Monday, February 14, 2011

Well. It's been a while.

Well, hello, to my possibly two readers, if I'm lucky.

So, I haven't updated in a while. And a lot has happened since I have.

The most important of those being the fact that I'm no longer in the Peace Corps.

Another one is that I've changed the layout of this blog! Mostly because my former layout was very Peace Corps-centric, but still. New blog design! Neat!

I'm now back in the good old US of A, and am in that place I understand is very common to those in their early mid twenties of having NO IDEA what my next step is.

I've been living at my parents' house in Philadelphia, but in this coming week I'm going to Pittsburgh to move in with a friend of mine, Nick. I've known Nick since I was 16, so for me that's a pretty darned old friend. He's also one of my best friends, along with his fiancée, Katie.

Sadly, Katie won't be living with us. She got an actual job (?! HOW?!) up in Connecticut, so for the first time since they were sixteen, Nick and Katie are living apart. This is a very sad thing. I met Nick and Katie and became friends with them the first week of college at Simon's Rock, which is, incidentally, the same week they met each other and started dating. So I'm actually equally good friends with both, and in fact in some ways I think of myself as close friends with the *couple*, NickandKatie (they refer to themselves in couple-form as "Lemur") rather than with individual people.

Anyway, they're getting married in late April, and I'm going to be one of the bridesmaids! I've already been up to CT to do wedding-planning stuff with Katie. It was kind of like a sitcom (besides when my aunt got married when I was 10, pretty much the only experience I have with weddings has been them happening on sitcoms).

So right now I'm packing and starting the Pittsburgh job search. Also trying to get back into writing. I need to actually FINISH a novel... I actually still have never done that. I've written like 40,000 words of like 3 different novels and 20-30k of several more, but I've never actually FINISHED one. So, after getting a job so I can actually pay rent and buy groceries and stuff, that's my main goal for the next, say, half-year.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Which I Actually Talk About My Peace Corps Work, and Hopes About Aforementioned Work

Well, it's certainly been a while since I've updated this blog. I'm sorry about that.

I think a lot of the problem is that I don't feel pride in my blog entries; actually they make me feel faintly embarrassed, and so why would I continue to produce them? As a writer I ought to have a more entertaining blog. I guess that creative nonfiction has never really been my genre, but still, I approach blogging way too much like I'm just writing in my journal, interspersed with the occasional essay, and that's not good. I just have trouble approaching the blog as an art form, or at least as a creative outlet, no matter how much I'd like to.

I'm sure there's a How-To on this very topic somewhere online. Probably it is in a blog, with an entry titled Top 10 Rules for Writing an Interesting Blog. Bonus points if it's a boring blog.

This would be the place for a transition from my talking about how I struggle with writing satisfactory blog posts to actually writing something about my life. However, I can't think of how to do it, so I'm going to do it by not doing it. Thus I suppose this entire paragraph is one long apophasis, a transition by saying I'm not transitioning.

Except it didn't work, because it really wasn't a good transition into talking about my life.

Oh well.

I have actually, finally started a Secondary Project. For those of you who don't know, Peace Corps Volunteers are supposed to have a Primary Project and a Secondary Project. For education volunteers like me, the primary project is obvious: we teach. At the school that has requested us. Pretty straightforward.

It's quite convenient, the way we Ed Volunteers have actual jobs. For other volunteers, finding a primary project can be much more difficult. The Health and Environment Volunteers in Tanzania are sort of plopped somewhere and told to find a good way to help people. They have a whole lot more flexibility and get to set their own schedule, it's true, but they also have to be extremely self-motivated to actually find a primary project, let alone a secondary one.

I'm pretty sure if I were given a house in a tiny village and told to go out and help people without much more direction than that, it wouldn't be pretty. I'd probably sit in my house all day fretting about the fact that I'm supposed to find some kind of work but I'm not. And I'd get so stressed about the fact that I'm supposed to be doing something but am not that I'd get crippling anxiety and never leave my house. I'd be like,“I'm so stressed that I'm not doing anything that I can't go out and do anything because I'm too stressed!”

Yeah, I'm really glad I'm an education volunteer, and have a full-time teaching schedule. I have mad respect for all those Health and Environment people who actually do stuff.

But besides teaching I'm also supposed to have a secondary project. I don't really have a stress issue about this, because it's okay for that to be a bit nebulous and for it to take a while to create. Plus, there are plenty of secondary projects to do right at school, so it still feels like part of my teaching job.

The one I just started last week, in fact, is a Health Club at my school. I think I've mentioned before that five girls from my school went to a Girls' Conference organized by the Health and Environment volunteers in my district? Well, my counterpart and I rounded them up, and asked them what they wanted to do with the things they learned. They gave pretty stock answers-- basically just said they wanted to do the things they were taught about at the conference. But that's okay-- the students here aren't used to being asked to think for themselves very much. This is something I really hope that being leaders of the Health Club will help to foster.

Anyway, they agreed to form a club, and then went from classroom to classroom explaining that they're creating a Health Club and telling other students when it would be meeting. Then we had them come up with and write down rules for the club and goals of the club.

I really, really want to make this as student-directed as possible. That is not a very Tanzanian concept, but the other teachers who are working with me on this are being very open-minded. There are several teachers at my school who really are great, who really take a leap of faith that this foreigner's weird ideas are worth trying out, at least.

When the students went around from class to class, they told the students who were interested in joining to tell the Class Monitor or Monitress, and for the Class Monitor/ress to give the lists to my counterpart or myself. I was kind of confused by this, so I asked my counterpart what the point of those lists was.

“Well,” he said, “we go through the names and decide who will be in the Health Club.”

“Um,” I said. “Why would we do that?”

“We will choose the students we think will be good members,” he answered.

I must admit, I was pretty baffled by this line of thought.

“Why don't we let everyone come?” I asked.

“Many people will sign up. We only want fifteen or twenty students. If there are many, they won't be organized.”

Well, okay, but: “Do you really think that all the students who sign up will actually come to the club every week?”

“No, many of them will say they will come, but they do not.”

“Exactly,” I said. “So how about we let everyone come, and take roll call, like in class. Then, after a month or two, the students who have come to most of the meetings are the club members.”

Apparently this was a novel idea. To be fair, there aren't really any clubs at school, and I bet there weren't any clubs in the schools my fellow teachers attended when they were students, either. So there's no real reason that they'd have thought about the mechanics of a student club at all.

Still, I think the original idea-- that the teachers would select the club members-- really highlights how, in Tanzanian schools, teachers are in charge of everything. Students don't really have much chance to show initiative and try to put their own ideas into action. Yes, there are Prefects, and a Head Boy and a Head Girl, but from what I've seen their roles seem mostly predefined and mostly to do with keeping order and doing what the teachers say.

Last week, the teachers were interviewing the students to decide who would be the school leaders next year. I was a little surprised, and asked, “So the students don't vote on their leaders?”

I was told, “Yes, the teachers choose who will run and then the students will vote.”

I'm not sure if this is true, or if the other teacher was humoring me. Either way I think the process is a bit telling.

I would like to note that both of the teachers helping with the health club (my counterparts) agreed to my idea immediately. I think it hadn't occurred to them, not that they thought it was a bad idea. It's an attitude I hope to help change, at least a little; we teachers really need to give students the opportunity to prove themselves. The club members are the students who actually attend meetings and are involved in the events and activities; it only seems basic to us because that's how it's always worked (or, at least, usually). If students have no control over anything, then how can they ever shine?

It comes with a risk. As I said, I want this club to be as student-run as possible. I know it'll take time, because the girls* are not comfortable in leadership roles, but eventually I want my role as supervisor to be about on par with an American teacher who is supervising a club. I'll be there to help them write grants or get permission for them to put on events and work with the leaders to make things happen, but I want the momentum to come from them. I want them to have the ideas, and for them to form the plan, and for me to be there as a resource to help them make those ideas and plans become reality.

The risk, of course, is that while I have a lot of hope that the girls will rise to the challenge, all I can do is hope. When we let students take the lead, we can only hope that they'll have good ideas, that they'll work hard, find themselves as leaders, push themselves to succeed. But there's also the chance they'll flounder, at a loss for what to do and how to go about it, and just sort of fizzle out.

As I said, I know it will have to be a transition, and that at first I'll probably have to take charge and tell them what to do more than I'd like. Am I a little scared that they'll stay in their boxes of doing what they're told and when I try to step back and let the students take the lead, everything will fall flat? Yeah. But just a little. These students really need someone to believe in them, and I do believe that, given the chance, they can be great, and do great things.


Looking back on my post, I find myself surprised at where I've focused. I helped students found a Health Club; the point of the club is to teach other students, as well as the community in general, about issues like HIV/AIDS, other STDs, family planning, goal planning, nutrition, and so on. And all of these are really important issues, and teaching students and community members about these things could make a huge difference in their lives. Yet my thoughts, and my words, are tending more towards empowering the students, towards how to get them to a place where they know how to put their thoughts and ideas into action.

You know what, I think that's just as well. I could teach students about all those issues, and it would help them. Then in a little over a year I'll leave, and the students who learned about health issues will have better lives, but the new students who come through school won't be any better off. The students I taught would probably have healthier families. It would help the community a little. There would be some families whose living situation might be improved.

But if the students in the health club teach other students all about those topics, and then also teach the younger club members how to do the same thing, then it can last long after I'm gone. The older club members will not only teach the new club members about HIV/AIDS and nutrition and family planning, they'll teach them methods of spreading that information. And hopefully, if the club ends up really student-run, they'll teach them how to take charge of an organization. So all the students I would have helped by teaching them about health still have those benefits, but now the students who come after get that advantage, too.

Plus, then there would be students, who then graduate and become adults, who have experience running an organization. Who have learned how to be a leader and take charge and organize events and who know that they can change the world around them. And with a whole heaping of luck, they'll have passed on that lesson, too. Not to the entire school, but to a few students, enough for there to be a next group of Health Club leaders, and a next, and a next.

I know, I sound way too hopeful. I'm sounding totally utopian right now, aren't I? But it's as I said. These kids need someone to believe in them; if nobody believes they can succeed... well, it's still possible, but it's awfully hard. If I don't believe in them, if I doubt their abilities, then I'll be pulling them down, I'll just make it that much more likely they'll fail. I'd rather put a whole lot of faith in them, and then if they don't go as far as I'd hoped, all that happens is that I'm disappointed; the only one who gets hurt is me.

But they've got it inside them. I know they do.




*Since the founders are the five students who attended the Girls' Conference, all of the leaders are girls. I'm really hoping the Health Club will be fairly balanced, gender-wise, but the students who said they were interested are around 75% girls at this point. Right before next term (which starts in January) I hope to have an election, so that the leaders are student-chosen, and hopefully both genders will be represented. But right now, the President, Vice-President, Secretary, and two Leadership Council members are all girls.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cheerful Stuff About Today/Recently!

For some good stuff to counteract my last post:

It rained a decent amount today! This was exciting and surprising because the rainy season is supposed to be over by now, rain at the end of May is very unusual in this part of Tanzania. I love when it rains here, mostly because it's a source of water. You see, I don't have running water in my house, so all my water has to be hauled from a tap about a three minute walk away. Well, three minutes the way there. Lugging 20 liters of water makes the way back take quite a bit more time, and really makes my hands hurt. It's not the weight so much as the fact that all the weight is pressed across my hand on the same spot, since I have to hold the buckets by the handle. Tanzanian women can carry the buckets on their heads, but I don't know how to do that, and anyway apparently it's really bad for your back long-term.

So when it rains, I can just catch the run-off from the roof, and don't have to carry water, or get someone else to carry it for me. (I either do this by paying someone or making a student do it as punishment. But finding someone to carry it is also a hassle.)

Also, of course, rain water is extremely pure (Tanzania's not developed enough to have enough pollution for any sort of smog problems, especially since I live in a rural area). Theoretically I could drink it straight without boiling it first, but since I am catching the run-off from the roof, I boil the rain water before drinking it, in case anything from my roof got into it.

But the rain water's still a lot better, because the water that comes from the tap is very hard. It's temporarily hard, which means that when I boil it, the deposits separate from the water. So a lot of yellow-white stuff settles at the bottom of the bucket, and also builds up on my water boiler. (I have this little coil I can put into a bucket that boils the water-- which I need to do now, but can't, because it requires electricity. Another reason to be annoyed by that.) Anyway, the tap water leaves a buildup on my water boiler coil that's really hard to clean off, while rain water leaves it nice and clean (and even tends to chip the buildup so that I can easily pull chunks of it off).

So the rain was a very good thing that happened today!


Also, I'm very glad I have two computers, because the other one I was using is out of charge (well, I don't let it get completely out of charge, I turn it off when it gets around 15%). Now I'm using the bigger one, whose battery doesn't last quite as long. But I still get a lot more computer use during electricity problems than if I'd been a reasonable person who doesn't take two computers with her to rural Africa! (Though by now, when I've finished this post and am about to publish it, this computer's almost out of batteries as well. Oh, well. I might actually be able to sleep soon, and if I can, it'll help me get on a reasonable schedule for Monday.)


Yesterday (or I guess, as of about 20 minutes ago, the day before yesterday) was my students' last day of finals. So next week, I'll be grading their finals (they call them “terminal examinations”) and compiling the data, as well as choosing five girls for the Girls' Empowerment Conference that will be happening in this town in late June. (Sadly, I won't be able to be there because the dates conflict with my visit to America, but I'll be doing everything I can to help organize it until I leave.) I also have to find a female teacher who will be willing to chaperone without being paid. After that, school's out until mid-July!


Oh, wow, I haven't mentioned my trip to America here on the blog yet, have I? Well, I'm going to visit my parents in the USA from mid June to early July. Trust me, nobody was more surprised by this development than I was! We made the decision mid-April, while I was at Peace Corps In-Service Training. Literally, about two days after I found out that there was even the slightest, tiniest possibility it could happen sometime in my two years here, it was decided that it would be happening in two months. I was on the phone with my mom, and I just mentioned-- I swear to the gods I wasn't even attempting to hint at anything-- that I was surprised by how many Peace Corps Volunteers visit home during their service. (As I said, I was at training, so saw and talked to a bunch of PCVs I hadn't seen since November.) And my mom was like, “Well, would you want to do that?”

To which I was like “...well, yes, of course, but isn't it just way too expensive?”

We talked a little bit, mostly theoretically, about when I could visit-- this June during school break just seemed so soon, and my parents are coming in December so it couldn't be then, so maybe for a week during spring break next year? Or maybe June next year? But that will be so near to the time that I'll end my service, it doesn't seem that worth it, does it? And so on. Then I just checked up on some plane ticket prices for this June and emailed them to my mom, just for information's sake-- I wrote in the email that I figured that there was about a 2% chance that it would actually happen. Mom emailed back to say that she'd consider it based on the flight costs, and that she hadn't even talked to Dad about it yet at all. We didn't really figure it would happen.

Ten hours later, there was an email in my inbox that said, “We think you should could come visit this June, and we're happy to pay for the plane ticket.”

And suddenly, in two months I'd be visiting America.

I'm trying not to get too excited yet, because I don't like to be really excited about something for longer than the event will actually take place-- I find that makes it more disappointing when it's over. So I'm not going to let myself get excited until about two weeks before I leave, and right now it's about three and a half weeks.

But it will be really great to see my parents and get to spend time with them. I really haven't gotten to do that, especially with Dad (I've spent a tiny bit more time with Mom, since she visited me in Korea and we went to China together). Since the beginning of January, 2009, I've only been at my parents' house for about three weeks total, and those three weeks were some of the most stressful of my life. It was right after my extremely traumatic experience in China where my everything important was stolen and I was basically trapped there until the Chinese government granted me a new temporary visa, and I missed all my flights, and had to buy new flights not only back to Korea but then back to America. And then, once I got to Korea I had a week to pack everything and run around trying to get everything wrapped up. Once I was FINALLY home in America, I had 3 weeks to prepare everything for Peace Corps, so I didn't even get that much of a chance to breathe. I was so busy and filled with anxiety that I wasn't really able to enjoy my parents' company as much as I otherwise would.

So in the past 20 months, the only time I've spent with my parents (minus the few weeks Mom was in Korea and China with me) was 3 super-stressed weeks. So this really is a pretty big deal.

I'm actually visiting home for two and a half weeks, which is a very long time for this kind of trip. It's actually more vacation days than I've earned from Peace Corps, even taking into account the three month advance that PCVs are usually allowed to take (six extra days). There are some other circumstances about my visiting, nothing major, but enough that I was able to talk to the higher-ups in Peace Corps Tanzania and they agreed to give me five months' advance instead of three.

So really I'm visiting my parents for about as long as the total time I've seen them in 21 months.

I won't lie: I'm looking forward to a bit of first-world luxury too, and picking up some things that will make life in Tanzania easier.

People have been asking if I'll come back-- apparently it's fairly common for a Peace Corps Volunteer who is visiting home to decide just not to return. I am 100% planning to return to my site at Tanzania. I've had some troubles here, but I really do like the work and my students and school. I feel like I'm actually helping my students learn math more fully, and can possibly make some of their lives genuinely better. I really like most Tanzanians as well, for that matter; they really are incredibly friendly.

Plus, if I don't return, it will seriously jeopardize my ability to achieve my future career plans. After cutting short my year in Korea and graduating college with decent but not stellar grades and no close relationships with my professors and thus no shining references, the difference between finishing my two years in Peace Corps and leaving after 7 months could be huge. Staying in America would cause so much legitimate anxiety about my life and future that I highly doubt it would seem worth it.

So yes: I am going to visit America and my parents, and then I am returning to Tanzania.


Well, there we go. A positive, happy post to go right after my rant. I guess a lot of it is about my visit to America, thus leaving Tanzania... hmm. Well, it is a hard life here sometimes, but ultimately I do feel like it's worth it.

Electricity/Neighbor Problems (mostly a frustrated rant)

There's been a problem for a while with the electricity in my house. At least once a day, and sometimes more often, the breaker for the whole house (as well as the house next door) just switches off, for no discernible reason. I've had fundis (kind of like electricians) come to the house, and they can't find any shorts in my house, so it's almost certainly my next door neighbors' house. (We share the same breaker, but I'm the only one who can control it, since it's in my house.)

The problem is, my neighbors don't really understand this concept, that it's something they've plugged in that is probably causing the problem, and my Swahili isn't good enough to explain it. Why the fundis didn't explain it to them, I cannot imagine.

Now, sometimes when the breaker switches off, I can switch it back on. But sometimes it just flips right back down and the electricity won't come back on for hours. I'll keep trying, and it will keep not working. My neighbors also have this really annoying habit of knocking on my door and asking me to turn the electricity back on, like, do you really think I haven't been trying five times an hour since it turned off?!?!?! Honestly? Do you really, honestly not understand that I am in the dark too, I would like the electricity back on too, and I try the switch as often as makes any sort of logical sense?

Today one of them insisted on barging into my house to try for himself, even though he didn't even know which switch was which. Like, this has been a problem for months, and I've been turning it back on as soon as it would work for months. You have never done this once, and you insist on coming into my house to try just in case I'm suddenly doing it wrong? Then you note to me that on the switch that actually has nothing to do with the problem, it says “On.” Yes. Thank you. I noticed that, especially since it actually literally says “On” in English. Besides, that is not the switch that matters (although I have learned a trick using that switch that sometimes works, and I try that every time I try to get the electricity back on. Any anyway, that trick is just a way of trying to get the OTHER switch to stay up).

Not to mention that according to the man who came to check the electricity, the problem is almost CERTAINLY something YOU HAVE PLUGGED IN inside your house, and if you want to solve the problem, UNPLUG YOUR APPLIANCES!! They don't even turn off their sound system when the electricity goes off. I know this because the very exact moment I manage to make it switch back on, I hear the music start up next door. Like, the instant, way too quickly for one of them to have turned it on themselves.

I try to explain the parts of this I can, but I don't know if it's my Swahili or what, but this man seems to absolutely never understand me. He insists on speaking English to me, but his English is horrible-- way worse than my Swahili-- and never makes any sense. It is beyond frustrating, because he won't even speak a word of Swahili to me, and when I speak it he just looks at me blankly. Other people understand me when I speak Swahili, so why can't he? I don't think it's possible that he doesn't speak it.


Sigh. It's been going on for several months, and usually it doesn't really bother me that much. I mean, I can understand the impulse-- they're pretty powerless in the situation (no pun intended), and if I were in their shoes, I know that I would have the urge to go and check that the person has tried the lights, even if I know that logically they probably have. Of course, at this point, when the electricity obviously keeps coming back on week after week, I'd have managed to suppress that impulse so as not to annoy my neighbor, but I can still understand why they do it.

It's still annoying that they seem to think that I don't try the electricity often to turn it back on, and it was SUPER annoying the way that man thought that I didn't know how to do it (when he didn't know) even though that's the most illogical thing ever. But I'd mostly gotten over the annoyance and just accepted the whole thing pretty calmly. Usually I don't care much.


It's just that right now, the electricity still won't come back on, even though it's been at least seven hours. The batteries on my head lamp are running low-- rechargeable batteries lose their charge super quickly, did you know that? Even if you're not using them. If you charge your rechargeable batteries all the way up, and then a month later put them into a flashlight, they will not work at all. They only work, like, right after you charge them. So I basically have no source of light except this really weak (and getting weaker) headlamp. I've searched all over my house for batteries that might work in some sort of light source, and now have one other thing sort of going, but it's also really dim. So I'm really just annoyed as hell right now.

Normally I'd just go to bed in this situation, but since I've had some trouble sleeping the past few days, my sleep schedule is all out of whack, and I woke up at like 5 pm today. I wouldn't be able to fall asleep if I went to bed now, and my only sleep med-- Benedryl-- takes at least two hours to make me drowsy.

I've also talked to my school several times, and they did send those fundis to my house twice, but I've kept asking because the problem hasn't stopped, and they haven't done anything else.

Really, it's my neighbors' time to take over trying to fix things at this point, since it's been established that there's no short in my house. But they just WON'T DO IT! I don't get why they don't take some action themselves-- what would they have done seven months ago, when nobody lived in my house? Obviously they'd have called someone and tried to get it fixed.

You know, I don't even think I'm going to feel guilty at this point leaving them without electricity for three weeks when I visit America. I'm warning them that it's going to happen, and it's up to them to call people in to fix the problem before June 14. I've talked to the school like five times and gotten an “electrician” to come twice. They have done nothing at all, except come over to my house to bug me.



Sorry about this post that was almost entirely just an annoyed rant... I just really needed to get that off my chest. As I said in my post before last, "On the Nature, Criticism, and Attempt to Change Culture," sometimes you really do need to rage about stuff like this somewhere you can at least pretend someone is reading and understanding, so that when you're actually dealing with the people, you can manage to remain polite. I say all this stuff angrily here so that I can be calm and culturally sensitive when actually dealing with the neighbors.

Clarification

So, first off, my mother (who, yes, should absolutely write her comments on the blog as well as in an email! Let's get a dialogue going people!) let me know that the links in my previous post didn't work. I think I've solved this problem, but if they still don't work, please tell me.

Talking to her about my post and her comments/criticisms actually really helped me clarify some thoughts that I hadn't even realized were jumbled. You may have noticed that the beginning of my post was only tangentially related to the, well, purpose of my post. Partially it was because I wanted to mention the funny International Workers' Day story, but mostly it was because the eagerness to spread American companies to other countries was a problem with my assertion that Americans/Westerners are ultra shy of the concept of changing, or even criticizing, a different culture.

What my Mom made me realize is that I was trying to lump everybody into the same group, when really, there are two. Well, okay, obviously there are way more than just two groups of people in the Western world, there's something approaching infinite, but there are two that are relevant to my argument. Even that is, of course, an oversimplification, but as this is a blog post and not a dissertation, that's just how it's gotta be. I will state that, of course, these two groups I will list are the extremes, and most people fall in a continuum somewhere in between, but verging more towards one side or the other.

Basically, there are the people who care about preserving other cultures, and there are the people who don't.

The people who care about other cultures, who are inclined to want to preserve it and see it as something important, are generally not comfortable or happy with the McDonaldization of the world. These are the people about whom I was talking in my post, but there was no real reason to have the first few paragraphs trying to rationalize why these people are okay with the corporate invasion of non-Western societies, because generally, they aren't okay with it.

The people who are spreading McDonald's or Starbucks or Seven-Eleven all over the world would probably not flinch and get uncomfortable with talk about changing those cultures. They would see nothing wrong with the idea, and thus really had very little to do with the argument in my post in the first place.

As I said, there's a continuum, and most people are somewhere in the middle, but most people also are more inclined one way or the other.

What I was really trying to get at with my last post, I guess, is that many people in the first group generally have this cognitive dissonance, these contradictory beliefs, of which they're not even aware.

Because it's the people in the first group who tend to be in groups like Amnesty International, who tend to feel outrage when they hear about atrocities happening all over the world, who tend to care when they hear about human suffering in far away places. Yet much of that human suffering is a direct result of the accepted culture in those far away places. And it's the same people, that first group, who are also inclined to hold culture up as something sacred and holy, and have a knee-jerk reaction against criticism of other cultures, let alone attempts to change them.

(Then, of course, there are people like Rachel, who commented on my last post, who appears to agree more with the second group than the first, yet cares about morality and human suffering.)

My post was really about pointing out the contradiction between the two ideals in that first group. The second group, while they're not generally the type of people with whom I usually agree or even the type of people whom I see as caring much about morality, at least appear, at first glance, to have internally coherent attitudes.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On the Nature, Criticism, and Attempts to Change Culture

Is culture sacred?

Nowadays, in these 'enlightened' times, people get pretty spooked at the idea of interfering with a different culture. Sure, American capitalism, McDonalds and Starbucks and 7-Eleven and a hundred other corporations I could name are spreading all over the world. American movies and media also spread throughout the world. Most of those things actually don't exist here in Tanzania, Africa, but they've still spread far and wide, and people's levels of comfort with that do vary. But at least, we can say, the people in those other cultures are supporting it, to a certain extent. If at any given location, McDonalds didn't sell any burgers, or Baskin Robbins didn't sell any ice cream, you can sure as hell bet that they wouldn't stay for very long. None of these businesses would stay somewhere they didn't make money, so the locals must be at least implicitly supporting their existence.

(I've recently been told by the British woman who lives in my town here in Tanzania that the British have a very interesting way of celebrating International Workers' Day. They very reasonably celebrate it the first Monday after May 1st, the way we in America treat things like Presidents' Day and Labor Day, so that they can have a holiday from work or school.

(Anyway, that first Monday after May 1st, they celebrate International Workers' Day by smashing the windows of all the McDonalds and Starbucks in protest of American capitalism. The other 364 days of the year they're quite happy to buy delicious but over-priced coffee and kind of gross but low-priced burgers, but on International Workers' Day, they smash up all the windows. We imagine that all the McDonaldses and Starbuckses in the UK must just figure the cost of replacing windows at the beginning of each May into their budget.)

So that's one thing. As I said, some people aren't comfortable with American capitalism spreading all over the world, but most of us don't lose that much sleep over it. It's interfering with a culture, sure, but we can tell ourselves that it's at least, you know, in a collateral damage sort of way. (Because that's... comforting.) And a lot of the people who really care are more angry about the corporation, economic angle than the cultural.

It's an issue in itself, to be sure. But while it's the issue that people are most aware of, it's actually not the issue that I really want to discuss in this blog post. I want to discuss a more direct focus on culture, what it means, and what it doesn't.

Basically, I want to discuss my first line: Is culture sacred?

--

So... is it?


People tend to be really uncomfortable with the idea of judging a culture (especially a non-Western culture). The idea of actually purposefully trying to CHANGE a culture... now there's something that will get people up in arms, or super uncomfortable, or in some incarnation of “Eep!!,” “Danger, danger!,” and so on. In some ways, fair enough. Europe has certainly had a history of going in and changing cultures and, in the process, causing damage (if they didn't, America would be a very, very, very different place), and once America was so largely settled with Europeans, we followed suit. There are a lot of mistakes in the past that involved destroying culture that we don't want to repeat-- and well we shouldn't.

But this guilt, and the lessons we've taken away from those mistakes (often rightfully), have led a lot of people to consider all aspects of other cultures to be completely untouchable, something about which we have no right to any sort of opinion.


I mentioned a while back that a friend of mine decided to go teach English in Korea, with the idea that we'd be there together. But then, thanks to an invitation from Peace Corps that arrived many months before I expected, she ended up arriving in Korea the same week I left.

Well, sadly, there were a lot of aspects of Korea that she didn't like (and as promised in the post I just linked, I do feel super guilty). So on her blog, Curiosity Killed the Kat, she mentioned some of the things that she didn't like (as well as the ones she did). Well, apparently her posts criticizing aspects of Korean culture angered a Canadian teaching in Korea, because about a month ago, she posted this entry: Friendly Fire: Waygook-on-Waygook Flaming, or Why I Talk About the Bad Stuff.

For those of you who don't feel like clicking links to other blogs (though she is a good writer and I highly recommend hers), basically, this man sent her a flame about what she said. I'm going to copy and paste a part of the flame, because a lot of what I have to say directly references it:



I can think of only 2 options for the author of this post. I'm a Canadian with with 8 years of experience teaching in Korea. If you don't like it here, THEN GET OUT. Simple as that. Although you call yourself a "desk warmer", I believe I can safely make the assumption that you are not being held prisoner here.

Korea is NOT the United States. You complain about the work culture here. That's how it is here. It's your fault for thinking it is "wrong." Principals sleep, teachers in hagwans go months unpaid, and some female teachers get harassed by their superiors. This doesn't happen in every case, but it does exist. I'm a hagwan graduate and made my way to an international school. I would have left otherwise.

What your doing is similar to this: A person from Florida choosing to live in Alaska and then complaining about the cold weather.
Actually, you have three choices:
1) GET OUT.
2) Stay and be more culturally sensitive.
3) Stay and have a miserable year.
The choice is yours.



'It's your fault for thinking it is “wrong.”'

It's a common attitude that Westerners have. While South Korea is a first world country and ought to be way, way past the point where we're tempted by the Noble Savage concept, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think it played a part in this kind of thinking.

Even just this little block of text says a whole lot of things. For one, that it's culturally insensitive to disapprove of any aspect of a culture that isn't your own. Look at the example he references: 'female teachers get harassed by their superiors.' That's on his list of things of which it's culturally inappropriate to disapprove? Sexual harassment? Really?

I knew a girl in Korea who worked at a hagwon, and yeah, they didn't pay her for months. Then, after not paying her for months, they suddenly fired her right before the end of her year, so that they wouldn't have to pay for her plane ticket back to America. This after not having paid her, so she certainly didn't have the money to get home herself. She had $100 to her name, nowhere to live, and no way to get home.

It's culturally insensitive to disapprove of this treatment of a person-- a human being? The mere fact that they're from a different culture gives them the license to treat people like shit?

His comment is disturbing enough to me. What I don't think he realizes-- what I don't think people realize when they say things like this-- is what happens when you follow that thought through to its logical conclusion.


These are the relevant premises that I see stated, explicitly or implicitly, in that comment:

1.If a culture is not your culture, then you don't have a right to judge that culture. It is your fault for thinking that an aspect of that culture is “wrong,” even one that seems repugnant to anyone from your own culture.
2.It is culturally insensitive to talk about aspects of a culture of which you disapprove. I'm going to split this one into (a) and (b)-
(a) is talking about those aspects either to members of that culture or in a forum where they're likely to see it, and
(b) is talking about those aspects in a forum that is largely aimed at people from your own culture.


Since Curiosity Killed the Kat is pretty clearly aimed at Westerners, the Flamer clearly thinks that 2b is wrong, but I'm going to want to discuss 2a as well, and thought I should make a distinction. I'm going to take a leap and say that that if someone things that 1 and 2b are bad, then they'd say 2a is bad as well.

So let's take those premises, shall we? Let's start with Premise 1. As I've said, South Korea is a first-world country. But if we're following these premises to their logical conclusion, we can bring in other cultures as well.


As you know, I'm a teacher in Tanzania. I have students who are the victims of female genital mutilation. That's the culture. That's how it is here. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?

(True, Tanzania is trying to discourage this practice. Many Tanzanians have realized that it's not good, and they're trying to get rid of it. So it's Tanzanians changing their own practices; that's not interfering with another culture! Not quite. Whether they're trying to discourage it or not, it is at this point still a part of the culture. By Premise 1, it would still be my fault for thinking it's “wrong,” especially considering that Korean women are certainly trying to get their superiors to stop harassing them.)

In the Middle East (and parts of Africa, for that matter), women are stoned to death for adultery. Even if they were raped, and it was totally against their will, they have still been called whores and killed. That's the culture. That's how it is there. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Burma, and I'm sure in many other places, rape is used as a military weapon against their own citizens. That's the culture. That's how it is there. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?

In Somalia, thieves' hands are cut off at the first offense. Many of these thieves are poor and have no other way to eat, and don't have the skills to get a job. (Without hands, that will be a whole lot harder.) That's the culture. That's how it is there. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?


I'm sorry. I couldn't keep up the quotation marks around the word “wrong” when I was listing those aspects of culture. We all know the quotation marks are there to negate the word, to belittle the sentiment behind it. And I do believe that each of those things are wrong, with all of my heart.


If you follow what he's said to its logical conclusion, it's not only disgusting, but one of the most destructive attitudes it is possible to have and, frankly, a menace to the attempt to improve the world. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have a huge commitment to improving the world, and feel insulted not only on behalf of myself and my colleagues (who have enough to worry about trying to help Africa without having to deal with this kind of shit from people who should know better), but much, much more importantly, on behalf of everyone in the world who is being oppressed, beaten, abused, or neglected because it's "culturally acceptable" where they happened to have been born.


There is a reason that the international community has written “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” There is a reason they called it “universal,” and that is because too often people's fundamental rights are trampled, ignored, deemed unimportant, etc, because “that's the culture there.” That's why the international community has declared them UNIVERSAL. That means that it applies to all countries on the planet, and that “it's the culture” is not an excuse to violate a person's fundamental rights as human beings.


I've now taught in three cultures that are very different from my own. If another teacher harassed me, I WOULD NOT FUCKING stand for it. No, that is NOT okay. The fact that Flamer used that as something that is okay because "that's how it is here" is disgusting, misogynist, and downright sexist. (Incidentally, the "right to just and favorable conditions of work" is enshrined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 23, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, articles 6 and 7. Obviously, women being harassed by a superior would violate this.)


This man should understand that by saying what he has said, he is by direct logical continuation saying that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be considered void.



When I first arrived in Tanzania, fresh off the plane, bright-faced Peace Corps Trainee, I hadn't really thought about a lot of this stuff. I mean, when I was younger I was involved in Amnesty International, so I knew some pretty horrible things happened in parts of the world. But even just 6 or 7 months ago, I flinched at the idea of trying to change a culture. That's not what I'm here to do! (I'd have said.) They invited us! (True.) We're just teaching students math and science... helping people with income generation projects, making jam or clothes or wine or whatever else we can think of to help them make a living... teach them how to eat healthily, how to put together a nutritious meal that gives a family all the nutrients they need... trying to introduce positive reinforcement in schools and cut down on corporal punishment... running girls' empowerment programs, so that girls can go out into their community and take some power for themselves... teaching new methods of farming and gardening that take less labor and yield more food...

But what is education, what is a person's method of making a living, what is the kind of food they eat and how they cook it, what is how teachers and parents guide and discipline their students and children, what is the relationship between the genders and whether girls and women stand up for themselves, what is the method by which people grow their crops...

...but aspects of culture?

All of those things make up a culture, and some of them are a very fundamental part of culture. All of those things we Peace Corps Volunteers are attempting to change.


My experience as an aid worker has really taught me that we have to strike a balance. We don't want to destroy a culture, there are many important aspects that it would be a tragedy if they were lost. The world is just a complex place, and change is such a loaded concept. I won't say it's perfect, but Peace Corps has a method we try to use.

We Peace Corps Volunteers work with what we call “Counterparts.” A counterpart is basically just a friend of yours, who is a native of the country you were placed (HCNs-- “Host Country Nationals”). This is where we get into my Premise 2a: talking about what you see as wrong with a culture to a member of that culture. What makes this counterpart more than just a friend-- and you can have more than one-- is that whenever we do any of these projects, we do it with a counterpart. We don't jump in here, trying to impose our views on the locals. We collaborate with the citizens of the country, agree on a goal, on a positive change, and work towards it together.

While Flamer has the concept all wrong, cultural sensitivity is very real, very important, and something I must practice in order to live day-to-day here. It can be really difficult, because it's just not second nature yet-- sometimes I have to think beforehand about the right way to say that I disapprove of something. No matter how hard it can be, though, it's necessary.

If we never talked to any Tanzanians about the problems here, the things that we and they would both like to change-- well then, it would be pretty impossible to start any projects to change them, wouldn't it?

I have no problem telling the other teachers at my school that I disapprove of hitting the students. Cultural sensitivity isn't never criticizing anything about a culture-- it's about saying it in a way that doesn't insult people. It's exactly the way being polite isn't about never saying anything unpleasant-- sometimes you have to. It's about saying it in a way that doesn't insult people. Cultural sensitivity is really just knowing how to be polite within the framework of another society, and practicing it as best you can. As far as 2a goes, if you believe you can never, ever tell the friends you've made in a new country the parts of the culture that bother you... they're never going to become very good friends. We become close to people by being honest—which does not mean insensitive—about what we're thinking, feeling, and experiencing.


All I have to say about 2b is that if you can't talk about the things that are bothering you to people who are coming from the same place culturally and can really understand how you're feeling, you're going to explode. At least, from a Western (especially American-- and for that matter, Canadian) perspective. Westerners, and this is unlike many other cultures, believe we need to let our feelings out, and that it's healthy. Because that's how we've been raised, for us at least, it really is healthy. Sometimes you have to vent. Living in a really different environment is hard, and getting it out of your system somewhere people will understand is sometimes just the only way you're going to be able to get up the next morning and have the patience and strength to practice that cultural sensitivity.



There is absolutely nothing wrong-- and a lot of things right-- with changing aspects of a country's culture (in, again, a cooperative, collaborative effort with the people whose culture it will affect) in order to improve the quality of life of its citizens. Again, in Tanzania, as well as in a lot of places, education isn't usually a priority, especially for girls. That's the culture. But the only way that Tanzania is going to progress as a country, the only way that they will be able to work towards and attain a better life, is by making education a priority. By changing the culture. Because if they don't change some aspects of their culture, they will remain stuck in poverty.

As far as African countries go, Tanzania is not exactly the biggest violator of human rights. Generally the opposite, in the scheme of African nations. There are so, so many more horrible, cruel, torturous, INHUMAN practices throughout the world that are "part of the culture." Anyone who thinks that just by virtue of being part of the culture, we have no right to call an atrocious act wrong... well... that person is implicitly condoning all the things I mentioned above (female genital mutilation, stoning women to death for being raped, rape as a military weapon, cutting off thieves' hands), as well as so many more things, hundreds if not thousands, that I could list.



So... no. My answer is no. Culture is not this sacred, holy, untouchable thing. Culture is important, and there are parts of it that are well, well worth preserving. (There's a reason that the international community has also declared many World Cultural Heritage Sites.) There are many things about Korean culture and about Tanzanian culture that I really like, and it would be a true shame if those things were changed or lost. I don't believe that all the countries in the world should become just like each other, that we should all just be homogeneous.

Every culture has aspects that are good and aspects that are bad, but when we get right down to it, we are all human beings. I'm not denying culture shapes a person in an enormous way. It affects perception hugely-- two people from two different cultures can see the same situation so entirely differently that it's amazing. Yet, all of us have our humanity in common, and I truly believe that there are things-- like the rights listed in the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights-- to which every human is entitled. That every human being deserves.


Keep the good. Heck, keep the neutral too. But things that hurt people, damage them, deprive them of their health and their dignity and their safety, of their ability to, well, I'll be American here, to pursue happiness... those are also a part of culture. They are a part of culture we have every right to not only criticize, to not only call “wrong,” but to do our best to eradicate from the face of this planet.

In fact, I consider it part of my duty as a human being.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What am I up to?

Teaching Form 2-ers the very beginnings of Algebra and what a variable is. Thus far (knock woods), they seem to be pretty good kids. I haven't had any major problems with the students so far. At first they were rally really resistant to coming up to the board to do problems, but I think they're getting more and more comfortable with the idea, which is great. One class on Thursday, I actually had some of the kids jumping out of their seats as they raised their hands to come up. That was a great feeling. They were also so good at solving for x that if they hadn't been struggling to understand variables the week before, I'd have thought they'd done it before. (And if the other math teachers hadn't assured me exactly where the students had left off in the Form One syllabus-- about halfway through.)

Last week I cut my finger so badly that after putting pressure on it the entire night, it was *still* bleeding. Now over a week later, the area between the tip of my finger and my fingernail is still numb. Does that mean it will be forever? I have no idea. Anyway, that was Tuesday night, and Wednesday morning (when I'd been up all night putting pressure on it) when it was still bleeding, it turned out that I couldn't teach that way. Something about when you walk around your heart beating faster and lot letting the cut close. So I actually had to miss out on my first real day of teaching, which was a bummer. Luckily my headmistress was really understanding. And I will admit: I was more OK with missing class than I would have been if I weren't tired as all heck.

There are two American Baptist missionaries who live just a 20 minute walk from my house. I've been hanging out with them a lot. Their house is incredibly nice; when I'm sitting in their living room or kitchen, I can't see a single thing that would suggest that I'm not currently in America (well, there are some carvings of Africa on the walls, but still). Plus they make delicious meals, things like pizza and hamburgers and enchiladas and all those things that I normally could never, ever get in Tanzania. They're way more all-American than my family has ever been, so it's nice to have somewhere to go where it's like I'm in America for an afternoon. And they're very sweet people as well. In fact, one of them came to my house and fixed my electrical problems, then caulked the gap between my wall and my ceiling-- the entirety of my bedroom and half the living room. The upshot? NO MORE LIZARD POOP FALLING FROM MY BEDROOM CEILING! That's right, I'm LIZARD POOP FREE!!!

Well, we're on our way out of the internet cafe now, so I should wrap this up. ALL OF YOU SHOULD WRITE!! Email me at melknapp@gmail.com and I'll send you my address!