“It’s like a small brain, un cerebro pequeño, with two lungs inside, sí, con dos pulmones adentro.” I gesture with my hands, as though this lost word, this untranslated particle, can be pulled from the air. Julio, my pony-tailed, bearded host father, smiles. He waits.
The act of speaking in Spanish is one of rapid-fire semi-translation, of being uncertain which thought—the native one, or the foreign one—arrived first. I stammer through invented words culled from the dictionary of almost-right: nicets, nocets, uh, nucets. I bring my thumb and forefinger together—es así, like this—this size, this round shape. ¿Me entendés?
And finally he’s nodding, pointing at the counter, at the bag my host mother grabs from the bottom shelf. Here it is in all its glory: a walnut.
I WAS RAISED WITH AN UNSPOKEN belief: to grow up is to move. To reach adulthood you must dismantle and pack away only the necessary pieces of your life, and reassemble them someplace far away, across oceans and unknown terrain. My parents taught me this unintentionally, through their own stories of emigration. Now they are surprised when I tell them that I intend to leave.
For two months in Argentina, I am the foreigner, la extranjera. I study the way people speak, watch their mouths move, listen to the cadences of their words, in order to replicate. The game is to see how long it takes students in the university hallways or travelers on the street to realize what I am. “You’re like an Argentinian who speaks very slowly,” says the vendor selling empanadas and meat sandwiches in the university. “You from Columbia?” asks a man in a hostel. Another: “But your parents are Latino, no?” Time for self-congratulations, a few solid pats on the back.
But then, as always, the slip-up: the forgotten word, the misconjugated verb—it is my friend’s Ecuadorian roommate who does the final takedown: “You sound like one of the Koreans who moved here. Learn to e-nun-ci-ate.”
MY MOTHER, WHEN ASKED, SAYS SHE LIVES IN NEW York but is from India. My father pronounces everything with a rough Israeli touch. They are immigrants, but not of the Ellis Island variety; they came with acceptance letters from American universities and professional aspirations. Aunts and uncles had settled here before, and every year, they told themselves, the flights were getting shorter. My mother was sure she would return home soon; my father tried not to think about forever.
We never became an American family, not exactly. We have the little blue books, the official stamps, all the right papers, but these are mere formalities. An element of transience has remained. My parents do not neglect our American home—the floors were painted not long ago, and the wooden cabinet in the middle of the kitchen is new—but they wait for the vacation morning when they can print their airplane tickets. In the meantime, my father soaks chickpeas overnight to prepare the hummus the way it tasted back home, and my mother spends her lunches in a small restaurant on 28th Street, munching on spicy lamb wraps. Sometimes we find her watching a glitzy Bollywood movie, and when my father rolls his eyes, she yells that she has a right to watch whatever she wants and that, anyways, she only watches these movies a few times a year.
IN CAFAYATE, A TOWN IN THE NORTHEAST OF ARGENtina, my friend and I stay at a red-walled hostel with peeling walls and no locks on the doors. The stylish, young French woman who runs the place asks if we can pay in dollars—she’ll give us a good exchange rate, and it’s complicated to exchange pesos back in France—before pulling out a map and pointing out the best bodegas and a local goat cheese farm. We hike through the cactus-covered land bordering the Río Colorado and are ripped off by the local boy who serves as our guide. We purchase fresh green beans and tomatoes from an old woman in a tiny produce shop at the end of a deserted street, and cook vegetable pasta on an old, half-functioning stove in the hostel. At the dinner table where the rest of the hostel dwellers gather, the French owner tells us she did not plan to stay; she was traveling, and then he—she points to her Argentine husband, who looks like a surfer with his long blond hair—didn’t let her leave; now, look at her, baby on the way. Anyways, it was so beautiful here, she says. Early the next morning, we see what made her stay; we bike through kilometers and kilometers of the most astounding multi-colored mountains molded into torturous shapes by centuries of water passing through. Somewhere before the 25 km mark, the halfway point, I remember how the French woman had cried out when I mentioned my age—19! What she would give to be that young again.
Busing from one town to another, we meet Argentine travelers in all the hostels. The “so where are you from?” is inevitable, and we slip into conversation before we’ve even put our bags down. One night, as slabs of beef cooks slowly on an outside grill and glasses fill with a bitter herbal alcohol called Fernet, I unintentionally become an ambassador. “What do you think of communism?” a sweet-natured teacher from Buenos Aires asks. “Do people die of hunger in America?” asks another Argentine traveler. We describe food stamps and homeless shelters as if we are certified experts on America’s poor. We sound proud without meaning to; we qualify our statements. Our new friends laugh, give us their Facebook names, and take photos with us as we watch the coals. We quiet down only when the hostel owner comes outside to scream about all the noise we are making.
In a snow-capped village high up in the mountains, after my friend has already flown back to the United States, I wander around by myself for hours. Back at the unheated hostel, I prepare scrambled eggs with the leftovers of my failed attempt at dinner, when Andres walks in. A handsome, dark-haired man who had taught me to juggle in a Humahuaca hostel, he says he walked around for hours before someone agreed to give him a bed. “Must be the hair,” he laughs, patting his scruffy head. We walk to the top of a hill to see the windy cemetery in which the simple graves are decorated with plastic flowers. We return and sit in a central plaza, sharing mate, Argentina’s national drink, a tea sipped from a dried gourd through a metal straw. It’s cold and my feet are starting to freeze, but I say nothing to hurry us up; the end of my trip is playing out, and I will stretch the moments until they break.
I speak to Andres as if stripping away his assumptions about me, the American tourist, is the last thing I have to do to prove myself to all of Argentina. We spend hours tangled in difficult conversation, much of it political. “Why does America ever have to intervene?” he asks, after a while. The answers slips out before I can catch it: “Because we can.” For a moment, we hits me with its patriotic fist, and I am ashamed. But there’s a truth to it, to the belonging it suggests. “De una manera, we’re responsible.” Culpable, too. Andres shakes his head gently; running up against my answers, he hears what it means to be a child of America.
ON THE 20-HOUR BUS RIDE TO BUENOS AIRES, I SLEEP and wake and sleep and wake and never know exactly where I am. I peer through the window curtains and see low houses, a boy beating his hands to the pulse of a drum circle, dark trees and thick shrubs, telephone poles and white-walled storage spaces. Mostly, I just see the edge of the road and the unending stretch of dark beyond it. I try to read the Spanish subtitles under the Tobey McGuire movie on the pop-out screens. I pick my way through A Tale of Love and Darkness, the Israeli book my father lent me back in December; in the lost day, I read of displacement. I wonder if in 30 years, I will wake up and dream of an airplane like the one that awaits me now. Or whether I will wake up in America and appreciate it for being mine and hate it for having held on to me for all my life.