Thursday, September 22, 2011

one month down, three to go! A story of culture shock.

WOW...  1 month since I left Edmonton, too travel over the ocean to this strange and distant land.  To fufill something that frequently happens in my dreams. to do something that I have never done before.

And, you might think... you might think that I would have the time to update my blog and tell you all about everything that is going on here and the sights i see and the food i eat and the people i talk to. and, honestly, I probably do.  but, sometimes, it is hard to decipher what I want to write.  What is meaningful, both for myself, and for my readers. (if there are still any out there!)

so... where to start?  First off, to say, I guess, that I LOVE being here.  There is something that just settles so right inside of my being.  something that makes me have this deep rooted peace.  I don't know Malawi very well, and my time being here is SO different from every experience that I have had in any other African nation.  (on that note, don't forget to check out my Flickr Photostream)

So, thanks to facebook, shall we take a little life rewind to some of those other experiences?

Shall we rewind to South Africa and Liberia, when I was doing Segue on Mercy Ships from Sept 2005-March 2006? (yes.  I had just shaved off my beloved dreadlocks.)  

Or, perhaps to Cameroon in 2001 with Teen Missions?   The trip where I (amongst other things) broke my arm (despite it being covered with my "Tag"), and realized that my life would be a walk towards serving this continent?

Orrr.... even way back to Nampula, Mozambique in 1999? (yup, i loved that rowing canada hat), with Teen Missions again.  The trip where i wrestled with God, and thought that I would never step foot in africa again.  Because, you know... been there, done that.  There were other places in the world to explore. 
why yes.  we shall rewind to those times, for your viewing pleasure.  but, we shall also continue in the present...

how is this trip different?

For the first time ever, I am by myself.  I have no mission organization to provide an umbrella around me.  I have no people of my same cultural or ethnic background to buffer the feeling of... differentness.  I have no background information on where to go or what to do (oh right. my background information on what to do is my research proposal...).  I am doing research on something that actually could matter. I am left to my own devices.  I have little support, and I am alone.  

and, that is hard. 

 there are times of intense loneliness and moments where I feel like i have no idea how to move forward and moments where I feel like I am just offending everyone around me.

for some reason, unbeknownst to myself, I presumed that with 3 prior trips to this continent... that I would not go through a period of culture shock.  How wrong was I!??!

Last week, i found myself clacking at this keyboard to my future in-laws, who are currently in Vientiane, Laos.  They have worked in various South East Asian countries on and off for the last... oh, 15 years? so... they know.  they know what it is like to be. an. ex-pat.

In my first week in Malawi, i was a little concerned about where I was going to be staying, living, sleeping, eating.  There was such a great reception, but, little preparation as to what might be appropriate for that area of my life.  and, it was the attempt to find a suitable place to stay which led to my eventual culture shock "Breakdown." (despite not realizing, at the time, it was culture shock!!!).  That, combined with my first bout with the infamous explosive diarreah bug  "African Gastro bug," it was an interesting week.

SO, if you are interested in my long rambling thoughts... This was parts of the emails: 

Email 1: ------------------------

.. One of the things I have struggled with is the what the role of Ex-Pats are in "globally south" countries.   In the sense of the separation of ex-pat communities to the communities in which they work/serve/live. 

Essentially, the struggle comes from a few places, which kinda mesh together...

1) we have been given much in life, and so we are able to give back to those who do not have as much as we do.  Therefore, I feel like we are called to serve people living in marginalized situations on a "global" perspective, even if that includes those who are marginalized near to us in Canada.
2) eventually, nations and the individuals who live in them need to be able to depend less and less upon donor communities, and more and more on their own systems and resources (including intellectual resources).  However, nations (not even western nations) will never be fully sustainable without outside aid/input/trade, etc., so there will always be some realm of "ex-pat workforce."
3) In general, cultures tend to stick together; imo, as long as there is not prejudice that broils between different cultures and ethnicities, and there is encouragement of cultural competency with cultures that are not our own, that is not a bad thing.

I have made a silent vow to myself that I will never be a person who travels in an ACd car "from a guarded compound, to my high-paying NGO job, to the embassy for after work drinks, to an expensive dinner, and back to my guarded compound."  yet, so often that is what i see and experience.  The fact that i am paying 25$ a night for accommodation (which, with breakfast and dinner included, is about on par for what i would be paying in montreal), seems a little silly, considering that i just saw an add in the classified of today's paper for a 3 bedroom house "with a locking garage" for the eq. of 375$/month... and, my suspicion is that is for people who have quite a bit of money.  

in many ways, i feel so disconnected from what 90% of Malawi's population lives in.  On the other hand, I also recognize that most of the population is living in situations which they should not be living, and that it would be silly for me to be living in situations like that as well.  where do we find a balance between honouring our own culture, the provision we have been given (and... worked hard for!), and not being separated from the dominate culture that surrounds us? where to we find a balance between our ability to help/serve and the enormous impact that we can make, and enabling/allowing individuals and communities to have enormous impacts themselves? 

I don't know if that makes sense.  But, I do know that as I continue to "think globally," I will continue to learn more about this stuff.  as i wrote this, I also thought about how applicable it is to communities around us in Canada as well... all these things apply to us as well in Canada, it is just far more muted, because people living in marginalized situations are often a little more "hidden."

Email 2, after responses from the "in-laws," reminding me of what it means to love your neighbour as much as you love yourself and God.  That "poverty and wealth are not just financial measures... and whatever they are, they are always relative to someone or something else."
Last night I had my first good sobbing cry yesterday after I came back from town & made the huge realization that really what is happening is that i am going through is just a bit of culture shock. 

It is exactly the whole aspect of wealth/resource disparity just makes my heart ache.  it aches because there is just so so so many people in the world who are not living in situations that they should be living in.  and, that kills me.  and it hurts me (which, is obvious to me is different from a feeling of guilt) that it is just so obvious about what sector of that health disparity i exist in~  especially when I am alone, I am so obviously "rich" and white, and I don't really have anyone to be able to buffer that with.  buffering is nice.  

I agree completely with the things that you have said, especially about the perspective that the longer you are able to dedicate to one place or sub-region, the more you understand how to help, and what is needed by that community.  and it is just that is challenging sometimes~ i feel like i just know so little, despite knowing that I know a lot more than a lot of other people. 

today, I read a chapter in "The spirit catches you, and you fall down."  in which a famous medical antropologist is quoted:  " If you cannot see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else's culture? 

and, it is so true.  it kinda gets back to that point of honouring your own culture, as well as others.   

we can't expect to ever be completely outside our own culture.  To deny it would be to deny the things we have been provided with and given.  

so.  on that *very*  philisophical note, look what someone told me about!!!  Guess how long the "Iron Woman" and "Iron Man" events are?  150m swim, 1.5km bike, 1.4 km run.  



bananya said...

Amo, you are amazing! I have no idea when and how I can see you next time, but I am soooo looking forward to this! Take care of yourself!

Kelly said...

The words I want aren't coming to me now, but I get that feeling of conflict about the disparity between what we have been, literally, given and the lack of others and not knowing how to even begin broaching that. You are so in the right place right now! Follow your heart, which is a heart of God, and you will not go the wrong way.

I've only got one. said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm sending some strength your way.