Friday, July 26, 2013

A Continually Changing Perspective

"We long for the security of familiarity when things are tough--
ordinary life to return to, 
relief from the situation we are in. 
When trials stretch out over time, we are also stretched."

I forget the book, article, or perhaps personal letter I hastily scribbled the above quote from. Currently stuck on my fridge, I've mulled over it time and again.

When trials stretch out over time, we are also stretched.

Isn't this what I longed for in joining Peace Corps? To leave the familiarity and comforts my middle-class American lifestyle offered? To make new friends and learn from a myriad of like-minded people? To gain a perspective on life, love, and worldview that living only outside of myself can offer?

Over halfway through service and, more or less, on the downward slope, many volunteers struggle with keeping a positive perspective. We can taste the prize at the end of the long, grueling journey: a return flight to ordinary life in America. Relief from a the hardships of poverty and challenges of living in a cultural norm so different from the one programmed in us from birth. We know that a road filled with potholes, bumps, and slides along the way still looms ahead. We, for the most part, have lost the bright-eyed perspective and newness of the community and culture we've been submerged in.

"Hey, whitey" rouses a response I wouldn't normally be proud of.
The screaming mother across the road is not exactly a pleasant good morning.
3,948 dead cockroaches later, I still dry heave in battle with them (no matter how clean my house is!).

The biggest challenge I personally face as a female PCV in Jamaica is the unwanted attention.

I was warned before arriving. I have had continuos, helpful training in how to avoid, ignore, or dissipate unwelcome comments. I have the undying support from our post's staff.

And the longer I'm here, the more I learn that it's not so much a personal thing as it is a cultural thing.

Yes, we knew from the start that Jamaican men are "fast" and "aggressive." I've never had so many men be so descriptive and detailed about exactly what they like about me and what they want to do with me. Sometimes it's the fact that they don't even know me more than the graphic words themselves that get to me the most. I have never felt the reality of being outwardly different as I have here in Jamaica.

Generally speaking, I have resorted to using culturally appropriate responses, oftentimes ignoring most unwanted and what I think as unnecessary attention.

Until recently.

Today I took a new volunteer to a nearby gem of a farmer's market. Knowing that we'd have to meet up in route, I tried to think of the best and easiest place to find her. Meeting by the bus park made the most sense, but it also meant no escape from attention. In fact, I was practically inviting it by standing on the corner of the busiest market day. Thinking ahead is half the strategy. I found a place to wait in the shade, and I intentionally stood beside a couple of older women vending imported goods at the Friday night market. I saw the two young(er) men right in front of them. I was crossing my fingers that the women would provide enough of a safety net for them to leave me alone.

The comments and questions started immediately. I greeted them with the appropriate cultural greetings, knowing I would probably be cussed out if I merely ignored them. They proceeded with what I wholeheartedly expected: "I like your shape. I like your style. Yuh fit. Yuh sport? Yuh beautiful, baby. How I can get with yuh?" I decided to be polite and answer as ambiguously as possible, letting them know I'm local and merely waiting in the shade until my friend arrived.

After imparting that knowledge with no avail, I played the husband card. "Suppose my husband comes and sees you?" I posed to the two of them. "Mi a vendor! He a see mi sell yuh tings." Surprisingly, these ones had respect for the fact that I had a husband. And I had answers to all their questions.

"Show mi yuh hand dem." (Meaning, Where is your ring?)
"I don't wear a wedding ring because I don't want anyone to thief it."

"Yuh husband a bredren?" (Meaning, Is he black/Jamaican?)
"No, we married in the states."

"Give me yuh eye glass. Mi waan see yuh baby doll eye dem." (Meaning, take off your sunglasses. I want to see your eyes.)
"True, the sun hurts them."

"Yuh tell lie pon mi. Yuh know dat 'husband' is like di cross to di vampire." (Meaning, You're lying. You're just telling us you have a husband to get us off your back."

Then my assumed allies, the women friends I nonverbally adopted, burst out laughing. When they laughed, I knew not to take the situation personally. Or offensively.

Jamaican men (at least in the more rural areas, and in my experiences) are generally, merely different. They say it how they think it is. They know what they want. They don't beat around the bush. They don't flirt or drop hints. They act (verbally) on their impulses.

And I think I've come to the living realization that it's okay.

That's what I encountered today. It's okay for them to tell me that they think I'm beautiful. Or that they are jealous of my husband. Or that they want a girl like me. It's how this culture functions. It's different from what I know and what I'm comfortable with. But isn't that part of the experience? Didn't I join PC--in part--to grow and to be stretched?

I will also take 2 seconds to express that there are, unfortunately, many circumstances in which too much information is shared. I have been victim of and have witnessed other women suffer graphic and inappropriate comments. That is not okay, no matter whose culture we're talking.

This is just one way in which my perspective is continually changing. For the better.

The end of the quote is:
"Hang in there--endure."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Happy Birthdays!

Today is America's 237th birthday.

Today is my mama's 54th birthday. MY mama.

(If I had access to precious pictures from growing up, I would post them. Alas, I digress)

My mama is an American. Born overseas. And for the first time since birth, she's celebrating her birthday in the land of her birth: Germany.

The more I grow up, the more I realize how many characteristics I have taken on from my mama. In no particular order, these are 5 life lessons I have learned from her:

5. A penny saved is a penny earned. Both of my parents are frugal and wise with their money. But it was my mom who always said, "Even $1.50 will buy you a soda at Target," or something along those perspectives when we were comparing minuscule price comparisons.

4. Silly is hilarious. My father actually happens to be the family clown, always coming back with witty or appropriately sarcastic comments. He can convince just about anyone of the most ridiculous things. (One time he convinced my 6th grade class that licking envelopes kills brain cells. Thus, 30-odd 5th & 6th graders ensued to lick their fingers, then the envelope for about 5 minutes. Except for my sister and me. We knew better.) But my mom has the most silly sayings that are stinkin' hilarious when I find myself saying them! One of my favorites is when we get in the car from being out, and as she turns the key in the engine, she declares, "Home, James!" Or when a car is revving up a steep incline she yells, "Go, squirrels, go!" Oh, and when she's calling someone who is just spacing out, she says, "Earth to Kate...!" Oh, my.

3. Make much use of your hands. Neither of my parents are idlers, and my mama did well to teach her "dainty daughters" how to use their hands to bless others. Many a day we spent around the crafting table making silly things from clay, melting plastics, paint, fabric, and whatever else was the latest craft fad. We baked incessantly on rainy days, taking turns to measure and pour ingredients, then fighting over who got to lick the bowl and beaters. Not only did she teach us to make very practical use of our hands, but she taught us how to do it in a way that blesses others. Sewing. Baking. Cooking. Giving it to others. Life skills, people.

2. Be a problem solver. This one stands out more since I've lived overseas. Rather than give answers to things all the time, my mom (even still) asks questions to get others to the answer. It's amazing how many people in my adult life are not able to think for themselves. It's also amazing how I watch children make the same dumb decisions over and over, simply because they're told not to do something rather than realizing why they should not do it.

1. Compassion is one of the best gifts you can give. My mom is a nurse. She says that since she was a little girl, she's known that she wanted to be a nurse. Having been in the field for longer than I've been alive, she's a darn good nurse. We still call her for opinion on ailments. (When I was mysteriously sick in Africa, she would email a couple times a day asking the doctors what they thought about so-and-so or so-and-so.) She has literally saved lives with her medical knowledge. The day I realized what my mom actually does in her nursing job was the day that I knew she is driven from a heart of compassion. She loves people, and she loves caring for them. The ugly, the smelly, and the disgusting that most of us can't stomach. She sees people for who they are on the inside and loves that above anything else. 

Mom, you have set an example that I and my sisters will follow for life. Happiest of birthdays to you!