Written on Thursday, May 29, 2014

“We sat there peacefully, while I sipped my cooling tea (Lapsang Souchong, smoky and peculiar) and felt the strangeness of my life, and where I was.” – The Goldfinch by Donna Tart

Around six in the afternoon, I sat in silence with a new friend a café in Nicaragau. She was checking her email while I was entranced in coding, working away at functions that I barely understood.

The cafe was aptly named Garden Café, on the corner of Calle Cervantes and Calle La Libertad, a block away from my homestay and surrounded by foliage and books. The sky began to dim as I tapped away anxiously on my laptop, frustration chipping at my less-than-placid demeanor. It was work left over from a computer science course that I had opted to take last winter. I can't even imagine frostbites right now. A cooling cup of herbal tea sat before me, half empty. It was an odd choice considering that the average temperature here is 97 degrees, causing one to sweat just from breathing.

We had just finished four hours of intermediate Spanish lessons that started at 8 in the moring and ended at noon at the APC Language School, located next to the central park of the city, of the same moniker. I came to learn later that every Latin American city has a central park. After class, I skipped lunch to take advantage of the two-hour break that we had to finish coding. Around 2pm, we headed to the San Francisco Convento, one of the only places in Granada with air conditioning, for a three ot four hour round of training for the work we will be doing.

There are members from Duke and Georgetown University in this program. Each school seem to have a unique "air" about them and after a few days of interaction it became very obvious what each group's dominant traits were. The team members fledging from my school are known as the "nice ones." There were only about five students from Georgetown. Some are friendly, and some have very strong personalities. The members from Duke seem to have formed a strong bond amongst one another. They  tend to stick mostly to themselves.

Despite these differences, what we all had in common, and this may be wishful thinking on my part, is a curiosity in social work with the ambition to be one accountable for the direct impact that we will each be contributing. There are many different ways to make an impact, so I feel like everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute accordingly based on their individual strengths. For some of these members, this is their first time outside of the US.

What really stood out to me is the strong individualistic perspective of the majority of the members of this program. This will certainly affect the ability to emphasize with the people we are trying to assist.  The problem with social work in another country is, especially when volunteers possess very strong (and ambitious) individualistic tendencies, is that their ability access a situation can be very limited, dictated by a westernized set of values and beliefs. This can be a problematic when the values of those facilitators are incongruent with the values of those in need of assistance. How can you effectively help someone when your priorities are not the same, when what you think is best is really only what is best for someone like you, and not applicable to the foreign environment that you are trying to impact?

This is tricky territory when empathy fails due to lack of self-awareness, too much ego, and not enough humility. This is when imperialistic values can manifest themselves, resulting in a disconnect and a slew of intangible issues that may be emotional or psychological, etc.

Having just completed this rant, I realize that it really had nothing to do with the quote that I started with in the beginning of this post...

But here I am. A bundle of anxiety and bottled up energy, ready to make an impact in a few weeks with the hopes that my blunders may end with new lessons or better solutions. I am more than excited to start, yet I am also filled with apprehension. My Spanish has been dismal, and because I have been coding for at least 4-5 hours a day since I have been here, I have not be able to practice anything I learned from our Spanish classes.

So back to that quote...

How did I find myself here? From Vietnam to Maryland. From Maryland to New York, then Shanghai (and all the 13 Asian cities in between), then from San Francisco. And now to land in the largest, yet second poorest country in Central America. Thus has been the progression in the journey of my strange and unconventional life.

I sit here quietly. I do not say much for I do not care to disclose inconsequential information about myself. It is a very American thing to talk and talk and talk. It is how they bond. I say they like I am not American. I am. But I am also a hybrid of western entitlements and eastern self-effacements; a mix of arrogance brewing beneath an obligatory sense of humility, often genuine, often not.

Being in such a foreign land, so out of my comfort zone, my insecurities come bubbling to the surface. I worry that I am unapproachable because I can be reserve. I doubt that the traits that make me uniquely me are too fluid, are not good traits, or may not be conducive to helping me achieve whatever it is that I am trying to achieve. Happiness? A sense of belonging? A sense of pride and 'no fucks given'?

Where do I begin to explain how I got here: my journey from school, to non-profit, to traveling, to consulting, to school again, and again to another strange new place. But this time alone. Without the safety net of the lover. 

Nicaragua is exotic and “savage,” as one of our team leaders had called it. After sunset it gets dangerous and we are advise to not be out at all. Yet the people here seem content enough. They make due with what they have. My host mom happily prepares meals for me and insists that I do not wash the dishes. The country itself is beautiful. It has two active volcanoes (or was it three?) and unparalleled beaches made for surfing.

It makes you wander, being away from the consumerism culture of America, where brand names are nonexistent here, what exactly was it that I was struggling so hard with at home..to be happy...to be content... to be comfortable in my own skin?

What exactly was it about that one minor comment that ruined my day and why does a sale at a department store raise my adrenaline and endorphins to new heights? Was it all ever so great or were we stuck inside the machine that we made for ourselves? If we stopped running in the race, we would fall behind with the rest of our peers...and in America, that somehow equates to failure doesn't it?

I did not get married like many of my peers of the same age. I did not stay in one place all my life, nor did I chose the easy way out. I chose to chase after that vague idea of otherworldly happiness; happiness that was not on the map. It is sad that I already know more than a handful of divorcees. 

Mentally removing myself from it all, there is jarring sense of clarity I cannot describe. You begin to reassess your priorities. You begin to wonder if you were a product of your environment or if your environment was a product of you. In a foreign land where people speak foreign languages, where you feel more alone when looking into the eyes of someone who has no idea what you are saying, you are left with yourself, free of the baggage and the burden of your origins. You have no roots. Your credentials only relative.

In a foreign land where you truly do not belong, if you are open to the excruciating experience, you may start to figure out who you really are.