Joan Hanawiecuador 2012

Eymi, my host niece, gave me my "te amo" bracelet.

Returning Home Published on June 23, 2012

The expressions of utter shock and surprise mirrored my own smiling face as I laughed at the absurdity of it all. An Indonesian girl living in Huntington Beach, California speaking Ecuadorian Spanish. But that’s what happens when you become a Global Citizen Year Fellow. If I could choose one word to describe Global Citizen Year Fellows, I would call us inspired. We understand the endless possibilities of imagination, we seek to be surprised, we love to be inspired, and many times throughout our gap years abroad, we found our strongest inspirations to come from literature. One of the standout reads for me this year was The Blue Sweater.

For Jacqueline Novogratz, author of The Blue Sweater, it all started with exactly that, a blue sweater. A cherished sweater that she had donated to charity, yet rediscovered in Rwanda 10 years later when she saw a young boy sporting her beloved blue sweater. Her discovery was a symbol of the interconnectedness of our interests, our needs, and our actions around the world. By reading about Novogratz’s experiences while in the middle of beginning my own adventures abroad, I was able to relate so closely to her struggles of matching altruistic intentions with tangible actions, of facing corruption and seemingly unconquerable disparity in the midst of wavering courage, of finding true joy in the lessons of real-world failure and loss of corporate success.  And yet, most importantly, I was able to identify most with the persevering, determined, never-give-up attitude towards impacting positive change in someone, somewhere in the world despite all the odds.

The funny thing about returning home has been that the most challenging part of my entire experience has not been adapting to a new culture in a foreign country, but observing the disconnect between my United States life and my Ecuadorian life. The difference in the priorities of both my family and friends in each world is astounding, and at times, I find myself caught somewhere in the middle, trying to find a balance and truly emulate what it means to be a Global Citizen. For Jacqueline Novogratz, she found the key to this balancing act in a blue sweater. For me, I’ve found it in a bracelet.

Whenever I travel, the memoir that I take with me to commemorate the trip is always a bracelet. When my sister backpacked across Europe, the only gifts she brought back for me were bracelets—one from each country she visited. Before departing for Ecuador, I had been in Namibia and so when I landed in Quito, true to form, I had a beautiful carved Namibian bangle decorating my left arm. I had picked up another bracelet before leaving the States, one that represented my cohort, a simple pink piece of yarn that represented the interconnected web that we formed as Fellows—across the United States, across the globe. And during my year, my arm began to gain more adornments in the form of bracelets from cities I visited until I think that, at one point, my left arm was covered by about 18 bracelets. However, with more time back in the States, the bracelets have become to come off as the memories themselves grow stronger and no longer need a physical manifestation, but the one bracelet that I continue to wear with me today is a simple rubber bracelet given to me by my 8-year-old Ecuadorian host niece. These bracelets were incredibly popular during our time in country, as they were tokens of affection between young couples. They were always plastered with romantic phrases, such as “No puedo vivir sin ti” (“I can’t live without you”) or “Me fascinas” (“You fascinate me”). Personally, mine says “Te amo” (“I love you”), and I hold it with me today because it so dearly reminds me of the love that my host family showered me with all year long. The bracelet itself represents such a simple, selfless gift that I found so typical of my little Amazonian community, in that while they may not have had everything, they were always willing to share what little they had.

Eymi, my host niece, gave me my "te amo" bracelet.

However, in the States once again, I no longer sport the bands from Europe, or the bangles from Namibia, but I do have my simple rubber bracelet from Ecuador.

Fast forward to last weekend when I could do nothing more but smile at the shocked faces that peered questioningly back at me. I was having a garage sale to clean out the mountains of things I have apparently hoarded in my room since I was a child, and a large portion of my clientele had Latin roots. One family was browsing through my things, casually conversing in Spanish when they turned to me and asked in heavily accented English how much I wanted for an old purse. I readily answered in Spanish, and watched as they stopped and turned to me in astonishment. I noticed their daughter had a rubber bracelet similar to mine, and I held up my arm as I explained that while I may be an Indonesian girl living in Huntington Beach, California, I have Latin roots as well. The woman excitedly exclaimed, “Que sorpresa! Me siento en casa ahora! What a surprise! I feel right at home now!”

I thought back to the past year of my life, the continuing lessons in what it means to be a Global Citizen, the power of sweaters and bracelets, the small commonalities that keep us all connected no matter where we’ve been, who we are, or where we’re going, and, looking back at her with a smile, I answered, “Yo también. So do I.”

Finally landing in my hometown after a year abroad with an arm full of Ecuadorian bracelets and finding some very excited parents in the airport!

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