Peace Corps Volunteer

My mom sent a package and three weeks later I finally got it in my grubby little hands. After lots of miscommunication, I thought it was lost, until a student, Florida, helped me and got it where it needed to go.

The inside was amazing, she fit so much inside a flat rate package! She has some magic powers when it comes to shoving things inside of a suitcase or box–hence the reason I usually ask for her help when packing. But wow! She even sent some kids books which will be perfect for the classes I’ll teach at the Primary School next month, and I’m so stoked to have cinnamon and Italian herbs to cook with. AND CHEESE! Velveeta! I have no idea what I’m going to do with it yet, but it will definitely taste better than the expired cheese from the supermarket that smells like the inside of my dog’s ears.

Thanks mom! 💙 Time to test out some Italian herbs!

Meet Zanab. 

I call her “Nabu”, and she is my 7 year-old host sister.  She is the oldest of the siblings here and therefore takes on most of the responsibilities of the household.  At the tender age of 7, she often carries around her (rather rotund) host brother Ibrahim, 2, on her back.  Have you ever seen an ant carry a blade of grass? Yeah, it kind of looks like that.  Nabu is a dancer by nature.  At any given moment, sans music, she will be dancing.  When you see her demure smile paired with her charmingly erratic gestures of pure joy, you laugh, then you dance too. 

On Being a Chinese-American Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia

This is a blog post that is extremely important to me personally; although I’ve been speaking about making this post for a long while, I wanted it to be absolutely finished prior to uploading it. It’s not quite polished up, but I hope my series of thoughts helps in understanding daily life for me in Georgia.

A follow-up blog post written 9 months later here!

Of course, no matter where I am, my race and ethnicity permeate all my interactions. Some in America claim we live in a post-racial, color-blind society, but regardless of if we do or not, that’s not the goal anyway.

Which one of these is not like the others?

I want to make it clear that this blog post consists entirely of my own personal experiences as a Chinese-American Peace Corps Volunteer here in Georgia; and the resulting reflections are purely my own as well.

Keep reading

6 Months of PCV Moments

Time is flying by! I have been “In Country,” in Madagascar, as a Peace Corps Volunteer for 9 months now, and I have lived in the village where I will serve for two years, for 6 months already. …Sorry for that confusing sentence with a lot of numbers. 

Basically, I am a 4th of the way through with my service and that feels crazy to me because “two years” seemed like a really long time at the onset but it is going by scarily fast. 

(Sweet green oranges and a canoe under a bridge in Tsarasambo, the village where I live)

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in a astounding country like Madagascar has a lot of moments where I have found things so utterly absurd, or hilarious, or eye-opening, or sad, or a combination of all of the above. These past 6 months at “Site” (Peace Corps lingo for “village where a volunteer serves”) have provided me with many of these moments and I have documented a few. 

Some of these moments were at Site and some were in larger cities with other volunteers. Pretty much these anecdotes probably would have been Facebook statuses or something (I’m not ashamed to admit it!) if I had better access to internet, so instead, I am posting them here! 

Here is a little taste of what my last 6 months as an official Peace Corps Volunteer have been like… in blurb format (alternating bold/unbold to differentiate):

——————————————————

I feel like a Disney Princess with all of these critters running around my yard and through my house as they please, each and every day. Cats, rats, snakes, ugly old roosters, cute little baby chickens, geese, ducks, countless lizards, and even a bat! Maybe if I sing sweetly enough they’ll do my chores for me. 

PCV 1: Ugh I wish I could stop eating all of this fried street food all of the time.

PCV 2: Yeah, but it’s all there is and this fried banana is so good.

PCV 1: But it’s not like anything I’m eating is even giving me diarrhea-

PCV 2: –so you can lose the weight?

PCV 1: Exactly. 

In fact you CAN fit 26 adults, 3 children, and a few live chickens in the back of a pick up truck. 

The “you were in the bathroom for so long, I thought you fell in” joke is a bit more entertaining when your “toilet” is a big hole in the ground filled with poop. 

After heavy rains, all of Madagascar becomes a Slip n’ Slide. Muddy hills are not my friend. If only I had a toboggan or a sled or maybe a “sahafa” (Malagasy shallow wicker pan for separating rice that resembles a snow saucer)… Then I would look like I was supposed to be on my ass the whole way down…

Sometimes I use my Mary Poppins umbrella as a walking stick to stabilize myself against the slippery and evil gravity. But my umbrella is a bit too short, so I walk like a limping pimp. There is no TV here so crowds of Malagasy people gather to watch me maneuver inch by inch down the wet hill.
WTFisthatweirdwhiteladydoing?


One PCV to the other: So which do you prefer -constipation or diarrhea? 

Other PCV: Let’s make a pro and con list!   

I’ve always heard that roosters like to yell at the break of dawn. And now I have been witness to such an event numerous times. What I don’t understand though, is why at least 4 roosters in my neighborhood need to have a 5 minute long “call and response” session every morning at 4 am. WTF are they talking about? 

When it is sunny outside, I leave out my solar panel so I can use a light at night. When it is raining, I put out a bucket so I can have clean drinking water. I am one with nature.

Sometimes when I go out to really obscure villages I am reminded that most of these people see everyone they love or have ever known every single day of their lives. As someone who is always moving around and missing loved ones no matter where I am -the thought astounds me. 

One of my biggest questions before bedtime would be: are these red dots on my foot mosquito bites, flea bites, or parasy. The latter would require tweezers, a syringe and a strong stomach. 

I’m not sure if there is anything more empowering than the satisfaction of ripping apart your own toe with a knife to remove a parasy (gross bug thing) and the hundreds of little eggs that have nestled in to make a home there.

This is your Eviction Notice muthafuckers! Call yo'selves a toe truck cuz you gotta find another toe

I don’t love it when the town crazy lady with a body like a skeleton and eyes like a demon runs after me and yells in my face. And all of the Malagasy people just stand by and laugh.

In the right mood, a bouncy drive in an NGO’S 4x4 on a muddy, red dirt road in a rain storm past banana groves and rice paddies, can be a pretty thrilling time …until I look out the window and see all of the people holding banana leaves as umbrellas and carefully maneuvering around the slippery road while carrying live chickens, bunches of wood, or babies on their backs so they can continue with their work despite the weather. It’s not an adventure. It’s life.

(A drive in a 4x4 on a muddy road in a rainstorm to reach a small village 6km from the main road)

It’s probably best to not give raw carrots to kids with bad/no teeth.

I thought I’d go out on a limb and ask Malagasy students in an English class what their mothers do for work (preparing for an opportunity to explain that it is okay for women to have jobs). After a few answers of cleaning the house, cooking rice, and taking care of children, the local “English” teacher asked if “servant” would be a good answer. 

We have a long way to go. 

It’s a pleasant 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit outside and Malagasy people are freezing. They are wearing winter coats and jackets! I’m just happy to not be sweating my face off for once.

Three female PCVs walking down the street in the capital city:
They pass a group of men who ogle and yell.
The girls continue walking with no more than an eye roll and slight annoyance.
Further down the road, the girls see a bakery with pastries. 

The girls ogle and yell. 

After a few months in this village, I’ve come to accept the fact that no matter how integrated I become, I will never fully know what is going on. BUT, as time passes, I will become more comfortable with that reality.
Except for today when the Doctor (not the David Tennant one) handed me a mega phone and told me to make an impromptu speech in Malagasy, in front of hundreds of people. 

Yep. Knowing wtf was going on woulda been nice. 

(An impromptu speech in Malagasy for the National Bednet Distribution. I opted out of the megaphone.)

I have finally realized after 5 months that when my neighbor asks me to come to her house and take bananas…she doesn’t want me to pay her for them. They were always a gift. Whoops. You can take the American out of America but it’s hard to take the mentality away. 

Bargaining with a taxi driver in the big city: 

One man says 7,000, PCVs say 5,000
Another driver shows up offering 6,000. 

One PCV: “he’s blind”
Other PCV, “oh well, we’ll save 1,000 ariary (30 cents USD).”
They pile in car.

One time I was soaking some beans overnight so they would be soft enough to cook. When I opened the container the following day, there was a large rat poop floating above the beans. In America I probably would have tossed all of the beans in the trash and eaten some bread instead. But this is Madagascar. I scooped out the poop, soaked the beans in some diluted bleach (Sur Eau), and then boiled them like normal. Whatever the bleach didn’t kill, the boiling water did! Nice try rat! 

I thought I was getting a pretty dark tan, until I finally took my weekly shower and realized that my new bronze color was mostly just a thick layer of dirt.

At the program today, many people were referring to me as the “vazaha” (a slightly derogatory word for white foreigner) so people who hadn’t met me yet would know who to go to. I asked that they please call me by my name. My friend stood up to make an announcement: “This fat white person here is our friend. She is not vazaha, she is called Jenna.”

One battle at a time…

On Moving Out and Living Alone

Each Peace Corps country has different policies on living with a host family versus living alone. In some countries, all 27 months of training and service require the volunteer to live with a host family. In others, most, if not all, volunteers live in their own apartments from the outset. 

In Peace Corps/Georgia, volunteers are required to live with a host family for the duration of Pre-Service Training (~3 months). When we begin service, we are required to live with another host family for another 3 full months. After that, volunteers are allowed to find separate housing in our communities if we so desire, given that it falls under a stringent set of criteria that our Safety and Security Officer created. 

We were presented with pros and cons of moving out during training. Most seemed pretty obvious: living with a host family helps with community integration, language learning, safety, and cultural exchange. 

My last weekend in Pre-Service Training with neighbors, community members, and host family members

Living alone facilitates personal space, independence, and freedom, all of which are quintessential American values.

Some of my fellow volunteers came to country knowing that they wanted to move out as soon as they could. These volunteers generally had lived on their own for a long time in the States, and just needed their own time and space.

I was not one of those volunteers. Having the host family experience was one of the things I was looking forward to most as part of my time in the Peace Corps. In Georgian communities, a young woman living by herself, away from a family, often sends the wrong message to the community, and this wasn’t a barrier I wanted to add to my pre-existing list of cultural faux pas-es. I really wanted my Georgian language to be amazing, and I wanted to share and experience things with my adopted Georgian family, even if it meant sacrificing my personal space and privacy on occasion. Besides, living with a host family means being treated like a baby in a good way, as well–I can’t think of a time in the near future in which someone is going to make me every single meal every single day.

What can I say? Things change, and all we can do is adapt. One of the 10 core expectations of a PCV is flexibility, and in my circumstances, in my community, all the signs pointed to moving to my own place. So I began searching.

Finding an apartment for rent was pretty difficult, as my town doesn’t house any tourists or university students. In fact, the one I chose ended up being the only one I ever visited. The other apartment options either were unfurnished–a big no-no with Peace Corps–or had MIA landlords who weren’t available to give me a quote or a tour, another bad sign. Volunteers in smaller towns or villages have it even harder than I do; many simply don’t have any viable options to move out even if they wanted to. 

Peace Corps doesn’t provide much support for volunteers moving out on their own, or not nearly as much as they do for host families (we have a staff member who is solely the Homestay Coordinator, but no staff member for those who strike out on our own), and recommends that we use our community contacts to find a place. I asked my counterparts at school, as well as my director, and after a month, the only place I’d seen was the one my director had found for me. I officially moved in mid-November, almost exactly four months since arriving at site. 

One of the third floor apartments is mine!

I really enjoy my little studio apartment. I now live only a 5-10 minute walk from school, which is a huge improvement over my 45 minute walk previously–especially in the winter. I have almost all the comforts of America, with a full-sized bed, a hot water heater, electricity, and even WiFi. I’m able to Skype with my dad every night, if we’re both available. I buy my own groceries and control my own diet (greasy Georgian food no more!). It’s well-decorated and newly renovated, and my landlady lives on the first floor and often invites me over to her place for dinner. Now that I don’t need to socialize with anyone, I have a lot more time to work on my secondary projects and am generally more productive. In my free time, I can watch movies and TV shows on my own without feeling obligated to spend the time watching Georgian reality TV instead; and I can hold impromptu, single-person dance parties anytime I want! I’ve even already had my first overnight visitor PCV (female of course), without feeling that I might be burdening my host family.

My cozy living room, complete with artwork that my landlady’s daughter drew herself! Note: air conditioning/heating unit–although the heat doesn’t work so well (read: at all)

Money. Budgeting. How does it work? Well, I receive the same total amount of money now that I did when I lived with a host family. The difference is that the 275 GEL I would give them for food, incidentals, etc and the 50 GEL I gave them for heating in winter months all goes to me now. Not directly to me, though–to my rent, utilities, food, etc. This is on top of the volunteer stipend we receive for snacks, incidentals, whatever else we might need. Obviously, depending on the rental agreement, some volunteers come out saving a ton of money from this arrangement; and some, mostly in nicer towns and cities come out on the losing end. In my situation, I’ve found that I pretty much break even–that is, my extra spending money is the same amount that I had before moving out. For example, what I lose in paying a slightly higher rent than bargained for, I make up in not having to give a host family money for food that I don’t eat when I am out on weekends or have week-long trainings. Food is also so, so cheap, perhaps because I don’t buy meat due to the fact that I have no idea how to cook or prepare raw slabs of meat. No worries, though; I may consume much less meat these days, but what I end up consuming is balanced.

Kitchen table, refrigerator (and freezer), plants, Nutella, and Sriracha… what more could a girl ask for?

As for the cultural faux pas aspect, perhaps it’s because my town is large enough that it’s not as big of a deal, but I haven’t encountered too much resistance from community members as a result of living on my own. I’m afforded a foreigner status, to be sure, and Georgians know that Americans do things differently. It really assuages their minds when I tell them that I have, in fact, lived alone prior to coming to Georgia, and here I am–still alive. Also, I’m already living in a completely separate country from my family regardless, which relieves me of the “duty to family” aspect that often prevents young Georgian women from moving out. All in all, I have a much easier time than a Georgian woman of my age would if she’d wanted to move out to live alone.

Of course, this is Georgia, not the States. In my town center, we only have running water from the hours of 7am-noon and 5pm-10pm. It’s not the end of the world by any means, but it’s an adjustment. My water never gets quite hot enough to take a shower, unless it’s 7am. I can’t really heat the apartment so I spend all evening and night in my sleeping bag. Cooking and cleaning for myself is pretty time-consuming, so either my apartment is really messy, or I don’t have as much time to socialize with fellow PCVs as I used to. Or both. Making food for one, and not letting any of it go bad while I leave for vacation/trainings is no joke. My Georgian language skills have really taken a dive, as now I exclusively use Georgian in my tutoring sessions, or as jokes with PCV friends. 

Of course, at times, I do miss my host family, and human company. I got sick–really sick–not too long ago, and nobody even really missed me for almost the entire week. I didn’t have the energy to get up and make myself food, or pour myself water when the water was on, and not a soul was there to do it for me, either. The situation resolved itself, and I later found that both my landlady and director were horrified that I’d been bedridden for so long without their help. “Why didn’t you ask us for help??" I didn’t really have a good answer at the time. In the States, probably the last people I’d reach out to when I’m ill for personal assistance would have been my landlord and direct supervisor, but relationships are so different here in Georgia, and it would serve me well to remember that here. 

It really helps that I have a standing invitation to both host families’ places, in my permanent site as well as my Pre-Service Training village, as well as to my director’s. I know that I am really a part of their families, and can always get my fix of Georgian love, conversation, and food when I need it. Georgian hospitality is so humbling, and something I am really striving to emulate and reciprocate, instead of becoming a hermit in my apartment as I am wont to do. 

"Is living alone better?” my director likes to ask me. I have to stop to think. It’s different in so many ways. It’s not something I would ever have fathomed a year ago, or even during PST. But yes, I do think I made the right decision for me, and I am happy to call this little place “home” for the next year. 

One of the many yards in between apartment complexes in my უბანი–ubani, or neighborhood.

I’m not 100% better, but after hearing novio telling me that he’s “desperately impatient” for November to come, it gives me all the more energy to get thru whatever funk I’m in, get my act together and stay busy for a couple more months (and then 3.5 months after that till the end of my service).

I got some cheering up comments at the high school this morning while talking about Nutrition, too. While talking to the 7th graders (primary is k-6, high school is 7-11 (no 12th grade or middle school here)), I was telling them how lucky they are to have so much fresh fruit available here to make amazing smoothies and juices instead of soda and how I’m trying to take advantage of such fruit before I go home in March. They said “NOOOO, YOU CAN’T LEAVE.” I also told them not to worry because they’ll be (hopefully) sending a new health volunteer here after I’m gone. “IT WON’T BE THE SAME. I WON’T LIKE THAT VOLUNTEER AS MUCH AS YOU.”

I guess I AM known in this community and admired by some. Especially with kids, that’s a huge spirit lifter.

Peace Corps has it’s ups and downs and I only have 7 months to go. I’m happy, I’m sad, I can’t believe I’m on the last stretch. I felt like THIS was only yesterday…

“It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.”

Nightly routine

I close and lock my door and walk the 17 steps out to the street. I turn left and walk the 43 steps to a small structure off the right side of the road.

Beneath the rickety roof of loosely woven palm fronds sits a woman, probably in her late twenties, frying fish in a large cast iron skillet over a charcoal fire. I do not know her name. In my head, I call her “Fish Lady” although I would never say this to her face.

“Good evening,” she says.

“Good evening.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

“Fine. And the cat?”

“He’s fine.”

“How much?”

“Two hundred,” I respond, handing her the Tupperware container that now permanently smells of fried fish.

She places four pieces in the container and exchanges it for the two hundred piece in my hand.

We have this same interaction every night I am in my village. She is always in the exact same spot. I usually respond the exact same thing to her questions. (Though I sometimes trying the entire interaction in local language instead of French.) The entire journey will always take me 14 minutes to complete.

But at least someone in my village notices when I’m not there.

“See you tomorrow,” I say, turning to walk the 43 steps back up the street.

The Final Countdown (dun dun dun dunnnn!)

Today marks exactly one month until I leave for Staging!

I booked my flight to LAX with Sato on Friday and now everything is starting to feel really real. So much to do, so little time! I haven’t even started packing yet, let alone bought any luggage to put my things in anyway. I just always felt like China was so far away, but it snuck up on me a ninja. A stealthy, stealthy ninja.

I have seven days of work left, two weekends of friends visiting, and three weeks until my brother comes home from Hawaii for a visit (woohoo!). During all this I need to buy luggage, pack, buy last minute things, visit family, drink a lot of tasty beers, and adore my doggies. Which now that I’m writing it all out, actually isn’t that much. I just need to do it!

And now I leave you with a red panda from the Philly Zoo.

Hocus Pocus

BIENVENIDO, OCTUBRE!! I love the coming of a new month. Let me tell you, folks, September was a rough one and I’m not even going to pretend that it wasn’t. I think that coming into site after training, I definitely did have the expectation of loneliness, homesickness, the general struggle to adjust, but wow, I guess it’s different to expect it than to experience it.

Seeing as how it is now October aka the month of the funnest holiday, I’m dedicating the rest of this here post to all of the myths, legends, beliefs, customs, and whatever other ridiculous things I’ve heard since coming to site. They range from silly to weird to a little frightening but they’re definitely all outrageous. Hold on to yer knickers!

1. Pisthacos

This is a good one. In the mountainous, rural part of Peru, there exists a belief of a beautiful, tall, white creature with no specific facial features (sounds kind of like slenderman, right?) that creeps throughout the mountainside seeking children. Why? So it can drink their blood to maintain its beauty. It is kind of a funny joke to enter a classroom and say “ohh here I am, I am the pisthaco!” but the truth is the belief exists strongly. I know at least one volunteer who had various problems in her site in the first few months because everyone called her a Pisthaco behind her back and was afraid to leave their children alone with her. And if you’re not a pisthaco, you’re a spy for the CIA.

External image

2. Patasca

Patasca is a really common stew that exists, again, in mountainous areas of Peru. It’s kind of a special soup that you eat for birthdays, after harvesting/planting the fields, etc. It’s composed of corn and beef and is always cooked over a fire throughout the night. The first time I ate it in site, my host grandmother asked me, “do you know why you make patasca over night? It’s because the kernels are too embarrassed to grow (aka absorb broth) during the day so they do it at night so no one will see them!”

External image

3. Mountains are spirits and those spirits are men

Another common belief is that the mountains are all their own god and that we should pray to them to make us better and to protect us. Clearly, those gods are all men, living in a machista society. Well, when I went to help herd vicuñas about a month back way up in the mountains, several people were sure to tell me to carry my garlic to the mountain to ward off the bad spirits because “the mountain will not recognize you and it will make you fall down”. I think this belief/legend has traveled from generation from generation since the Incas, just like I’m sure many of these have.

4. Cold = Evil

According to many Peruvians, cold represents evil (don’t you think it would maybe be the opposite) thus, we must turn our refrigerators off at night and we must not walk barefoot. My first week in site, I was really struggling to convince my host family that I would, in fact, be alright if I left my room at night to use the rest room (all of the doors of the house point to the outside and I walk approximately 7 seconds until I reach the bathroom). They were fighting with me to put a bucket in my room so I wouldn’t have to leave at night. According to them, if you leave your bed and subject your warm body to the cold, outdoor air, “your face will fall”. They claim to know of someone whose face fell when he went outside at night. Sorry, folks, but that sounds like a stroke to me but what do I know.

5.  Knitting is bad luck

I’ve literally heard this no where else but in my own house so who knows if they are making it up just to mess with me or to get me to leave them alone… One day I entered the kitchen with brand new knitting needles and yarn, crazy excited to start a new scarf and all at the same time, my host mom and grandmother started shouting at me “are you crazy!? You can’t bring that in here; it brings bad luck to the business!!!! have you ever seen grandma knit in the house? NO! That’s because she knows better, blah blah blah”. Therefore I have never knit in the house since (that they have seen [and as far as I can tell, the business is doing fine]).

6.  One should not sell salt at night

Bad luck, end of story.

7. Don’t sleep next to fig trees

This is my favorite one that I’ve heard. According to the police officer I heard it from, you should never ever fall asleep in the vicinity of a fig tree and here’s why – every time a baby is aborted, the soul of the would-be baby seeks the fig tree for the milky substance that the fruit produces. The fig tree ends of caring for the aborted baby souls, but the devil takes advantage of these vulnerable souls and turns them into little demons. He who falls asleep next to it will experience bad dreams, body aches, etc. but could even be possessed ouuhhhh.

8. BRUJAS

Something I’ve heard endlessly about since coming to site is witches. I guess in the states, they were just something you dress up as during Halloween, but here people take their witches seriously.

For example, in one of the annexes of Huaytará, there was apparently a girl who was going home to see her mom as a surprise. When she got near the house, she saw her mother’s head floating by itself above the house with no body, whaat. So she went inside to see if her mother was okay but when she entered, she was sleeping safely in her bed. YO MAMMA IS A WITCH, GIRL, RUN.

I also hear that witches die really slow, agonizing deaths to make up for all of the pain they caused when they were alive. They live in holes, eat their own feces, and scratch their faces off until they waste away. It kind of sounds like a meth addict to me.

The fear is real and apparently there is a brujo that lives in Huaytará but no one will go visit the house with me.

On the subject of witches, there’s also seemingly an annual, international witch meeting that happens HERE in PERU!! It supposedly happens in Chincha, a city in Ica. You see, voo-doo became super popular throughout South America because of the Spanish, who brought slaves over from Africa to work in Peru. The slaves brought voo-doo with them. So, every year all of the witches of all of the world fly on their broomsticks or whatever method of transportation is preferred and meet in a part of Chincha to discuss the next year’s witchery.

External image

Anyway, those are just a handful of the best that I’ve heard since coming to site. I’m sure that you could find even better stories if you went to a place more rural than Huaytará. I hope you all enjoyed my attempt at scaring you. mwuahuahahaa. I’ll probably post a serious entry about my life in site next month but if you can’t wait until then, shoot me an email at cwolpert1@gmail.com or message me on Facebook. I love communication! Happy Halloween month, everyone!

External image

PS this was written really sloppily  and in a hurry, sorrz.

Thoughts from places: living in the second unhappiest place in the world

At the beginning of September, Benin was named the number two most unhappy country in the world, according to the UN-sponsored World Happiness Report

So, while I’ve been here in a removed environment where I am continuously forgetting that I live in Benin (the Peace Corps office in Cotonou), I tried to think about whether the people that I’ve surrounded myself with for the past year seem particularly more unhappy than the society that I left behind.  

My neighbor doesn’t seem so unhappy when he’s riding my bike around our compound. My host father doesn’t seem so unhappy when we’re eating pounded yams together. My students don’t seem so unhappy when we’re singing and dancing through the village.

More than being unhappy, the Beninese people want more. They want more than they have now, but don’t know what to do to have more. They perceive that other countries have found the answer to how a person can have more than he or she does now, while their own country has been left in a state where the best solution is to leave. They see others advancing (Nigeria, Ghana, the US) while the rest of the world continues to label their country as “developing” and “third world.”

Because they come from a society based on strong patriarchal ideals, the Beninese take statements from people of power (the western media, the UN) to heart. More than just reading this report with interest, the people that I know will believe this to be true. They will continue to believe that their country is failing in comparison to the rest of the world. And they will continue to believe that the answers to the problems in their life lie outside their own country. 

You can talk about what was the real purpose of this report was. You can talk about our western indicators designed to quantify an unquantifiable idea. You can talk about internalized oppression. 

Just don’t forget that you’re talking about real people who have real issues who are really trying to make the lives of their children better than their own.

Back to School... As a Teacher?!

It’s been two and a half weeks since I began teaching at Chongqing Normal University and it has been quite the experience. I teach eight classes of “Visual-Audio-Oral English” to Sophomores who are either Normal English majors or International Chinese Education majors. Again, “Normal” means that one day these students will be teaching English themselves, and my International Chinese Education majors will be teaching Chinese one day. They aren’t, as I imagined, foreign students who wanted to take an English course in China. 

My first day was September 9th, a Tuesday, and I arrived to the university 45 minutes early to find my room and set up. I got the key to my classroom, started up the computer, loaded up my PowerPoint, and waited… and waited… and waited. 

Wo de xuexeng zai nar?! Where are my students?!

2:35, five minutes after my class should’ve started, I still didn’t have a single student. However, from the window, I could see other classrooms with students. Obviously, something was lost in translation, so I called my waiban assistant, Jessie. She called my counterpart, whose name is Shakira (or Jean, if I’d rather call her that, but I find Shakira funnier), who informed her that my students were practicing drills at their dormitories and wouldn’t be there. Jessie told me I could go home, and that classes from 2-6 PM were cancelled. 

Therefore, my second day of teaching turned into my first, and I got to class early again to set up. Luckily, students showed up! My first class were International Chinese Education majors, and I had no idea how good their English would be, but they’re amazing! I know I’m not supposed to have a favorite class, but my ICE students from Class 1 are enthusiastic, motivated, and hilarious. When the first students came through the door, the class monitor, Sherry, took a photo of me with her phone to text the others. “To show them you’re real,” she explained to me.

After my first class, I went to the second classroom, where all of my students in ICE Class 2 were 20 minutes early. When I walked in, there were lots of gasps, oohs, and ahhs. For most of my students, I’m the first foreign teacher they’ve ever had, so this happened a lot during my first week. 

Some of my lovely students!

The first week of classes were introductory: explaining who I was, why I was there, what we’d be doing, and doing activities that allowed me to get to know them. I had the students make name cards with their English names on one side and their Chinese names on the other. Half of the names are normal, but the other half are, well, interesting. For example:

  • Sherry, Sherrie, Cherie - one student per class with this name.
  • Amy, Aimee, Aimy - also one of these in every class.
  • Potter, Muggle - Harry Potter themed.
  • Water, Snow, Sunshine - named after the elements and weather.
  • Gardenia, Rose, Lily, Daisy - flower names.
  • Apple, Watermelon - named after fruits.
  • Empty, Simple, Shy, Yellow - adjectives for names.
  • Eric and Damon - girls with male names.
  • Haley, Zoe/Esther - boys with female names.
  • Asherly, Cartherin, Hebe - misspelled names?
  • Salome - pronounced “Salami”.
  • Elsa, Aurora, Belle, Jasmine - Disney princess names.
  • Sky, Star, Cloud - named after things in the atmosphere.
  • Turtle, Kitty, Monkey - named after the animal kingdom.
  • Martian, Logo, Bingo, Galleng, Holyday, Mask, Euphemia - just plain random.

So far, besides the introductory lesson, I’ve taught a lesson about daily routines, which included having the students watch Mr. Bean’s morning and describing it to each other.

After that, I taught a lesson on musical expression, and introduced my students to some western music they probably haven’t heard yet, including Macklemore and Passenger. Of course, since they’re all obsessed with Taylor Swift, I also played them her new music video for “Shake It Off." 

Overall, my students are great. Most of my classes are enthusiastic and excited, so the activities go really well. Two of my classes with International Chinese Education majors are very nervous about speaking, so instead of asking questions and expecting them to answer on their own, I have to cold call them. Hopefully, they’ll warm up to my teaching style soon. 

Besides teaching, I’ve been busy lesson planning for the whole semester, preparing materials for my classes, and coming up with ideas to teach at the Primary School starting next month. :)

Also, in October we have two breaks. The 1st-3rd for National Holiday, then the last week of October off for the university’s 60th anniversary. In China, you make up the classes you get "off”, so even though there are breaks, I have to teach some Saturdays and Sundays this month to make up for them. Basically, I’m not actually getting breaks, but rather a more confusing schedule. 

But hey, that’s life in China. :)

“I took this photo in my village in Burkina Faso, on Christmas Day 2012. I was inside the village church celebrating the holiday with the local Catholic population. My village is majority Muslim with a smaller Catholic presence. This photo is of a young Muslim girl looking through the walls of the church. I had just arrived in my village a few days earlier and was amazed at how peacefully the different religious groups coexist.”