Saturday, May 25, 2013

How to wash a bowl.

At almost every point in my life I have had at least one thing that I’m good at. That is, until Peace Corps. In Peace Corps, I started feeling completely incompetent. It seemed that I was failing at even the most basic parts of my life. I no longer knew how to wash dishes, wash my clothes, kill bats (yes, that became a basic part of life), or sweep my house. When doing these basic skills, I was openly critiqued and laughed at. Frequently, while doing a task, I would be told I was doing it incorrectly and it would be taken away from me so that I could see how it was really supposed to be done. I was usually not given back whatever I was doing until it was completely finished. This sounds like a nice way to get my laundry done by someone else, but it's not a great way for a hands-on learner like myself to learn to do it myself.

Additionally, there was only one to do EVERYTHING. There was only one way to wash a bowl, clean my socks, hang up my clothes, and even wear my clothes. If I were not doing it in this specific way (down to the way I held my hands), I mine as well not be doing it at all. I even had someone strip off my pangi (wrap-around skirt, with very little on underneath!) to re-wrap it the right way. As an independent, strong, self-sufficient woman in her late 20s, this was difficult. I was reduced to the status of a child, and often treated as one. 

And these were just the parts of my basic existence that I seemed to be incompetent at. I also seemed to be incompetent when it came to why I was supposed to be in Suriname. I was supposed to be in this tiny village in the jungles of South America to DO something. The only problem was, what was that something supposed to be? Peace Corps Volunteers typically have a hard time when they realize that they will not be single-handedly building an orphanage, or solving village-wide issues of malnutrition. Most volunteers believe that in 27 months we can move to a new country, learn a completely new language, become assimilated into a new culture and community, and then start and finish a meaningful and sustainable large-scale project. Typically, that's just not going to happen. My expectations upon starting my service were a bit lower because my father was a volunteer and I knew a bit more about the realities of service than most. This didn't truly prepare me for the realities, however. Trying to match up my own skills and interests with my village's interests and motivations was extremely difficult. My village had a very different idea of what my role was in the village. I think the first 14 or so months in my village were just spent trying to convince them that I would never be showing up with a truck full of gifts. I'm getting a bit off-track with the difficulties with finding a project.The point is that between being unable to perform the most basic tasks, to being lost as to my role in the village, I was left feeling extremely inadequate and incompetent. This weighed very heavily on me.

I'm amazed at how differently I feel about myself now that I am home. I'm back in school, and if I can brag a little, I'm totally rocking at it. It's so rewarding to be really good at something again. I've also recently bought a road bike and started pushing myself with biking, and I'm finding that I'm kind of good at it! I think it's so important to have something in your life that makes you proud of yourself. To get completely off the subject, that's why I think the arts and sports in the schools are so important. Many students do not excel in the traditional subjects. But many are completely sustained by their art or music class. To feel that they have something in their life that they truly excel at is so important. Anyway, that's my rambling thoughts on my own abilities and lack-there-of.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bisy Backson

Lately I feel like I’m always busy. I really shouldn’t complain because my time is mostly filled with things and people I love (alright, I’m not quite ready to drop the L bomb on my new job, but it seems fine so far). I do find that our society seems to respect and understand “busy” far more than it respects free time. In the last 10-ish months since I got back to the U.S., people have frequently asked me what I’m up to with my time. I would always feel slightly defensive when explaining that I’m “only” in school full time. No, I didn’t have a job. I simply spent around 40 hours a week (actually probably a lot more than that) going to classes and studying. I also spent a lot of time with family and friends, working out, reading, and doing whatever else struck my fancy. For some reason, I was always defensive about this. So what’s so wrong about valuing time that is not spent doing something “productive”?

One thing that I really learned to love about Ndjuka culture in Suriname was their view of the word ‘lazy’. When I first arrived in Suriname, villagers would frequently ask me if I was being lazy. I always got defensive about this and would explain that whatever I was doing was somehow productive. Our language and culture have a very negative connotation with the word ‘lazy’. Finally, I realized that my villagers were not using this word in a negative way at all, and it became my best friend. When a villager would stop by and ask me why she hadn’t seen me yet today, my response would be, “I’m so lazy today”. No questions asked, very respectable answer. Being lazy was a thing to be respected and valued.

It was very common in the heat of the afternoon to simply sit under a tree and just take in the breeze for an hour or so. Visiting with neighbors didn’t always mean talking or doing something, sometimes it just meant sitting in each others’ presence. I had an older couple who lived not too far from me who I always loved visiting. They always seemed to take turns with who would chat with me, and who would nap away our visit. When it was Baa Lene’s (the man) turn to chat with me, he would fill me in on the village and the world’s news. He had a radio and he listened to the news in Dutch. This is how I learned about many of the world’s big events, like the death of Bin Laden. When it was Saa Poli’s (the woman) turn to chat with me, she would pick my brain about life in the U.S. and generally just joke around with me. They were great people. Sometimes all three of us would just kind of nod off during my visit. Wow, this has gone on a tangent.

To get back to the point, I don’t know if it’s the way that our society is set up or if it’s simply our cultural values that dictates our use and views of time. On the one hand, I will admit that it is very difficult for people to get by financially without working their buts off. On the other hand, even when we are busy with keeping our families or just ourselves afloat, we always seem to pack in more obligations. Are we uncomfortable with just being?

In the Tao of Pooh, there is a part of the book that talks about the Bisy Backson. Christopher Robin leaves a note on his door that says, “Gon out Backson Bisy Backson, CR”. A bisy backson is somehow who is always busy busy busy, even when they are at rest they are busy. Sometimes I think this can be me. All this criticism includes myself, who can easily fall into this trap. I would like to channel the opposite of the Bisy Backson, Pooh. He just is. Even when he is at work, he is far from busy.