As a result, taking a year off in my 20s to backpack around the world wasn’t as emotional an experience as I imagine it would be for many American travelers. Though I had lived in the United States my entire life, I never felt entirely at home. Television shows and movies rarely depicted families that looked or acted like my own; my classes in school seldom discussed the background or culture of immigrant families; finding restaurants and stores that sold my family’s traditional food sometimes meant driving to the other side of town. We were minorities, and our values, habits, and even physical appearance were not necessarily what the dominant culture depicted as “American.” And so “American” could never fully encapsulate who I really was.
It appears that many second-generation Americans feel similarly. In a 2013 Pew Research survey, majorities of both Asian and Hispanic second-generation Americans said they mostly described themselves by their races or the countries their families came from—as in Asian American or Mexican American—with only around a third of respondents in each group saying they called themselves “American” without another label. For me, too, my family’s heritage has always felt like an important part of the answer to where I’m “from.”
Travel therefore comes naturally to me. Having internalized the idea of never completely belonging in any single place, I am comfortable with the concepts of movement, adaptability, and change that are so fundamental to my family’s story. In the past eight years, I have visited 29 countries, lived in seven cities, and spent almost three years getting by with only the possessions that fit in one suitcase. I’ve learned that sometimes life is at its most passionate and beautiful during these moments of utter displacement.
When I set off for my year of travel, I visited South America first so that I could explore my roots without the inhibitions I occasionally felt in the States. Initially, my travels in the region came as a relief. People listened to my family’s music, ate my family’s cuisine, spoke my family’s language, followed my family’s customs. People hugged each other often and didn’t think twice about inviting you over for dinner or drinks. Communities gathered in plazas on weekends to chat or listen to music, and even older people and parents of young children stayed out socializing late into the night. When I visited bars on weekends, it seemed like everyone was dancing.
But ultimately I was not quite at home in Latin America either. My Spanish had a bit of an American accent; I preferred American folk music to Latin American rock; and my independence was foreign to many women I met. Older women would approach me when I rode city buses alone to ask in confusion: “Where is your boyfriend? Where is your father? Why are you alone?” When I attended a birthday party with my female cousins, the conversation was not about whether to leave your career to get married and have children, but when. They were shocked to hear about my two years living and working in San Francisco: “You lived in an apartment on your own? So far from your family?” Locals began calling me gringita, claiming I had become too Americanized. And even though we shared a heritage, many people I met in the region didn’t seem to understand what it was like to be in the minority. When I told my family members about my political views or my previous job as a teacher helping immigrant Latino students gain access to education, it was difficult for them to understand how Latinos in the United States were at such a statistical disadvantage. They didn’t have to defend their culture, or work for its equality. Meanwhile, I could only understand my culture through its position in the United States; my second-generation identity could not exist anywhere but there. That made me feel more American than anything else.