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I lived in Cuba for 20 years. Moving back to the US has me questioning the meaning of 'home.'

Conner Gorry   

I lived in Cuba for 20 years. Moving back to the US has me questioning the meaning of 'home.'
  • At 32, Conner Gorry left New York and moved to Havana for a job as a journalist.
  • After living there for 20 years, she saw herself as an immigrant, rather than an expat.

Whitening. Herbal. Charcoal. Color changing? I'm in the toothpaste aisle at Target, dumbfounded by a selection that runs several shelves long and as many high. After more than 20 years in Cuba, where Close-Up and La Perla were the only choices for most of that time, I'm overwhelmed by the number of options. If Target triggers paralysis, I shudder to think what terror Costco might elicit.

I was 32 when I left New York after the World Trade Center attacks. I was looking for a more humanistic and peaceful place to call home. A place where telling a good joke and checking in on older neighbors means more than what car you drive or the whiteness of your teeth. I was hankering for more community and less consumerism.

In early 2002, the door of opportunity swung open: I packed a single suitcase and a box of books. A reporting job was waiting for me in Havana.

Adjusting to life in Cuba brought laughter and tears

The first Cuban saying I learned was "no es fácil." No, it's not easy. I resigned myself to eating rice every day, sometimes twice, to quiet my stomach. I had no cellphone or internet — technologies not yet mainstreamed in Cuba — or even a landline. Instead, I leaned on friends with connectivity — a hard, early lesson on the favor economy that keeps Cubans afloat.

I rode the bus and took collective taxis, usually a 1950s Detroit hunker with wire hangers for door handles. I thought my Spanish was OK, but Cubans laughed when I spoke, including the kindergarten crowd.

It took years, but I pushed through tears and despair to adapt and thrive. I covered Cuba's medical disaster team in post-earthquake Pakistan and Haiti, crossed the island on a 1946 Harley-Davidson researching a book, and had an 8-hour marathon meeting with Fidel Castro, among other adventures.

There's a difference between an immigrant and an expat

After spending two decades in a country so wildly different from my own and experiencing more than most, I didn't realize how "Cubanized" I'd become.

Back in the US, where privacy, personal space, and punctuality are prized, I'm realizing that in Cuba, I was more of an immigrant than a visitor or an expat. The distinction is nuanced but important: immigrants integrate, visitors and expats replicate. Diplomats, retirees, and business people living abroad often try to recreate a semblance of home.

In Cuba, there are upscale "foreigner" neighborhoods — like Siboney and Cubanacán — and international schools for children. There are specialty stores that stock familiar items, making it possible to approximate a more-like-home diet. Some of these expats may not even make an effort to speak Spanish. As an immigrant, on the other hand, I made efforts to adapt, sponging up all the information and mechanisms for how to get along in my adopted country.

Alas, with my sponge saturated and my family needing me, I moved back to the US last year.

Throughout the transition, I've been finding my Cuban ways — things like throwing toilet paper in the trash can, kissing everyone hello, dropping in on friends unannounced — raise eyebrows. And sometimes hackles. I stand too close to people, I make eye contact, I talk to strangers, and I'm 15 minutes late to everything.

The physical move is easy, re-acculturation is tougher

When you've spent almost as much time outside your birth country as in it, like me, the physical move is the easy part; re-learning how to live in the US, has been harder.

Touchless technology confounds me, so I eavesdrop on people using Google Wallet to learn how it's done. Is cash still king, I wonder, or should I tap the suggested tip showing on my server's screen? Those Amazon Go outlets in airports — where you wave your palm over a sensor, enter a well-stocked, unstaffed store, and take what you like — frighten me silly.

I am wholly unaccustomed to finding free stuff everywhere — chopsticks, bookmarks, napkins, Dijon mustard packets, even! — and load up where I can. Cue the sidelong looks.

On the flip side, I'm saddened that college tuition, doctor's visits, and ambulance rides — all free in Cuba — can bankrupt a family in the US. In Cuba, moreover, women have full autonomy over their bodies, which I feel is the only way it should be.

Focusing on what's great about the US

When my brain threatens to short circuit over the differences and contradictions, I focus on what I missed about the US. Here, I'm grateful for fantastic public libraries, fast WiFi, spaying and neutering of pets, littering as a sanctionable offense, dengue-free mosquitoes, and artichokes. And I deeply appreciate my independence; here, I'm not reliant on favors or beholden to anyone for the basics.

What has changed most since I've lived away is me. I realize now that re-adjusting to US life isn't a flip that gets switched, it's a process. Right now, I feel like a newcomer in my own country, baffled by toothpaste selection. I grab the cheapest just to get it over with: cinnamon-flavored Close-Up.

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