Lauren (left), Ronny (center), and fellow club member Rocio during the service trip to Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Lauren (left), Ronny (center), and fellow club member Rocio during the service trip to Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Only a year had gone by after my exchange in Ecuador when I received an email from my friend Ronny. He had recently moved to New York and was coming to visit our club in Chicago.  I was thrilled.

Ronny had led my Rotaract club during a whirlwind week volunteering around his hometown of Guayaquil.  We hitchhiked with Ronny to a local orphanage, climbed nearly 500 stairs to a famous lighthouse, worked in school reconstruction, and learned about micro-finance.  His visit was role reversal, my club’s chance to be a host and share Chicago.

I decided the tour had to start at the Rotary World Headquarters.  It was, after all, down the street from my university, and the home of the organization that had brought us together.

The day of his arrival, Ronny and I wandered onto the 16th floor of the headquarters for our scheduled tour.

“You are a group from Northwestern?” our guide inquired.

“Yes,” I affirmed, “but this is our friend Ronny, he was part of Rotaract in Ecuador.” I effused. Ronny stuck his hands in his pocket and looked up.

“Well actually, no,” he objected, “I live in New York…I’m basically from New York.”

I was taken by surprise.  I had known that Ronny was born in New York City, so he had U.S. citizenship. But he had been raised and educated in Ecuador, his parents were from Ecuador, and English was his second language.  I had been to Ronny’s home, met his friends, and seen his city.  To me, Ronny was Ecuadorian.  Yet as our week together progressed, he continued to casually insist he was a New Yorker each time I introduced him.

Ronny’s “foreignness” to me made him seem like a special guest.  He had traveled across continents to get to this place.  He had an upbringing in a rich and distinct culture; something I longed for as a suburban-bred American girl whose roots got buried when her great-grandparents checked in at Ellis Island.  For Ronny, however, being from New York was something that helped him belong in a sprawling and often overwhelming metro area.

Ronny helped me understand the importance of self-representation of identity for those who move across borders.  Cultural identity is not concrete, but transformative and complex.  Though I envied Ronny’s ability to pinpoint his roots, I realized that a dual identity as Ecuadorian and a New Yorker was important to Ronny and his new life working in the U.S.

Ronny still lives in New York City. He’s joined a Rotaract club there.  I look forward to my next trip to visit Ronny because it is now his turn to give me a tour of his city, New York.