My mother has created the perfect response to an imperfect question; when asked if her daughter returned from her gap year more “__________” (insert mature, worldly, grounded, etc.) or simply just “different,” she avoids a direct answer. Instead, she opts for an anecdote. I will preface this with the fact that I have this information not because I’ve ever heard her say it, but because I’ve been told by multiple people about the effect this story has, and the efficacy with which it answers their question. It goes a little something like this:
“Maya called me about a week into her homestay and broke down crying. She attributed the tears to the fact that there were two spiders and a “pincher bug” in her room when she got back from dinner, but I’m sure the breakdown was an amalgamation of a lot of things. I stayed with her on FaceTime as she darted around the room wielding a grey flip flop and killed all three bugs, and then helped her calm down enough to ignore the potential other, hidden, spiders in the room and go to sleep. About two weeks before she left, we were chatting on FaceTime when she casually mentioned that she had captured a tarantula in her room the other day. This is from a girl who was terrified of spiders before she left. When I pushed her on it she said it wasn’t that big of a deal because it was the second time this had happened so she just trapped it under a plastic container until her host dad could take it outside.”
From my understanding, she just lets people take what they will from that story. There’s no grand overstatement that I’m a different person, nor does she insinuate that I wasn’t deeply affected by my time abroad. She simply offers an anecdote that implies that, as my mom, she has seen notable changes in me but that I am essentially the same as when I left.
I, on the other hand, can’t seem to figure out how to answer this question. Mostly because I don’t quite know yet.
I haven’t changed all that much, in the big picture. I’ve kept my propensity for sarcasm, my ability to love quickly and deeply, and my love of gift giving. I’ve kept the qualities I’m glad I have. I’ve also kept some of the ones that I’m not proud of. I still covet possessions, I’m easily irritated, and I have trouble coping with failure. I’ve made progress, of course, but taking a gap year didn’t rid me of my bad behaviors.
But the question, I suppose, is more about what I’ve gained than what I’ve kept. Qualities I didn’t have that Ecuador gave me, in a sense. Honestly, I’m not sure if I can grasp all that I’ve gained from this year after just a month. I know the big, tangible changes; I’ve learned a new language, made connections in a new community, and discovered my place in a complex cultural context. I fell in love with ideas; shifting the lens through which I see the world, adding depth to the narratives I’ve created about myself and others, and developing my own world view, informed by but independent of those of my parents, mentors, and the media. I developed relationships that shifted the way I think about love; I have new people I can call my family, new role models, and new friends that I talk to every day.
I talk sometimes about Mayita (often referred to in The States as Ecua-Maya), which is what my host family called me. Mayita reads a book a week, knows how to plant and harvest peas, and catches tarantulas in plastic containers. She goes to bed at 8:30 and teaches pre-school. It seems obvious, but I often have to remind myself that I am Mayita. I’ve been placed back into the context in which I’m far more comfortable being Maya, but I cannot erase the past 8 months. I have difficulty reconciling these two seemingly different people, but part of the experience is merging them together in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m betraying either one.
I am fundamentally different. I view the world with more perspective and empathy. I now feel like I can truthfully describe myself as brave and resilient. I am a teacher of pre-schoolers, a speaker of Spanish, and a big sister. Simultaneously, I am fundamentally the same. I value compassion above all else. I am sarcastic and loyal. I am a photographer, a collector of records, and a dancer. Ecuador changed me in a lot of ways, big and small, and my next journey is making sense of those changes and how they impact how I view myself. Maya or Mayita, I’m still the same old me.