So there we were, in Sarajevo. Standing on a street in near the more touristed part of the city. We were reading a theater marquee, trying to see what was playing. I don’t believe it was a movie theater. I seem to recall it being more like a playhouse, but as often is the case when in a strange country and presumably looking ready to spend money, we were approached by a woman. “Excuse me” she said. As is nearly always the case, my defenses immediately kicked in and I responded “Oh, no thank you” with a friendly smile of course. I don’t want to appear, nor am I in fact hostile. I am just so completely sick of being treated like a walking ATM.
Either she didn’t hear my response or was simply unphased by it. Or perhaps she completely understood what I meant yet knew somehow that my reaction was only meant for someone who wanted money from us and she most certainly wasn’t approaching to beg or sell us anything.
“I noticed you speaking English that sounds like it’s from the US” this woman continued. “I just wanted to stop for a moment and speak with some Americans”. She went on to tell us that she had lived in Sarajevo during the war. Her husband had been killed in the war. She had two sons, the eldest of whom was just under the minimum “fighting age” – meaning that in a few short months he would join, in fact be obligated to join the armed citizen soldiers in the defense of the city. She told us of her numerous trips to the war-torn government offices petitioning to leave her native city with both of her children. She was eventually granted that permission and ended up being on the last bus that left Sarajevo before it was completely besieged.
She fled with her two sons to the United States, eventually married an American man and had returned to her own native country for the first time since leaving. She wanted to show her husband the city of her birth and where she was forced to leave from. She went on to explain that she never felt like an American even though she had become fluent in English, married an American and was living what many would consider the stereotypical American lifestyle. She also revealed that she didn’t feel Bosnian. A lot had changed leading up to the Bosnian war and a lot had changed since. She described feeling like she really didn’t belong any place. That she simply existed in some space between two very different worlds. At that moment we had a very human connection.
I had been and continue to struggle with my own sense of not really belonging anywhere. When asked where I’m from I’ll usually reply with a wry smile and the word “earth”. Some people get it. Many are left vexed and thinking that I’m a smart-ass (not an unfair judgement).
I justify my absence from the US in many ways. There’s a whole lot of earth that I’d like to explore and given that I’m young and interested in exploring the earth, I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can and as long as I’m interested. But the real reason is that I feel that the US has very little to offer me. Our government has been in a constant state of decline since at least the 80s. Likewise so has our economy. I kid you not that I once lost my job in Asia because that job was outsourced to the US where labor is less expensive. Student debt, dwindling middle-class, crumbling infrastructure and a failed education system; I could go on and on. I’m disinclined to let this post become a political rant so I won’t. I’m sure you’re not interested in reading another of those.
To finally get to the point that I want to make, having spent such a lengthy amount of time outside my native country, I have lost touch with what it means to be American. Each time I return, I view America with the wide-eyed amazement of someone seeing it for the first time. My impression of who Americans are is formed much in the same way as it is for foreigners which is to say the expectation is that America is full-to-the-brim with beautiful and successful people. It’s extraordinarily hard for me to feel a part of that. But something happened on my most recent pass through America. This time I wasn’t just passing through for some work related purpose so I ended paying a bit more attention to what was around me. The vast and overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. aren’t perfectly beautful nor do they fit the mold that film and TV tries to fit them into. They’re just regular people with the same goals and ambitions that I have. They want a better life for themselves and to provide their children with a bright future. They’re exactly the same kind of people that I encounter in any new place that I visit. This is how long-term travel has shaped my world view and now the view of my native country. This is what it’s like for me to be a foreigner in my own native country.