Today I deleted one of the first Spotify playlists I ever created.
“Impress” mostly had songs added to it in late September of 2014, and had all those tracks I always hoped somebody would catch me listening to, so I could show off my eccentric-yet-oh-so-appealing taste in music. It had everything from Nunca Me Acuerdo de Olvidarte by Shakira to German rap to Wizard Love by heyhihello.
I remember standing at the bus transit center in 2014, earbuds in, hoping one of my familiar-yet-totally-unknown-and-definitely-not-relatable classmates would stop to ask what I was bobbing my head to. By the end of September, I must have only been back in the states for… two months. I was seventeen, and had just spent a year going to agricultural trade school in rural Panama. There was no internet. The town I resided in featured a single expat (avoiding US taxes), 0.5+0.5 Peace Corps volunteers (one left a few months after I got there, the other I never met), two Thai exchange students (who I barely saw), and a crew of Jehovah’s Witnesses (only two of whom I saw regularly). My kindle was my prized possession then; I could check out ebooks from my library back home and download them at an internet cafe a bus ride away.
With the exception of the worlds I could go to through the kindle, the few times I saw other foreign nonconformists a week, or my bimonthly call with my parents until I ran out of credit on my phone… it was just me that year. No cell phone, no social media, no English, no cafes, no familiar food, no Swiggy or UberEats… just my classmates and school and host family and host community… and me.
I didn’t speak Spanish when I arrived in Panama. Nobody, including my exchange program liaison , spoke English. I didn’t even bring a proper dictionary––I just figured that 1) I would pick it up within a week because that’s what all the stories say about the extraordinary powers of language exchange, 2) people would speak some English maybe? and 3) there would be internet and why carry an outdated and heavy dictionary when you had SpanishDict.com?
Talk about finding yourself. For a few months, I was the only one I could reliably talk to and understand. Even after I started to get pretty good at the whole Spanish thing, everybody around me came from radically different backgrounds.
The Thai students pretty much only spoke Thai to each other, even when they took me out for a birthday lunch. (Wow, I think I’m still salty about that. It was kind of them, but I just sat there staring for much of the meal.) And they were from Thailand––they had a cultural background that was entirely different than my own; somewhat superficial differences that felt like a chasm between us when we were sixteen. (The other American and German who had come with us had left within two weeks and two months respectively.)
My Panamanian classmates and host family, were, of course, Panamanian. They lived in a world I didn’t even know existed––my international education covered that Europe was a thing, and that Mexico had sugar skulls, but not much more than that. The realities of poverty, of the tropics, of Spanish, even the idea that cultural differences were so prevalent… those were all shocks when I arrived.
The other United Stateians (whenever I call myself American people like to remind me that there are lots of other countries in North and South America, why should the U.S. be the only ones to get to be known as Americans? To which I would say that, yes, I agree––which doesn’t exclude me from being an American as well, as I come from the North American continent… simpler to just avoid the situation), they were also from different backgrounds. One was an elderly woman who had too much tax to pay in the U.S. and so was stuck in Panama, but seemed to hate the country and didn’t speak Spanish very well despite having lived there for like 15 years. Another was a Peace Corps volunteer who also was feeling pretty negative towards the country, and I’m ashamed to admit that I let that color my perception of the country. The Jehovah’s Witnesses seemed fine here, and I honestly enjoyed spending them with them, but the conversation never got far from God.
One day in late July 2014, eleven months after I’d arrived, I flew “home.” I met my family at the airport. My little baby brother’s face had turned from a circle to an oval. He was taller than I was now––something everybody always warned me would happen, but I never imagined would actually occur. I hadn’t realized how little the occasional video-call would tell you about what your little siblings look like. I hadn’t talked to my sister, who hates phone and video calls, in almost a year. The house was the same as I remembered, but I hadn’t realized we were so wealthy. The tap water would never make me sick or turn grey. The walls met the ceiling and formed a perfect bubble. We had A/C and a working shower head. There were almonds in the cabinet, and cheese––cheese!––in the fridge. My room was full of things, things that I recognized but only as if they came from the set of a beloved TV sitcom. They belonged to somebody else; their very presence seemed rather ridiculous.
School started in two weeks. I was going back to the same school that I had gone to for sophomore year of high school, which felt strange. I’ve switched schools every year (if not semester) all my life; seventh and eighth grade remain the only years I completed a consecutive year at the same institution.
Through the first day of class, and the second, everybody wanted to know how my year abroad had been. To my knowledge, I’m the only student from City High who has ever studied abroad. How was it? It was good? Great! So anyways I was saying, you’ll never believe what happened in math class–– By the third day, they’d stopped asking.
I stopped telling people details. I learned that people were uncomfortable if you brought up the negatives. And besides, how could you explain the same things you yourself couldn’t have comprehended a year earlier?
And so I found myself hanging out at the bus transit center, waiting for bus 6, earbuds in, hoping somebody would talk to me. Goodness knows I wasn’t sure how to talk to anybody else anymore.
Something had changed. I had this vague impression that I was different than other people now. Not just unique, I knew that––but that fundamentally, I had changed. There were no words to explain to anybody how I was feeling though, especially not without offending them.
So I created a playlist. It had music that was different. Similar to what you might be used to, but… different. A song about love between a Slytherin and a Gryffindor student falling in love. Salsa Tequila, the lyrics of which I now found hilarious having spent a year speaking actual Spanish. Different from what you’d hear on the radio… but familiar enough to start a conversation over.
And I named it “Impress.” That was its purpose, wasn’t it? I felt like I had a year of stories to impress with, none of which I could share. They were too long or too complicated or too sad or acknowledged too many uncomfortable truths. Songs, though… Maybe they could serve as a proxy for these stories.
I don’t need the playlist anymore.
I go to an international school with international peers, and we move to a new city somewhere in the world every four months while pursuing our bachelor’s degree. It’s called Minerva; you can read what I’ve written about it here. I’m now surrounded by my classmates, who get it (mostly)––they deal with the same stuff I do every day.
I don’t need a playlist of songs people haven’t heard of to show off anymore. I don’t need the same external validation as I did four years ago, nor am I restrained to a playlist to communicate. “Impress” will do just fine in the trash.
Don’t worry too much, though––the songs got moved to “alt up,” which has all my alternative but upbeat songs. Still extra, you say? Yeah, you’re right. 😉
Want more playlists? Follow Phoebe.blue on Spotify.