school-level of Spanish weighing me down.

After dinner was over, I did homework at the table, fidgeting more than anything. I cycled through motions: flip phone over, check screen, flip back over, look at paper, write sentence, erase sentence, write five sentences, flip phone over, my hands still sticking to the plastic cover. Mamá sat down next to me. She showed me photo albums of their family and told me that, along with Stefani, she had another daughter and son who had moved out to start their own families. We would visit them in later weeks, and they were gracious and kind and instant family. Mamá, while we looked through the photo album, pointed first at my pale arm, then at her own darker one. She complimented my skin and said her younger daughter’s skin tone was as light as mine, “not like Stefani’s.” Mamá has that same dark skin tone as Stefani. I nod, averting my eyes from our arms lying side by side.

Western culture dominates so thoroughly in Guatemala City. It was hard to get away from reminders of the U.S., hard to separate myself from what I knew. The mall near our language school called to me, with its Auntie Anne soft pretzels and movie theater playing Black Panther. I felt comfortable, memories of home right down the road. Even ever-present Spanish wasn’t an issue when we were all in our group, as we used English by default.

I didn’t like how comfortable I was, though. This “globalization” seemed like colonization. Western businesses have extended their reach across borders until people in Guatemala City wait in line for hours for the opening of a KFC. I hadn’t gone to another country to go to Little Caesars and Forever 21. My skin crawled: it’s not a give and take relationship – there is no exchange of cultures, just a dominant culture infiltrating and replacing another’s. Oppression instead of integration. I wanted to be experiencing the new.

Sure, I also ate a lot of tamales and avena mosh, listened to traditional marimba music, visited Tikal, experienced the typical Guatemalan evangelical megachurch every Sunday, and went to many a marketplace lined with stalls full of layer upon layer of Mayan fabric made into cintas, huipil, and trajes. In the shadow of the three volcanoes shielding Lake Atitlán, a Tz’utijil woman told the fable of the village’s matriarchs using their traditional headbands to pull the volcanoes together, protecting their lakeside villages from the ever-watching government.

Beauty came when home and abroad interwove in a fair cultural exchange. High in the forest near Cobán, we sang in four-part harmony in an echoing cave. I worked my way through the Spanish La Casa en Mango Street, or The House on Mango Street, while lying in the grass courtyard of our language school, the sounds of the city flowing over the walls. On the steep mountain sides of Alta Verapaz, I played Go Fish! with two Q’eqchi’ boys, trying to pick up bits of their vocabulary here and there. I learned so much from my Guatemalan hosts, from my language teacher, from people I met on the street. And not all of the U.S.’ presence in Guatemala was bad; when cultures can live side by side, united by commonality and celebrating difference, home can be even easier to find.

I saw the beautiful strands woven into the cloth of Guatemala’s culture, but I also saw the bloodstains that those in power tried to cover up. In lectures on Guatemalan history, politics, and society, I added page by scribbled page into my notebook: Reagan supported the genocidal former president Ríos Montt; America has continually suppressed Guatemala’s socialist politics for the sake of US foreign investments; we have supported an oligarchical plutocracy through political and economic sources, consuming goods that are the result of land taken from Mayans and monocultured for palm oil. I have seen the trauma left behind from what my country has done.

We attended Catholic mass while visiting Lake Atitlán, and during the entirety of the service, two large TV screens projected the service from both sides of the sanctuary. The TVs were not projecting a closer view of the pulpit, but rather panning the faces of the congregants. Watching the screen, I saw people singing, crying, or staring at the pulpit stoically. Their attention remained fixed up front, while most of the time I spent watching one of the TVs, waiting for members of our group to be shown. Though woozy from the palo santo smoke filling the sanctuary, the threat of being filmed kept me from sitting down, fearing that the locals would see me and shake their heads at those lazy Americans who can’t handle their incense. I always felt that as a group of 23 Americans, we were interrupting, making a spectacle of our tall, white, loud selves.

While the musicians played another song, I kept my gaze on the TV. My posture stiffened as the image changed once more. The screen showed a bunch of pale, slouching, oddly dressed foreigners – us.

It should be noted that Guatemalans, especially indigenous Mayans, are short – 4’6” to 5’2” on average. On the screen, instead of seeing a crowd of people, you could only see the people in our row, faces looking worried, bored, and a little sick. Instead of worrying about how alert I needed to be, I slouched, thinking of how I was blocking the view of so many behind me. I assumed they hated us, hated me, for invading their space of worship, watching like the ignorant tourists we were.

First, we take their land and keep the profits out of their economy; then, we aid a governmental coup and kill many of their artists and academics; now, we keep them from seeing the priest. Self-centered American. Get out of their church.

Abuelita’s common refrain of “¿Cómo se fue?” greeted me every day I come home from school, growing in force the longer I took to answer. She was refreshingly blunt: a change of pace while living amid a culture of beating-around-the-bush. I came to crave conversation with her, and I realized Abuelita was the Guatemalan version of my maternal grandmother.

Her stubbornness, her lack of frills, her love of flowers, her dedicated faith, her bluntness: all brought me back to my grandmother. Abuelita appreciates and respects strong, smart women; her daughter-in-law and granddaughter are both examples of that. My own grandmother’s highest praise is, “She is very capable,” and she has raised very capable children.

One afternoon, feeling homesick, I went up to the balcony and let myself cry as I thought of my parents, my sister, my home. Abuelita came upstairs – the first time I had seen her up there – with a roll of toilet paper for me to use as tissues. I wiped my eyes, and we stood side by side, looking out over the street at the electric cables looping across and back like garlands, connecting house to house. We laughed at a dog on the neighbor’s rooftop who would occasionally bark a greeting at us.

Abuelita took my hand in hers and told me she had greatly enjoyed having me with them, that I would see my family soon, that she prayed for me and would know I would find a nice husband someday. I chuckled wetly into my toilet paper square and thanked her. When I bent down to hug her, my tears fell a bit harder when I thought of hugging my grandmother.

Catholics and Protestants in Guatemala share a commonality: filming congregants during the church service. At Fraternidad Cristiana, or Fráter, the megachurch my host family attended, three giant screens projected video of both the stage and the audience.

During the service, all around me people worshiped with vulnerable passion: their arms up, crying, kneeling, swaying, eyes closed. My host family was not as emotional or demonstrative as the rest, but Stefani held out her hands, and Mamá wiped at her eyes. Everyone seemed to be captured in their own spiritual world as contemporary Christian music blasted through the surround-sound system.

The congregants were so swept up in the music, in the glory of God, in the words of the pastor yelling through a microphone. I could not feel what they were feeling. I felt very little of anything, aside from homesickness when I recognized a song but could not remember the English words, creating a lump in my throat and a burning behind my eyes.

Later, I would explain to Stefani what Sunday mornings usually looked like at my church in North Carolina. I told her about my home congregation of 50 Mennonites singing four-part harmony and standing still, if we stood at all. My own mother could belt out a spiritual and raise her arms in worship any day, but she was an exception. At Fráter, people clapped after every song, the sermon, and some of the more energetic prayers; at home, people rarely clapped, other than a short burst every now and then to congratulate someone on the blessing of a new job or grandchild. Stefani was as baffled about my church as I was hers.

At Fratér, I was a clinical observer, set apart from my fellow worshippers as I wrote down observations in my notebook. Home was far, far away as I stood alone amongst the sea of people.

After the service ended, Stefani and I waded through the crowd while Mamá and Abuelita visited the bank on the premises. While we waited for them, I noticed two children giggling and pointing. I looked down at my feet, back up at them, and down again. When I moved, their eyes followed. They were laughing at my feet. I wore my brown Birkenstocks, a little worse for wear after months of dusty travel. I looked around at everyone else’s shoes, and sure enough, no one I could see was also wearing open-toed sandals, much less scuffed-up ones like mine. One more thing to make me stick out in this sea of people.

Our language school had warned us that people saved sandals for inside their homes, and we might not always have appropriate shoes for the occasion. However, my sandals were the nicest ones I had, compared to my Chacos and tennis shoes. They would have been more than fine at my home church, but I felt ashamed that I wasn’t blending in as well as I could. However, new shoes wouldn’t solve my bad Spanish and awkward height, and my feet were too big to find any nice shoes in the city, anyways. Trust me, Mamá tried.

As we walked through the crowds of people milling about, I stared at the ground, scanning people’s feet, hoping to find someone else in sandals, but I couldn’t find a single one. As I walked through the crowd of nice-shoed strangers, my cheeks grew flushed, and I walked faster and faster towards the exit. It was time to go.

The morning of chapel back at my university, in which our group was to present on our trip to Guatemala, I was standing around with some of my travel-mates when I heard my name. I turned around, and there were my parents, beaming from across the chapel.

I wasn’t supposed to see my dad until three days later when he’d come to pick me up, and I’d see Mom once I got home. But there they were. I ran to them – or walked as fast as I could – and threw myself into my dad’s arms. I was completely comfortable in my being; I was home. I was home I was home I was home. I hugged my mom and buried my face in her shoulder, hiding the tears running down my cheeks and dampening her shirt. I was back with two people who loved me most in the world. I had traveled 10,000 miles all around North and Central America, all to end up back in the arms of my family.

The program was about to begin, and I had to get back to my group, but even as I walked away, I felt capable and ready. I kept sniffling, brushing at my puffy, reddened eyes, yet I stood tall.

At the end of the service, as we stood facing the audience and singing the hymn “God of the Bible,” I looked out, tears still in my eyes, and saw my family – my grandmother, my aunts, and my parents – sitting together in a pew, singing along. The words of the hymn rose from the auditorium, “God in the Gospel, hope yet to come, you are our center, daylight or darkness, freedom or prison, you are our home.”

About the Author

Anali Martin

Anali North Martin is a senior English and writing studies major at Eastern Mennonite University. She grew up in Cary, NC, and she's also found home in Colorado, Guatemala, and Harrisonburg, VA. She's a collector of used books she'll never read and pens that write smoothly, and other beautiful things that catch her fancy (including words like "plump" and "capricious").