Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Year in Reflection

Grab your tissue boxes.  This one’s gonna jerk some tears!

As mentioned before, it has been a year since I have come to this country. I celebrated the day during Guyana’s Mashramani holiday.  I ate and drank well with my friends and enjoyed lots of dancing and parading around with Guyanese in Georgetown.  Now, I want to experience Carnival in Trinidad, or Rio!

Yet, celebrating a year anniversary doesn’t solely include partying.  There are also moments of reflection.  So, here is a collection of thoughts from various emails and letter that best sums up what this last year has been for me from a position of growth and personal learning.

In a letter to a friend of mine, I recalled the reasons why I joined Peace Corps in the first place:

“…To answer your questions about me joining Peace Corps:  I knew I wanted to get involved with overseas volunteering right before I graduated from SB.  In my last term, I took a class on globalization and how it’s affecting developing countries.  We focused on a lot of things, but the state that Jamaica is in really grabbed my attention – the truths about corporate tourism destroying coral reefs and other parts of the ecosystem, the choke hold it all has on the local farmers and merchants, and how mammoth hotels control the market (which I’m sure you’ve had first-hand experience with).  
I had that fire in my belly for changing the world and I let that stew for a year and a half while I worked and lived at home doing all sorts of stuff: volunteering at a farmer’s market, tutoring ESL students, substitute teaching, and working at a public radio station.  In ’08, I was close to getting a job teaching English in China and then I changed my mind (no surprise).  Peace Corps looked really appealing for a whole host of reasons:  A chance to see parts of the world that most Americans never see, a chance to become fluent in a language (although that didn’t pan out ‘cause Guyana is English speaking… go figure, hah); not to mention government health care, protection and pay, a flexible job description, etc.”

As a starry-eyed University graduate, I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from doing what I wanted to do – which was to save the world and to avoid having to work a 9-5 job like the rest of America.  To put it bluntly, I’m a lazy, privileged, educated twenty-six-year-old who is selfish.  And, there’s no one to really blame.  I suppose I could argue that it is a by-product of growing up in America, being middle class, and not having to worry about things like hunger, shelter, and a proper education.   But, that’s another conversation completely.  The point I’m trying to make is much simpler:  I came into this job with a few large visions and have now found myself more scattered than I have ever been before.  And so, after just a handful of months in-country, experiences began to shift my perspective and I started to notice a change in myself:

“…Nevertheless, since [coming to Guyana] a lot of my reasons [for joining Peace Corps] have changed.  I’m more jaded and cynical, but not so much that I have lost my drive or my faith in people’s ability to change or improve their lives.  I suppose my place on the spectrum of idealism and realism has balanced out significantly.  I’ve had the opportunity to understand more about how people behave in the ‘real world,’ how they struggle, how they see America, and what they expect from life.  It has been as valuable as or more valuable than my education at [University], and for this I am thankful because it fits so well into what I love about anthropology, sociology, and politics.”

In another email to a friend I wrote this:

“It can be difficult to feel stable and find direction in what you are doing or where you want to take your life.  In addition to this, it’s also hard to feel certain in your work choices or who you are as a person.  Peace Corps is a wanderer's adventure both in the simple and the obscure.  I have rediscovered myself in more ways than I thought possible.  And, even though this has been exciting, it has also been tough and vague.  I've had to learn how to let go of things that are out of my control and capitalize on what is available when it is available.  This has always been tough for me.

One of the most difficult challenges I face every day is justifying what I am doing here.  A lot of the time I feel alone in my quest to do something meaningful because everyone around me, it seems, doesn’t really care.  Take education, for example.  If a child doesn’t go to school and I happen to see him on the road, I ask, “Why aren’t you at school today?”  The answers tend to vary, but they are all rooted in the same idea: “What is the point of going to school when I don’t learn anything there?”  Some Guyanese have even gone as far to tell me that schooling isn’t important in a place like Bartica.  The gold mining industry is so lucrative that miners can make twice or three times as much in a month than any blue or white collar job and their work requires little to no education.  So, I have trouble encouraging kids to attend their classes knowing full well that many of them will be disengaged, disillusioned, or simply neglected.

On a day where my morale is exceptionally low, this kind of mentality devastates my motivation for doing anything other than staying at home, reading a book, or watching a movie.  If I had the will power and determination of someone like Oprah, I suppose I wouldn’t be saying all this.  But, I haven’t found that will power.  I know myself well enough to understand that I work better when I’m around motivated people.  I’m a team worker, not an independent worker.  I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe in a God.  I foolishly worry that the people in my community that are religious won’t understand me or want to work with me.  I realize now more than ever that I work best when I have other, like-minded people around me.  For reasons I haven’t figured out yet, I feel useless when I work alone.  I don’t know if it is a confidence thing, a laziness thing, a fear of failure, or something else.  And, all this while I thought I could easily do the kind of work Barrack Obama did in Chicago with just a smile and a brain.  Looks like I was sorely mistaken.

How do I keep my head screwed on straight?  How do I maintain forward momentum and a positive outlook?  These have been the largest and strongest obstacles in my way to feeling fulfilled about my time down here.  What an education I’m getting, wouldn’t you agree? 

What I do know and feel is that I’m not ready to give up.  Every day I try to do something that will work towards the larger picture.  Every day I try to organize an idea that I have and then work it over until I get rid of all the possible weak points.  It is a constant struggle between choosing two paths: the first is doing everything myself which doesn’t necessarily solve any problems within my community.  The second is trying to get a group of people interested in something productive which does not necessarily work when those people stop showing up, stop showing interest, or simply get lazy.  So, starting and stopping projects becomes a cyclical and tiring job.  Persistence is always being challenged by skepticism and lethargy.  Guyanese will even admit that, “people are lazy in this country and that’s why nothing ever gets done.”  How do I combat a kind of comment like that?

I’ve tried to answer this question as best I can.  I recently decided to adopt the “one day at a time” outlook in a whole new way in an attempt to be more headstrong about my ambitions here.  I have set lower expectations of myself and began a baby step approach: small parts first, then expand on what works.  This has begun already as I am starting to visit teachers regularly, plan some workshops, throw the Frisbee around and play football in the afternoons, and work out at the gym.  I am fearful of underperforming.

The other day I received a package from my parents.  Included in it was a much awaited magazine, called GOOD.  I highly recommend reading it or simply browsing its articles and misc. info on their website:

Inside the issue that came with my care package was a blurb that caught my attention.  Its title read, “We all have this implicit promise to leave the world a better place for our children.”  The commentary to follow came from an interview of Bob McKinnon, the author of Actions Speak Loudest.  He said this:

“Generally, over the course of previous generations, we’ve been able to keep good on that promise – but what the data now point to is that we may not make good on that promise.  We may actually be creating the first generation of children to lead shorter, unhappier, unhealthier lives than their parents, which, in a country with the resources, ingenuity, and brainpower the thought was, ‘What do we need to do to draw a little more attention to this promise and the issues that affect it?’”

I try to keep this idea in my head as much as possible down here.  Being idealistic and having hope is a luxury in my opinion.  Most people in this world suffer a great deal more than the average American does.  Many do not have the opportunities or even time in their day to spend with their children, love their spouses, volunteer their time, or even improve the way they live their lives (if you don’t believe me, read up on the Congo, Darfur, or Burma).  Hard work is something that a lot of Americans do not fully understand and that is part of the bigger picture for me as an American.  Hard work is hard work and I have never been put in a position where I have had to consistently labor.  Can you believe that?  This truly has been the hardest job I love and most of the time I question myself.

1 comment:

Elana Grace said...

Perhaps not many people can understand this as deeply as I are speaking so much of my very own thoughts and processes. I am encouraged reading your well thought out and intelligent reflections on your work; you have already clarified some of my own haziness about what it really MEANS to work in the Third World as a citizen of the First World. It so often feels indescribable to me yet you eloquently presented something very relative, tangible, and understandable to those who aren't there with you. Thanks for that and keep it up.