white girl problems

by: Tara Ruttenberg

the transition back to life in Costa Rica hasn’t felt as smooth this time around. not least because i left my heart in San Diego. 


but also because i left a lot of other parts of me there, too. it turns out i’m discovering this whole slew of identity crises coming at me all at once in this interim phase between being there and being here. the no-man’s-land of transitioning from one reality into another where you don’t feel grounded in either because you don’t quite know who to be or how to be in one or the other. unsettled. incomplete. 


yep, white girl problems. this time, of the lizard-like variety.


see what i mean? it doesn’t make any sense.


i got back on a Monday after nearly four months away, working as a writer, living as a lover, and settling into SoCal sunshine. without my noticing, it had grown comfortable, being there. my heart barely reacted to the once anxiety-ridden commutes down the 5 in morning traffic; now i’d be eating my breakfast banana, curling my eyelashes and talking on the flip-phone on speaker in my cleavage, switching lanes like no big deal. i’d stopped missing bugs. i’d remember to bring a sweater to work and take sunny phone-call breaks instead of freezing my skin off in the office’s centrally controlled air conditioning 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. i’d suit up in 4 millimeters of neoprene and paddle out into 2-foot slop with a smile on my face instead of grimacing at the frigid, swell-less thought and going back to sleep. i’d stopped writing poems about the sensationalized fear-driven news programming i had no choice but to watch from the treadmill; now i’d just try to keep up with the closed captioning as my eyes bounced in rhythm with my worn-out sneakers, forgetting to judge all the things i hated about living in the USA. i’d gained 5 pounds of consumer culture on my hips and thighs. and i didn’t really care. i was my gringa self in all of her glory. and i kinda liked her. other people seemed to like her, too.  


“he’s like a chameleon.” years ago, i overheard a friend criticize someone he knew for a unique character flaw. “it’s like he changes his personal identity depending on the company he’s with or the scenario he’s in.” hmmm, i thought. that sounded familiar. but i didn’t think it was such a bad thing. i actually thought it was admirable, perhaps the embodiment of an evolved, ego-less being, who makes himself at home in any given situation by adapting to the circumstances. an acceptance of the subjective interrelationship between self and society. that image of the chameleon has stayed with me as i go about my wanderings, adjusting to my realities as my environment dictates. so far, it’s been easy-breezy and excitingly unpredictable. my colors often felt beautiful.     


the guitar orchestra of the University of Costa Rica serenaded us in the crowded aisle of the Jet Blue sky just before landing in San Jose. my mom waited for me longer than usual outside the airport as i fumbled to fabricate a return-ticket i hadn’t booked to satisfy Costa Rica’s now apparently well-enforced entry requirements. my foreign-feeling Spanish was unconvincing; luckily, my phony travel documents and grumpy gringa demeanor passed the test. mom and i drove home like chatty girlfriends, no beats skipped. i hugged my dad and kissed our AmaTierra family hello, catching up on life and death. i unpacked and re-packed and gave myself a pedicure and wrote in my diary and crawled into bed. i couldn’t wait to sleep. i was happy to be home. other people seemed happy, too.


but rainy season smelled uncomfortably damp on my pillow. and i didn’t quite accept the tiny spiders and their flimsy webs behind my bed frame. the cicadas wouldn’t shut the fuck up. i sort of missed the borrowed air mattress on the floor in someone else’s spare bedroom. and i really missed the man who slept on it with me.


on a Tuesday, i slipped back into life as it was as if i’d never left. making up for lost time and fulfilling work obligations i’d been sidelining by taking the job in San Diego. now i had to show i was committed to being a part of the UPEACE campus community, finding myself nearly on board with embracing my fate as full-time doctoral student, making myself worthy of the extravagant $700 a month stipend they were paying me to stay on top of deadlines and exist within reach. i read and wrote and met with smart, experienced academics who gave me tips and told me my project was too ambitious and used big words like epistemology, which from now on i will commit to memory and try to use in a sentence like ‘duh, of course i know what epistemology means, and omg aren’t you an idiot because you don’t.’ i was working on becoming my intellectual smarty-pants student self again.


on the weekend, i flailed around in head-high waves i hadn’t seen in months, wobbly on a board i had left behind, hoping my shiny new locally-shaped custom thruster would be awaiting my return. it wasn’t. i dutifully showed up late, post-surf, to the Pura Vida No-Pro, an annual volunteer beach day event for orphan kids, trying to make myself useful and force small talk among the sea of like-minded acquaintances brimming with charity, the three-to-one volunteer-to-orphan ratio slightly uncomfortable for all of us. my social anxiety felt impossible to bear, so instead of getting day-drunk and shining it on for another few hours, i slipped out and took off. i couldn’t fake another smile.


i went back to work on Monday, sitting at my desk making to-do lists and wasting time on facebook for a week. the roosters’ 5am daily alarm-clock cluck-fest was not cute; sleepless on the other side of the window, i plotted their cock-a-doodle-demise in some form of stew. somehow, i eked out a final draft of my dissertation proposal, pretending i cared which methodology made the most sense for my research project i wasn’t convinced i even wanted to do. skype-ing with my new long-distance non-boyfriend brought temporary relief, followed by bursts of reality that we live in separate countries for the more-than-foreseeable future.


and now it was Thanksgiving, and it was lovely and i played daughter to my parents and girlfriend to my soul-sisters who i love but who i didn’t feel quite at home with just yet.


it wasn’t them.


it was me.


and that was really fucking annoying. why can’t i just jump back in like i’ve always done? change my chameleon skin to adapt to the colors of my new and familiar surroundings? why was i missing a place i had been ready to leave and people i had only just begun to know? why didn’t i feel at home at home? alone time in a cave for a month wouldn’t even be enough to get my shit sorted. because how do you feel whole when parts of you aren’t where they should be? when certain layers aren’t flaking off as fast as you want them to, and new-old skins aren’t regenerating like they used to.


on Friday morning, i went to my new transpersonal psychologist for a free intro session. i whined about my white girl problems for a long half-hour. she put them into perspective in a simple instant: “you can be everything everyone wants you to be. or you can be you. it’s like that saying, ‘everyone loves you, except for you’. her message resonated with my creeping sense of new-found obligation that didn’t sit well with my ‘live your soul purpose by living the life you want’ philosophy. she asked me what i thought i needed to live my ideal life in this moment. i cried when i told her i just needed space to be me. that sounded easy enough.


but that wasn’t the whole problem. i didn’t just need alone time to process and quit my gringa reality in exchange for the person i am in my Costa Rican environment. that felt like a denial of parts of myself i actually liked and came to identify with. but i wasn’t sure if those parts were actually parts of me or just colors i wore to adapt to the cultural circumstances around me. and which of the good parts of my Costa Rica self had i denied in the process of accommodating my USA reality? how much of my gringa self was actually me? how much of my Costa Rica self?


unsure who to be in the space i thought i needed to be me again, alone time started to look like more of the problem than a strategy toward a solution.   


because how does the chameleon know what color to be when he’s all by himself?


…reptilian angst my existential crisis.