We set off in a minivan stocked with juice boxes and printed-out Mapquest directions.
It’s the first time I’ve seen my family in nearly a year. In that time, my sister has somehow transformed from a child to a confident teenager. My brother has graduated high school. My mom got a new job and my dad grew a beard.
I’ve been back in the country for less than a week and I’m still trying to fit my experience into something bite-sized, something that will roll off my tongue when people ask me “How was it?”
I’d rather listen for now, about weddings and new carpet and other things I missed, as the green hills blend into each other and the exits roll by.
Before we’ve run out of things to say, a skyline appears on the horizon still small like a keychain—New York City.
I’m goggle-eyed, giddy. The second I step off the subway in Manhattan I want to belong to this place. I want to know the names of the buildings that tower around me and master that graceful, don’t-bother-me New York power walk. I want to be casual, like I know where I’m going, but I’m so busy gawking I step on my sister’s heels.
My mom and dad trail behind me, consulting a map. One of my brothers squints upwards, while my sisters are eagerly taking pictures of sewer rats. We are so clearly foreign, weighed down with snacks and guidebooks. We walk too slowly, sprawl too much across the sidewalk, and point and grin far too much to be from here.
They are probably rolling their eyes at us—the real New Yorkers: maybe the girl in the tank top that reads “Not a Tourist,” though that seems like a suspiciously touristy thing to wear.
We’re holding bulky cameras, after all, and we’re mystified by food trucks. We walk with Midwestern speed on New York streets, and our baseball caps aren’t protecting our sunburned necks.
Eye-rolling doesn’t bother me. I’m used to being out of place. I’ve spent almost a year trying to belong in Honduras, but my hair or size or accent always marked me as someone from a slightly different world.
It’s almost a relief to be out of place in New York City. We follow gaggles of tourists speaking a dozen different languages and find a certain anonymity in the horde. It’s okay that we don’t know the way to the subway. It’s okay that we stop for a picture. At least we aren’t wearing an I ♥ NY shirt. At least we’re not running after the pigeons.
We race through museums and Central Park and grin in front of historic buildings, waiting for the camera to flash. We’re yelled at in the subway line, our feet hurt so badly we’re limping, and we get caught in the rain. We can’t agree over where to eat, but we make peace over dim sum, and suddenly the week is over, and we’re back in the car with our juice boxes, trying to wrap our heads around everything we learned and saw.
“How was it?” people will ask, and I’ll give the best answer I can. I can’t describe a place in a sentence. How could anyone expect me to? I’ll answer “Good,” and hope they ask more questions.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).