Sunday, January 26, 2014

Musings on Life with Host Families

I've been with my Moroccan host family for only a few days, but already, they are wonderful. They've shown me around the city, taught me about a million vocab words, and been incredibly patient with my ability to only remember one out of every million words they teach me. I'm sure we're going to have fun together!

Adjusting to a new family has got me reminiscing about the many, many families who have hosted me over the last five years. If I'm counting right, I've lived with eleven different host families, for anywhere from three days to six months. Some were incredible, and have become lifelong friends. Some were a bit more difficult, requiring adjustment and more than one night of comforting myself with ice cream. All have taught me lessons about life, lessons that have an impact on me still today. I thought I'd share a few of these thoughts with you.

1) It's going to be a change. That's the point, right? If you didn't want change, you'd still be living where you lived before. Expect this change, and don't try to recreate your old environment in your new one.

2) The host family can't be the one to do all the adjusting. Many families are regular hosters, with new students/etc every few months. Imagine if they changed their entire lives to accommodate each person? Diet, schedule, language, etc. They are doing plenty of adjusting to fit you in; don't expect them to cater to your every whim. The more you expect it, the more resentful your relationship will become. It's hard to change all your habits, and you will be forgiven for clinging to certain things, but for the most part, try to model yourself after the household. Be as clean (cleaner!) as they are, eat when and what they do as much as possible, try not to disrupt their schedule. No midnight dancing around the house with music blaring!

3) That said, never be afraid to speak up. Your host family can't read minds. If you don't like a food, don't keep eating it and saying how delicious it is. In many, many cultures, it is rude to let guests go hungry, but for many of us, the constant pushing to eat (a sign of love) is draining and annoying. Learn to say no. If you are cold, if you are sick, if you need help: say something.

This especially applies if there's a serious problem. If you feel unsafe, if the environment is making you sick or unhappy, tell someone! I can't stress this enough. The organization that placed you with a host family doesn't want you to be miserable or in danger. I made this mistake once, thinking I'd just tough it out, because I thought that was expected. Nobody knew until after I left how unhappy I'd been, because I never said anything.

4) Try. We all love it when visitors make an effort to learn our language and customs. Host families are great teachers of these things. They know you are new to this, and most will give you an incredible amount of grace, especially if you are willing to laugh at yourself. I have a week's worth of stories about screwing up the language (just this week, I'm relatively sure I told my neighbor, a teacher, that I dislike teachers...) 

Try other things too. Try that strange looking food, that different style of bed, that Turkish toilet. You may learn to like it, or at least get used to it. Going abroad has taught me to like an awful lot of vegetables, because I tasted them and slowly but surely came to enjoy them. From public baths to horseback riding, sketchy roller coasters to fried grasshoppers- you never know what memories you'll make!

5) Be independent, but don't hesitate to ask. I've seen the look on host sisters' faces when they are asked to take me yet again when they go out with their friends, and that's when I know: time to get my own life. Living with a new family is draining for both sides, especially if language is an element. In my experience, though, it's easier for me to make a change than it is for them; they tend to fear being rude, even if they are secretly thinking it. If you cling too much to your family, they and you will be missing out. Find other friends, learn your way around, get involved in other things, say "no thanks" sometimes when your sister invites you out. Don't know how to do any of those things? Ask. They'll be happy to answer.

6) Your experience will directly correlate with the amount of effort you put in. You can hide in your room for months and ignore the family, or you can become a part of them. There will be moments when you need personal space; take them, and don't feel guilty if that's what lets you recharge. But do your best to join in activities, to help around the house, to show an interest in whatever they are doing. One of my favorite activities is helping my host mom cook- bonding and a cooking lesson, and often a language lesson too! (The lessons half worked. I speak the languages, but I'm still an awful cook.)

7) Give back. Your family will spend a lot of time giving to you- time, needed items, patience, space in their house. Show your appreciation; offer to make dinner, help clear the table, treat them to ice cream one night. It doesn't have to be a big production, but it goes a long way toward breaking stereotypes about Americans (and other countries) and toward building your relationship.

8) Watch your tongue. Cross-cultural relationships inevitably yield something discomfiting, scary, even sickening. Sometimes it's small: not wearing seatbelts, eating too much mayonnaise. Sometimes it's bigger, harder to swallow. I really struggle when my family doesn't treat their children well, or things like that. I have to remind myself that the best thing I can do is model other behaviors, rather than criticize theirs. You aren't there to "fix" them, no matter how much fixing may seem to be needed. Hold your tongue, bite back those harsh or condescending words. Once you've gotten to know them, you might be able to approach the situation better, engaging them in productive dialogue rather than just criticizing. And who knows? Along the way, you may learn the reasons behind the action, or discover that their way of doing things is actually better than your own.

Every host family experience is different, and that's part of the charm. But I hope these tips will help you enjoy your family and get the most out of the experience!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Salam, Morocco!

We've been here over a week now, so before we leave for training, I wanted to show a few initial photos I've taken of this country. It's certainly beautiful so far!

Our first sight of Morocco, as we stepped off the plane.

The view from the hotel where initial training is taking place.

We had a day off from training on Sunday, so a friend and I walked around to see some sights. We got to attend the international church, explore the market, and see some beautiful sights. These shots are from the cemetery. It was really sobering and incredible to wander through it.

We wandered the coast and admired the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

And we've spent lots of hours wandering (sometimes running, which is allowed!) the city and admiring its beauty.

Thus far, I like this country! It has given me a very warm mrhaba bikum (welcome)!

Peace Corps: application process

I've officially been in the Peace Corps for nine days, and it's been a whirlwind! Before I go into that, I want to put up a quick post about the application process. It's a cliché, I know, but since my journey was a little different that other people's, I thought it could be helpful.


September 30, 2012: Turned in my application.


November 2012: Interview (over Skype, on a night when the electricity was out. The sound of the generator made our conversation a bit difficult. On the plus side, the fact that I was wearing a chadar as we spoke probably gave me a bit of credibility when I said I thought I'd be able to handle the challenges of the Peace Corps!)


December 12, 2012: Received my nomination for the Health Sector.


December 13, 2012: Request for medical paperwork for pre-clearance. (In my case, they wanted documentation on the severity of my asthma. It's different for each person, obviously. My paperwork was slightly complicated by the fact that I wasn't in the States and didn't have an available doctor who knew my medical history. I ended up getting it filled out over email, giving electronic consent for the release of medical information.)


January 2013: Received medical pre-clearance.


February 15, 2013: Email saying that I was 15 days late in turning a legal kit, which I couldn't remember receiving. This took several weeks to sort, because I was in Afghanistan at the time. There is no reliable mailing service there, so although they had sent the kit to my address, it never arrived. I also didn't know to be looking for it, until I got this email. (I later realized that they had mentioned the legal kit in the original nomination, but I didn't notice the part that said it'd be coming by mail.)


March 14, 2013: Went to Japan to visit my friend and picked up the legal kit that the Peace Corps mailed to me through her. The kit required fingerprints, but unfortunately, the Japanese police weren't willing to do that for me.


March 30, 2013: After spending two weeks chasing every possible avenue, a friend in Afghanistan found a way for me to get fingerprinted at the Ministry of Justice. Afghanistan (and Japan) only use fingerprints for criminals and don't use them for background checks, so they didn't really understand my request.


April 2013: Dropped my legal kit in the mail (Meaning that I handed it to a friend who was traveling to the US and agreed to mail it for me.)


May 6, 2013: Submitted my updated resume.


May 6, 2013: Received an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps in Peru, starting in September, working in the Health sector.


May 13, 2013: After a LOT of thought and prayer (see my earlier post), I decided to decline the invitation, fully expecting that would be the end of my Peace Corps journey.


May 14, 2013: Received a second invitation! Morocco, starting in January 2014, working in Youth Development. I was so thrilled and relieved!


May 18, 2013: Accepted my invitation and received my Next Steps: Medical Clearance, Resume and Aspiration Statement, activities and forms, passport, legal eligibility, reading materials. I was in Afghanistan, with rather slow Internet, so I wasn't able to get started on most of it, but I did so as soon as I got home in June.


July 10, 2013: Submitted my updated resume and aspiration statement.


August-November 2013: Finished all the documents and trainings on the New Volunteer Portal (safety and security, living abroad, etc). Completed all medical tasks (Physical exam, lab work, immunizations, dental exam, dental x-rays). Got my official Peace Corps passport, student loan documents figured out, Morocco welcome book read. It was a lot of paperwork; I'm lucky I ended up with a January departure instead of a September one, because there's a good chance I wouldn't have gotten it done.


December 2013: Lots of packing, packing, packing! Also a trip to Afghanistan thrown in there, so it's a good thing I kept my personal passport while I was applying for the official Peace Corps one.


January 2014: Packing, saying goodbyes.


January 12, 2014: Off we go!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Looking Back: Staying Safe in a War Zone

Weren't you scared?

This is a tricky question for me. Security is constantly visible in Afghanistan: armed guards on streets, roadblocks, police everywhere. All those precautions ought and sometimes did make me feel safe, but there were times when the lack of security stared us in the face. When bombs went off down the street. When people I know got kidnapped or attacked. When frighteningly close gunfire made me question what in the world I was doing there.

But the reason you heard about some of those is that we tend to write about the big events in our lives, not the daily stuff. So here's a post to show the reality of day-to-day security in Afghanistan.

The biggest security measure I employed was integration. Speaking the language, dressing appropriately, not flashing around my fancy things. These measures and others ensured that I had more freedom of movement than most foreigners, which contributed to my sense of comfort, which made me more secure because I felt capable of dealing with many types of emergencies.

Of course, there is a significant amount of danger in Afghanistan that can't be avoided by speaking the language or wearing a headscarf. We mitigated these to an extent by practicing caution- staying in close communication with our boss and each other, driving in certain cars, varying the routes we walked, not speaking English in public or otherwise broadcasting the fact that we were foreigners, not spending time in places that were targets. But that didn't mean we couldn't end up victims because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in terms of personal safety and the safety of those close to me, I suppose that was the most frightening part.

What honestly frightened me more than the physical danger were the attitudes than often surrounded that danger. I've posted about this before, but I'll say it again because it really hit home for me. More than once, I caught myself thinking of the violence as an annoyance, the attackers as people to simply be eliminated. More than once, the "eye for an eye" concept of justice rendered me speechless. When we stop seeing "others" as people, when we find excuses as to why they deserve what their getting, we lose the aspect of humanity that is our best hope for peace. Far more than the physical danger, the fear of losing my ability to empathize was the scariest concern I've ever faced.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Looking Back: On Clothing in an Islamic Country

What do you wear in Afghanistan? Isn't it awful to be so oppressed?

Another question that is often asked and my answer often not believed. Let me start by giving you a brief overview of my basic daily wardrobe:

I've mentioned the 95% rule, which is the percentage of my body I generally kept covered. My hands and face showed, as could the tops of my feet when I wore sandals. Year round, I wore long sleeves, a shirt down to mid-thigh or knees, and pants. Some ladies wore long skirts instead, or pants under a knee length skirt, or a long robe (chapan) that went from neck to toes. 

Then there was the headscarf. I wore a chadar, which is the simplest form of headscarf. It's much like a scarf from home, just a long strip of fabric. Afghan girls wear a variety of styles when it comes to their headscarf, but I generally wrapped mine around my head and then my neck and left the ends hanging down my back. Definitely no fashionista, but it was comfortable.

It'd be silly to pretend that I loved wearing this ensemble every day, because there were certainly moments when I would have happily traded it all for a T-shirt and shorts. Summer is the worst, for obvious reasons, but when I first arrived, it only took me a few weeks to get used to it. 

This was the common refrain among the Afghan girls I knew. My host sisters would come home from work at the same time as me, and while I ripped my headscarf off immediately and changed into more comfortable clothes, they didn't seem to notice that they were sitting around with their heads still covered. When I asked, they had genuinely forgotten they were still wearing it. They laughed at my disbelief and assured me I'd soon grow accustomed as well. To my surprise, I did, and I spent more than one evening wearing the scarf I never got around to taking off.

To be honest, the dress code had its advantages as well. There was a part of me that enjoyed not seeing girls' midrifs, or dealing with guys staring at my butt or breasts. I used my chadar to cover my mouth when I coughed, or when smoke or cold or dust were bothering my asthma. I used it to cover my mouth when I was smiling or laughing or crying at a time when it wasn't appropriate, and I used it to keep my head covered in the rain. I never had a bad hair day, and since I was never blow-drying or curling or treating my hair, it was in wonderful shape. My chadar was an easy way to add color to my outfit, and by the end of the year, I had quite a collection. A friend and I once brainstormed fifty uses for the chadar, from dust rag to table runner to self defense.

I was also quite fascinated to talk to Afghan ladies and find out their attitudes about their dress. Some were as anti-headscarf as I would have predicted; they were the girls who let their scarves slip further and further back on their heads, or even wore them covering only their buns instead of the whole top of their head.

But most girls I know don't have a problem with it, and many prefer to dress that way even when they don't have to. It's partially the religious aspect, and the more I heard about it, the more endearing I found it. I'm no authority, but to the best of my understanding, the laws they follow come from Sharia Law, which translates to something akin to "path." Modest dress is only one of the ways that you can better follow the religious path. Which, when you think about it, is an ideal shared all over the world -- that covering up parts of ourselves is a way of showing respect to ourselves, our societies/the people around us, and God. When I started to look at it that way, I found it easier to adjust to the clothing.

In addition to the religious aspect, the girls I spoke to also mentioned the protection of a scarf, and the comfort. When you go without a scarf, you get stared at. You feel exposed. Men say things, and women talk behind your back. When you wear a scarf, or to an even greater extent, a hijab or a burqa, you can blend in, which gives you a sense of safety. Not a terribly pretty reality, but a reality nonetheless. It is simpler, safer, to just wear the scarf.

A lot of the ladies also mentioned how frustrated they get by those who call it oppression. They insist that they have a choice, and even when they travel to non-Muslim countries, they exercise that choice and keep their scarves on. Considering the societal pressure to wear a scarf, I'm not sure how much choice there really is at home, but on an individual level, most girls I knew were comfortable with it, regardless.

The clothing in Afghanistan has its ups and downs, but I can honestly say it's not what I'd expected. It was such a huge concern for me before I first went, but now, I have no trouble feeling comfortable with Islamic dress. So, no, it wasn't awful. And I'm certainly not oppressed!