The subject of this post makes me feel so ordinary, but at the same time, so content with my life. I am very lucky to be exactly where I am.
Completely soaked, I entered my neighbor’s on a cold and rainy/hailing evening. It had been about two weeks since we had seen each other, which in Mexico merits a comment to make you feel at the same time loved and slightly guilty: qué milagro! What a miracle to finally see you. She then went on to say “I’m not sure I have ever seen you look so happy. Your smile is so genuine. What is going on?”
I thought for a second, and ended up flashing back to the previous nights’ chat with one of my friends. We were talking about how I often felt like a little girl during my first months, given I live under a different cultural construct and in a different language. We talked about how on occasion, I make hilarious and/or awkward mistakes that usually result in laughter. He then posed me an interesting question: Do you still feel like an outsider in Mexico?
“Sometimes, but not much anymore,” I replied. Then I thought for a moment more. Suddenly the light bulb came on: “Actually, I feel like Mexico is my home and the USA is just where friends and family live… That sure is a profound change!”
I have a comfortable place to live. I have a great roommate and fun friends which whom I can confide in. I know where to get things to maintain my home and work life. I have hobbies. In short, my life is in Mexico now.
Remembering this conversation, I told my neighbor that: “I am just content. I feel at home, and it is great that you and your daughter are like my family here.”
And while she said, “of course you are family to us” in a nonchalant manner, her eyes gave her away. She was equally happy to have another daughter in the house. We then continued sharing soup and tea and stories to cut through he night’s chill.
Ten months; almost immeasurable improvement in my language skills; good friends who share great food with me; and the kicker, I have a more defined work project that seems to be exciting many people: these are the contributors to the profound change.
Back in January, I wrote a post about the work that I had been doing, both in and out of the office. The post was vague to say the least because my work plans were still in development. This is very typical of the Peace Corps experience. If you think about it, it is logical: we are dropped in a new area without a concrete job description. We have to immerse ourselves in the language and culture, make connections with people, listen to their development project ideas, pick one, and figure out how it might be done and who might be instrumental. Only then can we outline concrete job descriptions with our work partners. It takes time and patience.
For me, it has taken seven months. It seems slow, but it is the best known method for facilitating development projects from the bottom up, with the ideas for change coming from the community for the benefit of community. The process seems to work, but it is a major contributor to volunteers feeling a bit lost and un-rooted during their first months on the job.
Flash forward, we are now almost in July and I am finally able to say that I have a legitimate, reasonably solid work-plan. What a great feeling.
This past week, I traded in my hiking boots for my laptop and Google Translate.* My nose was buried deep into a project proposal which I wrote in preparation for pitching my work plan to my co-workers and project stakeholders. I relied on friends to help clean up my professional document, which was written in 7th grade level Spanish with plenty of grammar mistakes and odd word choices. Then I presented it to my coworkers. They were so excited, which made me so excited!
We have plans to hit the trails next week for a good ole’fashioned brainstorming session in preparation for grant writing. My sense of belonging in the office now extends beyond the shared tacos and jokes. They now see that I am a valuable member of the team. I love this change.
The illustrious “they” always say that the second year in Peace Corps is by-far the best year because that whole bit about “figuring it out” is no longer in the forefront. With better footing, volunteers are able to move forward with work. Our successes shift from: “I found a place to buy peanut butter AND I was able to ask for it while making small talk with the cashier” to “I was able to organize and facilitate a weekend-long girl’s empowerment camping trip with 45 participants!” Both are a big deal, trust me, but one feels a little more gratifying to the heart.
While I am not at the second year yet, I can see it approaching like a brightening sky before sunrise. For me, the stars are still twinkling through a lovely shade of blue. My anticipation grows for the beauty to come.
This profound change impacts my alter-ego as well. You probably know her: the US American me. Because volunteers live simultaneously between two different cultures, many of us feel like we live double lives. Well, in a few months, my alter-ego will confront me, face to face.
This October, I will spend a week in the United States. The plane ticket voucher stares me in the face sometimes, reminding me that: I get to hug my mom, stepdad, and brother; I will hold hands with my guy under the stars on a lakeside dock; I will understand EVERY SINGLE WORD spoken; hot water will come out of faucets; I will drink tap water without getting a bacterial infection or arsenic poisoning; people will not think anything when I eat kale and bulgar wheat; and that I can wear skirts, clothes that cut above the knee, or that show my shoulders while feeling completely comfortable in public places.
Some of these things are obviously more important than others, but all are exciting.
But that ticket voucher also reminds me that I have changed, that I have been highly influenced by Mexican culture. This is a big thing. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes says the culture of his country
…is far more intricate and challenging to the North American mind than anything in Europe; a country at times more foreign than anything in Asia.
I will return to a familiar place with familiar people, but in that context, I might not be familiar to myself.
To be honest, one of the things about this visit that excites me the most is that I can talk to Mexican-Americans in their mother tongue. I want to ask them about where they are from, I want to share stories about moving to a foreign country and living in another culture. I want to see if they agree that living between two cultures can make you feel like you do not fully belong in either. The funny thing is that I might relate to them more closely than to my own family, after all, we share the powerful experience of living the immigrant life. How lucky we are in the United States to have such international diversity all around us. We should really use that to our advantage!
But the really funny part is that these thoughts make me feel so ordinary. Reverse culture shock is a pretty big thing for Peace Corps volunteers and long-term expats. I already know the feeling. It happened to me when I came back from living in Thailand for six months. People would ask me “so how was Thailand?” For a solid year, I could not find any words that went beyond “it was fun.” And when I came back from a month in Burkina Faso, I could not stop myself from staring at sinks and faucets with wide eyes, reminding anyone who turned on the tap that that was simply INCREDIBLE. Aside, thank you to friends and family who have seen this type of behavior from me. You are about to see it again for sure.
Until October, I plan to dive head-first into my work, but to keep that Mexican sensibility with me the whole way: the profound love of celebrating life, friends, and family.
Making me smile
- Spending two late nights at a Peace Corps conference, singing and cuddling and sharing poop stories like only Peace Corps volunteers would do. That, and the networking
- Planning to host an American Independence Day party, replete with fireworks and sparklers, typical picnic food, campfires in the forest, football, and a funny mix of approximately 30 Mexicans and US Americans of all ages. Camping, yes please! How amazing that cultural exchange is in my job description?
- Trail running: I am really getting into it, and as it turns out, there are a plethora of opportunities for trail running when you know where to look. I just completed a 10k and am about to do a 20k. I hope I survive this next one with its 2000 foot elevation climb!
- Learning how to speak Spanish to dogs. I never thought about needing to learn Spanish for dogs before I came to Mexico, but it is something pretty important
- Hospitality in Mexico. I cannot even begin to convey to you how profoundly different hospitality is when compared with the USA. Enough so, that in my International Food and Culture club, I have to bring double the ingredients for making dinner than I would in the States; inevitably someone will be walking down the street as I cook with my friend, and they will receive an insisting invite to dinner. Enough so, that when reading a menu at a café, the waiter might say (in English!) that they also have a menu for English speakers. Enough so, that I can show up uninvited to a party of complete strangers for a 30 minute “hello,” ending up staying for seven hours and leaving with all party guests calling me by nickname and promising to stay in contact. The hospitality is quite heartwarming
*I am baffled at how other Peace Corps Volunteers can live without Google Translate. Most speak languages like Moore and Dioula, of which there is no option for online language help. While Google Translate is certainly not perfect, it is such a great starting point. Another reason Peace Corps Mexico should really be called Posh Corps!