Saying Goodbye and Redefining Home

Woman and child holding hands and waving at camera

Marching in the May 1st parade


As I enter my last two weeks of the semester, I feel a mix of emotions. Even though I’m sure I will still be processing this fact after I leave, I realized the other day that I have lived in Cuba for an entire academic year. That also means I have lived in one of the most restricted countries for U.S. citizens, and spent a year forming roots that might not be easily accessible in the future. Though I plan on visiting (even so soon as this summer to do thesis work!), I still feel sad when I think that next year I won’t hear the constant blaring 50s Chevy car horns or rhythmic sway of salsa music that lights up Havana. I won’t eagerly hope for over salted tostones for dinner, or taste the sickeningly sweet flavor of platanos maduros that have been fried a little too long and resemble a sweet, burnt crisp. I’ll miss the Cuban family who now refers to me as their daughter; my family.

At the same time, I find myself imagining Amherst’s quiet paths, the sound of my sister’s Chihuahua yapping in her Santa Clara, CA home, and Boston Common’s vibrant greenery disrupted by swans and families enjoying the summer. I can feel what I can only imagine is my mind mentally preparing itself for the inevitable culture shock I will experience when I return to the U.S. How will I feel not hearing Spanish as the default language surrounding me? What will it feel like to transition from a heavily socialist context where commercial options are very limited, back into a capitalist context where there are about 20 different types of toothpaste alone? Will the reopening of options I once took for granted be relieving, or overwhelming? Who will I talk to about these adjustment issues? How will I keep in touch with friends and family in Cuba given the rigid internet restrictions? I feel these questions, among others, ricocheting around my mind as I try to write final papers and enjoy the rest of the semester.

Even though I can feel all these thoughts simmering in the back of my mind, I do not feel a sense of grief that I thought might come around this time. It’s very possible that this feeling might come after I leave, in which case I’ve spoken too soon, but as of right now I do have a few theories as to the absence of my grief. Over this year, I’ve found myself redefining seemingly simple terms I once took for granted: family, home, friendship. I’ve moved more than 20 times in my life, including to three different countries, lived in dorms since I was 14, and therefore haven’t spent more than 2 months consecutively with my family since that age, and have created a network of friends that can somehow support me even if I haven’t seen some of them for 2 to 3 years. I used to be proud of my ability to adapt to different environments, not miss my family, and not get homesick. However, this semester, after having re-experienced what it feels like to come home after school to lunch and a chisme session with family, have my mom remind me to walk in the middle of the dark residential streets when I’m out with friends, and get effortlessly folded into family events such as birthday parties, family visits, and even a wedding, I’ve felt a growing sense of longing for a fixed home. This year, for the first time in my life, I experienced homesickness. But, weirdly enough, I wasn’t homesick for my literal home; I felt homesick for the idea of a constant home that I could easily access and return to. In Spanish, there is a difference between the words “casa” and “hogar”. Whereas casa means the literal structure of one’s house, hogar means home and all home embodies. Although the meanings of house and home also differ English, it took me learning Spanish to really reflect on this symbolic difference.

Shocked to find myself suffering from a profound sense of homesickness for a home that wasn’t even a physical space, I kept asking myself where I considered home. Is my home London, where my immediate family lives, but where I only go once a year at this point? Is it California where my older sister and grandmothers live, where I try to go at least twice a year? Is it Amherst, where I spend most of my year but also secretly count down semester days until I can leave campus for break? Is it in the apartments where I spend my summers subletting and working? Could it be Cuba, the place that loosened my previously firm grasp on how I understood home and family, even though I’ve only been here one academic year? Of course I quickly realized I have a home in all of these places. What I am now realizing, however, is the that, instead of having separate, but connected homes in different places, these spaces have actually combined to make a new home somewhere I hadn’t previously recognized. Somehow, the Cuban soundscape, moody London overcast, quiet Amherst paths, perpetually fresh CA fruits, and gentle lapping of the Charles River have all converged within me. For this reason, I don’t feel a sense of grief because I don’t feel like I’m losing anything; I feel a sense of immeasurable growth. So, as I wrap up my last couple weeks in Cuba, I can only be grateful for what the year has taught me…and plot my inevitable return.

Bella standing in front of large yellow Cuba sign

Standing proudly in front Santiago de Cuba’s sign

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