Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the Importance of Kindness- First Days in Quito

"You're already home where you feel loved."  I spontaneously wrote that in my notebook yesterday.  This song lyric by The Head and the Heart, which formed the subject my friend's recent amazing article about her homes (read it here) was in my heat because it already applies.  For real.  I have been in Quito three days and I already feel so loved.

Before I came here, I thought that I was doing it alone, that I needed to be brave and that I would face many challenges.  I'm sure there will be challenges.  I'm sure I'll need to be brave.  Even forming a sentence here can be brave.  (Luckily, I don't really get embarrassed, and I learned from one of my best friends that you need to ask many questions and try and fail in order to learn.)  But the thing I was wrong about is that I am alone.  I have the CIMAS staff that wants to take care of us and make sure we have the best experience possible.  I have my fellow students.  But most of all, I have an AMAZING host family.

My mother's name is Monica and my father Patricio.  They are grandparents to five grandchildren, but they do not have any children or pets living in the house.  (Well, there was a cat hanging out here, but it was a stray that got in through the window and scared my mother half to death.)  They have been a host family for almost twenty years and have had over thirty students.  They know that we might have strange habits or difficulties, which is great, though I was prepared to adjust a lot.  I have my own bedroom and bathroom, both of a good size.  (Everything in the house is nice.  My father is an economics professor, so I think that they come from a higher class than most in Quito.  I am definitely not roughing it.  Will write more on this later.)  They are always asking me how I am, if I need something, and the hugs!  Ecuadorians have it right.  Humans need some caring touch every day to survive, and in Ecuador, there are always hugs and kisses on the cheek.  I will never forget the moment when I met my host mom.  She arrived late to the school because of a miscommunication and when I greeted her, she hugged me like she was seeing her own daughter after a long separation.  It was a cliche movie moment.  I ran across the room to her.  And just like that, we were a family.  Not the same as my family, but much more so than I would ever expect to be with a stranger.

We moved in with our families after our first full day of orientation.  Mine feed me lots and give me lots of love.  Sometimes I will look across the room and if I catch my father's eye he will smile or wink at me.  I feel completely safe with them and like they genuinely care about me.  It is a mix of daughter and honored guest.  My mother loves when I make my bed and lets me help her with the dishes, but we were at the produce store and I started asking what certain fruits were- the ones we don't have in the U.S., and she bought some for me to try.  It was super sweet.

Here, I am relearning the importance of kindness.  Of little gestures that help people know you care about them- as friends or simply as human beings.  This kindness extends far beyond the immense kindness of my host family.

Yesterday, we had an indigenous welcome ceremony at school.  I wish I knew what group the man was a part of who came to perform it for us, but they only told us once.  He taught us many things.  About the seven worlds that his people believe in, about their relationship with la madre tierra or pachamama (Mother Earth), and about their relationship with each other.  He explained the idea of Yanantin.  You may find something different on the Internet, but the way he explained it is that everything is connected.  People especially, it seemed.  For an example, he told the girl standing in front of him, "I am a part of you and you are a part of me."  We were instructed to take a fruit from the blanket in the center of our circle.  We put it on our hearts.  Since it nourishes us, it symbolized our lives.  Then, he instructed us to give it to another person.  This is the ceremony of Yanantin.

Neighbors ended up exchanging with one another.  With our professor, we had an uneven number, and by accident (I don't think anybody hates me), I was the odd one out.... for about three seconds, until my neighbor Sam, who had just finished exchanging with Kathleen turned around and exchanged with me.  At first I was not sure we were doing it correctly, but then I thought he had probably discovered the point of the whole exercise.  We are all a part of each other.  Our double trade is what Yanantin is all about.  Not to mention, it was a super kind gesture.

Then, we were instructed to eat the fruit.  Some of the students had fruit that they could not eat because it did not have a peel and was unwashed (or, in the case of Kelly, was a gigantic papaya).  Sam gave a part of his/my/everybody's orange to one of these people and I was kind of moved.  I hadn't even thought to do that.  But it didn't take me long to take part of my banana across the circle to Kelly. 

Yanantin. 

Although Yanantin is part of indigenous culture (and I had to keep reminding myself is not mine and that I will never understand it as they do.  I so want it to be a part of me.  It can be in some way, of course, just not the same way), there have been a lot of manifestations of this love and kindness in my first three days here similar to Yanantin.  People share sunscreen, advice, worries, some food, and Sarah shared her water with me when I was not feeling well this morning.  (Purifed water is a precious resource here for us because you can't just go to the tap anytime.)  Everyone is pretty much willing to help out.  And our families are sharing their homes, their lives, and their love with total strangers.  

Not everything is perfect, but everything is wonderful, and I can already tell I am going to learn a lot here, not just about development or Spanish but about how to be a better human being.

Monday, January 27, 2014

One Day at a Time: Traveling with Anxiety

As many of you know, I have an anxiety disorder, and I have for most of my life.  It is pretty well managed, so most of my fears and difficulties are "normal" reactions to a given situation.  Sometimes things are still hard, but years of dealing have given me tools to be successful in almost any situation.

In my travels today, I went up and down and all around with my emotions. Things did not feel real, then I was elated, then I was nervous.  I think the thing that will be hardest for me is that I have never spent a significant amount of time away from home. This is a four month trip.  The longest I have ever gone without a hug from my mother is probably three weeks maximum.

Sometimes, when I think about that, I'm not sure I will be able to handle it at all.  My relationships are very important to me.  The only way I can deal with it is not to try to think about all four months all at once.  Sometimes looking at the big picture is very important and beneficial, or even beautiful, like flying over the Great Plains- watching the fields stretch on forever until they smudge into the horizon.  But sometimes it is overwhelming and terrifying and keeps you not only from enjoying the present or "living in the moment", as they say, but also from living experiences that could be really wonderful simply because they are overwhelming and terrifying.

When I am about to become terrified, I ask myself, can you handle this today? In my worst times, I simply focus on getting through each individual moment.  Luckily, I had a great day today, even including waking up at six, transporting a backpack that weighed as much as a small child through many airport terminals, and not arriving to a completely new city until nearly midnight.  So instead of looking at all four months, I just ask myself if I think I can do it for another day or another few.

And in a blink, I will be asking myself if I can do it for another day, and that day will be all I will have left.  And I'm pretty sure I'll want more days.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Brave/ Am I Making Too Big a Deal Out of This?

I have chosen a theme for my semester away: Brave.

Sometimes I feel like people don't understand this theme, at least not right away.  2/3 of Macalester students study abroad, most for a full semester.  And many go on trips all the time like it isn't a big deal- because it isn't, to them.  They can no more truly appreciate the fact that international travel is special than I can truly appreciate that going to college or having lots of relatively nice clothes is special.  It has always been there.  It is taken for granted. And, in the case of travel, it is familiar and therefore no longer scary.  A large number of my (mostly white, mostly male) friends have looked at me with surprise when I talk about my fears and my experience.  "You've never been abroad before?"  they infer.  Well, sort of...

I have been out of the country once, at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, which really doesn't even count.  (Though I'm lucky to have taken the trip, a resort is like the U.S. but warmer.)  I have never packed a suitcase for more than two weeks away from home.  (I can drive to college in 30 minutes from where I live.)  I was always an overly cautious child, and I have an anxiety disorder, so believe me when I say that living abroad for a semester, by myself, with two new families, in an entirely new country, that contains an entirely new language and multiple entirely new cultures is the most terrifying/bravest thing I have ever done.

When I was little, I had such bad separation anxiety I couldn't go to traditional preschool.  Kindergarten, then first grade, then a sleepover, then camp, then college were all victories.  Four months is my biggest challenge yet.  I also have a long-standing fear of the unknown, and this trip is quite literally 100% unknown.  Well, maybe 95%.  I will find out about my host family a week before I leave, if I'm lucky.  My second host family and my rural region and internship placement will remain unknown until I am in Ecuador.  Every part of this trip will be a test.  Probably a fun, comedic, lifelong-lesson-resulting test, but a test nonetheless.  I'm scared, but I want to do it.  So I am going to.

I am going to do this.  I am going to problem solve in a foreign language, learn about Ecuadorian public health from experience, make new friends, have bad days and good days, and heck, I am going to see mountains for the first time ever!  While I live in them! Above all, I am going to do a thing I never dreamed I could do.

I can distinctly remember pointing to Quito on our interactive globe as a child (a favorite toy when we were younger).  It was the only marked city that fell directly on the equator.  I wondered if it was really hot there, and how people lived there (Andes mountains, little Mariah- super high elevation).  It was a place I never even dreamed of going.  It didn't feel like even a whisper of a possibility.

Well, I'm going.  And maybe it sounds to the highly global community of Macalester like I'm making too big a deal out of this.  Maybe I'm too worried and too excited and too everything.  (Except too grateful, of course.)  Maybe the idea of getting on a plane by yourself and going to the equator doesn't sound terrifying.  Maybe living with a host family isn't the number one thing you have dreamed about forever regarding international travel.  Maybe you're getting ready to study abroad and you are cool as a cucumber.  (HOW?)  Maybe you just don't talk/write as much as I do.  (Probably.)  That's chill.  But I am terrified and so excited and fully aware that this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime deal and I can't shut up about it.

Am I making too big a deal out of this?  Good.  That's what this is.  A big deal.

Ecuador Calling! (The Beginning of a First-Generation Study Abroad Blog)

Guess what, guys?  I have a study abroad blog (like everyone and their sister).  My perspective is a bit different than the other blogs, though. Lots of people in my family have BEEN abroad, mostly for military service, but I'm the only one out of my extended family (think first cousins, parents, parents' siblings, grandparents, grandparents' siblings) to spend an extended period of time in another country for study.  My parents were both first-generation college students, and the majority of the rest of my family did not complete bachelors degrees.  What I'm doing is pretty radical to my family AND to me, and that perspective will flow through everything I think, see, and do while I'm there.  This is a first-generation study abroad blog.

Here, I'll cover- hidden costs (those aren't things they advertise, and if no one else near me knew, then I couldn't either), how to talk to your family about your trip, anxieties, barriers, all things social justice.  I'll also cover a whole bunch of completely run-of-the-mill things- once I figure out what those are.  I'm not saying that I face the hardest situation you could ever imagine in getting to and then navigating my adventures abroad.  I'm only saying that there are definite education/class/race barriers to opportunities such as this, and I want to expose and challenge them.  I want to use my perspective, an academic perspective, and the perspective of others to do this.  I am not saying that I am the authority on this subject- many people are in situations similar to mine, and I hope we can form a community in solidarity and have all sorts of discussions on international travel.  I want to do all of this while recognizing my privilege in the United States, as well as the privilege and positionality I hold abroad, especially on an international development program.  Privilege and social justice are not just buzzwords to me.  (Here is a little baby example- my white skin privilege is not erased by my Mexican heritage.  I hope to delve into these themes more as I get started, especially the idea of the colonizer and colonized- because Latin America.)

For those of you wondering at home, my program consists of two components- an eight-week classroom component in Quito and a seven-week internship component ideally in a rural setting.  When choosing the program, the second portion sealed the deal for me.  I wanted to be totally immersed in a new language and culture.  I'm not going abroad to party or to hang out with other United States college students.  I'm going there to work, and to learn, to improve my Spanish, to understand public health from a global perspective, and to be challenged beyond all reason.  I may as well go all the way.

You can join me on my journey, which started quite some time ago, when I made the decision to do this at all.  Therefore, though I fly off the 27th, this blog starts now.

Friday, January 3, 2014

On Trigger Warnings

You may notice that I have added trigger warnings to a couple of my posts and hope to continue to do so, as well as taking other steps to make this blog more accessible and less exclusionary.  While this is not primarily a social justice blog, social justice is important to me, and I hope for it to (I try to make it) run through each and every thing that I do.  I want to work in solidarity with all those fighting against injustice.  This is especially important to me because I consider myself to be a strong advocate for the elimination of stigma around mental health issues.  I have found, in this social justice work, that no work toward one cause can be separated from any other.  While I still find myself falling into the traps of the "white feminist"- ignoring or excluding other marginalized communities with my words or actions at times, I am fighting that with all my might and I am seeking to become more educated every day on how to work for social justice.  To those of you not a part of the social justice community, this may seem to be "trying to be more PC" or "not offend anyone,"  but it is deeper than that.  It is about understanding that my words and actions perpetuate a system that excludes and marginalizes others.  There are little things that I can do that can make a big difference, and I only know about a few of them right now, but I want to put the ones I know to use.  If I don't fight for social justice and inclusion in the little ways that I know how here, where I have total control, as well as everywhere else I can, I cannot consider myself a part of the solution.

Please, if you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments, or on any personal platform by which you can reach me if you know me outside of this blog.  I hope to respond to you with compassion and a desire to learn, grow, and change.

P.S.  I have decided as of yet not to take down anything that I today find slightly problematic (or simply embarrassing) that I wrote years ago, as this blog is now old.  I want to respect my former self and my growth as a person and to recognize that this is all a journey.  I WILL, however, be, in my free time, rereading and determining if any of these infractions require an apology on my part, and I am open to your thoughts on this process.