What I learned from traveling as the daughter of American immigrants

Amanda Machado is a writer who has traveled the world, spending much of that time living nomadically. The daughter of immigrants to the US, her travels have taken her around the world on a quest to explore identity and cultural heritage. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Vox, Quartz, and Matador Network.

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As the daughter of immigrants, every time I travel, I experience an identity crisis.

The first crisis happened when I visited Ecuador – my father’s home country – and suddenly realized I was far more “American” than I had previously thought.

My accent was off, my ripped jeans were inappropriate, and my views on politics and feminism were a bit too radical. No one could understand my interest in US “indie rock” music or the US cultural references I’d include in my jokes.

But then, a second identity crisis happened when I traveled with my “fellow Americans” on a study-abroad program to South Africa, and found that I couldn’t necessarily identify with them either.

We ate different food, and we had different beliefs and values around family and relationships. Sometimes, they even had a negative perspective towards non-Americans or immigrants that placed them directly at odds with my family history.

Even though we shared a “home” country, we shared little else. I began worrying that if even those from my own country didn’t feel like “my people,” no one would.

More than culture shock.

A line in the movie Selena summarizes the immigrant conundrum well for many Latinos: “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting!”

For me, traveling made me feel the weight of this expectation. With every trip I took, I asked myself: Am I really as “American” as these other tourists here? Or, if in Latin America, am I really as connected to my family heritage as I should be? In Ecuador, I wasn’t Ecuadorian enough. In the US, I wasn’t American enough.

For most travelers, culture shock is common. But as a daughter of immigrants, traveling caused something more: I didn’t just feel uncomfortable or surprised by the unique cultural differences I experienced. I felt that that they fundamentally put into question who I was.

A different way of being.

Perhaps never fully being “from” anywhere is not necessarily a crisis, but simply a different way of being.

That's the theory, at least, put forward in a TED talk by writer and photographer Taiye Selasi.

Of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent, she was born in London and raised in Boston, and now lives in Rome and Berlin. She argues that for people with backgrounds like hers, tying your identity to one place or culture no longer makes sense.

Meanwhile, research suggests that more Americans are choosing to make international cultures a greater part of their lives. The World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation estimated young travelers will take 320 million international trips by 2020, an almost 50% increase from 2013.

The idea of a borderless world.

Curiously, the United States doesn’t officially count how many citizens choose to move and live abroad each year.

However, a researcher from George Washington estimated that from 2010 to 2013, 200,000 more Americans became expats (he estimated that around 3 million Americans live abroad, making the US “diaspora” the 31st largest state).

Even those who haven’t yet left still consider the option more and more: a Wise survey found that two-thirds of millennials say they wouldn’t mind living abroad. Other surveys show that young people are more likely to define themselves as “global citizens” rather than by their nationality.

In a world with such increasing migration, I’m realizing that an identity based entirely on nationality has become more and more meaningless. Curiously, in a time when many politicians advocate for closed borders, I have become far more interested in the idea of a borderless world.

Instead of staking my claim in where I’m “from,” I instead want to embrace the complications of a more generalized identity. So instead of an identity crisis while traveling, I’m now trying to remember what my friend Karina Lopez told me years ago: “The ultimate freedom in travel lies in the fluidity in identity that it offers, and the opportunity to define who I am for myself.”

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